STRANGE BUT TRUE- Tongue-tied: Why your taster sticks to cold metal


Q. When the authors were kids in winter wonderland Rome, NY, a foolishly brazen schoolchum stuck his tongue to an outdoor railing at recess and lost more than just his pride. In the movie A Christmas Story, one of the children takes up a dare and finds his tongue stuck to a cold pipe. What causes this?–G. Simmons

A. Though wood and metal might be at the same outdoor temperature, the metal will feel much colder because it rapidly conducts thermal energy away, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Fingers will stick to a cold metal surface because the moisture on the skin can freeze into the tiny indentations in the surface. The much moister tongue will do so even faster. "Pouring warm water over the skin-metal connection will usually melt the ice and free the fingers. Still, here is one of life's many rules: Don't lick a cold metal pipe." 

Q. "Polyamory" is out there, though it doesn't exactly abound in modern love life. Yet there's one fundamental statistical problem for which it can seem an all-too-ready solution. Can you define this word and problem?–B. Young

A. Millions today are in search of romantic love, in the U.S. alone some 46 million single women and 38 million single men over the age of 18, says Helen Fisher in Why We Love.

Do the math, and you can easily see the problem– not enough partners to go around. "One of the most remarkable ways to find romance to me is polyamory, the taking of 'many loves.' Polyamorous men and women form partnerships with more than one individual at a time."

They believe one person cannot suit all their needs, yet none wish to uproot a long-term, satisfying marriage. So the spouses agree to be honest with each other, set some rules, and then, they reason, they can enjoy feelings of attachment with one partner and romance with someone else. 

Polyamory is utopian and perhaps ultimately impractical. It may sound good to receive attachment from one partner, romantic love from another, physicality from a third. But we are a jealous people, and not surprisingly, polyamorous couples spend many hours every week sorting out their feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. Concludes Fisher, humankind does not share love gracefully. 

Q. Would you rate your Mom or Dad as smarter on intelligence tests? Your brother(s) or sister(s)? Son(s) or daughter(s)? Does it matter if you're male or female?–B. Friedan

A. Doesn't matter much, because in spite of gender parity on test scores, both males and females tend to rate their fathers', brothers', and sons' scores as higher than their mothers', sisters', and daughters', says David G. Myers in Psychology. And males are more likely than females to overestimate their own test scores. Yet no doubt you yourself are smart enough to avoid this gender stereotype! 

Q. At a job interview, you're asked to "guesstimate" what length of hot dog (or sausage or wurst or ...) can be made from a typical cow?–O. Mayer

A. The physicist Enrico Fermi was a master at quick back-of-the-envelope estimates of this type, which turn up in job interviews these days to test applicants' ability to think on their feet, say Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam in Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin.

Begin by figuring that a cow has about 10 times the weight of a person (about one ton, or the weight of a small car), definitely less than 100 times (10 tons is the weight of a large truck). Since the densities are about the same, this means the cow has 10 times the person's volume, or roughly 50 cubic feet. Assuming square dogs (to avoid pesky pi), the typical cross-sectional area is about 1 inch x 1 inch, or 1/144 of a square foot. Dividing the cow's volume by this number yields a hot dog well over a mile long (2 km)!

"Note that this assumes that every little bit of the cow is ground up into hot dog. We really, really hope that this is a bad assumption." A hot dog made from a human would be 10 times shorter, but still more than twice the length of a football field. 

Got it? You're hired! 


Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at