STRANGE BUT TRUE- Lucky socks? Why baseball players love placebos


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. Why so much superstition among baseball players? What do psychologists have to say?–S. Freud

A. Athletes in many sports will wear lucky socks or engage in other forms of magical thinking, but baseball players are particularly susceptible because they have so little control over their day-to-day fate, say Tom Valeo and Lindsay Beyerstein in Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans.

And, say psychologists, if a player believes those socks will improve his performance, chances are he'll play with more confidence, a "placebo effect."

So is that why Boston's Wade Boggs won five batting titles? Boggs himself credited the chicken he ate before every game, plus his habit of leaving for the ballpark at exactly 1:47 for a 7:05 game, and on and on. Cleveland Indians' Mike Hargrove performed so many little batting rituals that he was dubbed "the human rain delay."    

Players also observe taboos designed to avoid bad luck, such as not stepping on the foul line or not mentioning a pitcher's no-hitter while it's in progress.

Don Larsen encountered this one during his 1956 World Series perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Midway through, his teammates started to shun him. Although completion of the game might have reaffirmed his teammates' notions, Larsen wasn't buying it.

"I don't believe in superstition," he told a reporter. "I was more uncomfortable the last few innings because no one would talk to me or sit next to me. The only time I was happy was when I was on the mound." 

Q. Pizza misers, how do you divide a pie to make sure everyone is satisfied in having gotten a fair share? Two eaters is easy: One cuts the pie in half, the other selects a piece first. But what about for three?–C. Boyardee

A. That's tougher: If the cutter picks last and gets shortchanged, tough luck. But what if the second chooser gets shortchanged because the cutter carelessly forms one big piece and two smaller ones. That's not fair! Mathematicians to the rescue: Person A cuts the pie into three sectors, next B identifies the piece that looks largest to her/him and trims it down to equal the second largest piece. Then C takes a piece first. Now B selects, under the stipulation s/he must take the piece s/he trimmed down if C didn't take it. A gets the remaining piece. Got that? To divvy up B's trimmings, repeat the same procedure. Hope your pizza's not cold by now.

Q. From a Wadsworth, Ohio reader: "I heard somewhere that 1,300 Earth-sized planets could fit into the volume of Jupiter. I don't believe it!"– G. Allileo

A. Astronomers tell us that Jupiter has an average equatorial radius of 71,492 kilometers (km), which is just over 11 times the radius of Earth (6,378 km). Since the volume of a sphere is proportional to the radius cubed, Jupiter's volume is more than 11 x 11 x 11 = 1,331 times that of Earth.

As Bob Berman put it in Secrets of the Night Sky, Jupiter is so large that 1,300 planet Earths dropped inside wouldn't quite fill it. It has more mass than all other planets combined– and then doubled. "Our solar system is made up essentially of the sun and Jupiter. All the rest is an afterthought." 

Q. You're a young woman taking part in a study where your upper lip is swabbed three times a week with the underarm secretions of an anonymous donor woman. She was chosen because she doesn't shave her underarms or use deodorant, and has regular 28-day menstrual cycles. What is the likely outcome of this experiment?–B. Spears

A. Most likely, you'll drop out, as did six of 11 volunteer subjects in an actual study. Of the five who kept their nose to the grindstone, four had their menstrual cycles eventually synchronize with the donor, the "dormitory effect."

In another report on pheromones in the British journal Nature, a scientist living for long periods on an offshore island without women found that his beard growth slowed almost to a halt, except for spurts when he visited the mainland and encountered the opposite sex again. Probably this too had to do with pheromone scent triggers.

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Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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