STRANGE BUT TRUE- Heavy headed: Does size matter in brains


Q. If the brain is the seat of intelligence, do people with bigger brains top the smarts chart? –S. Hawking

A. After the death of the brilliant English poet Lord Byron in 1824, doctors discovered his brain was a massive five pounds instead of the normal three pounds, says David G. Myers in Psychology. When Beethoven died, his brain showed more and deeper convolutions. 

Recent studies using MRI scans have revealed a positive correlation between brain size (adjusted for body size) and intelligence.

"Moreover, as adults age, brain size and nonverbal intelligence test scores fall in concert," Myers writes. 

When Sandra Witelson studied Einstein's brain, she found it to be not overall heavier but 15 percent larger in an area for processing mathematical and spatial information. Certain other areas were a bit smaller than average. 

"With different mental functions competing for the brain's real estate, these observations may offer a clue to why Einstein, like Richard Feynman and Edward Teller, was slow in learning to talk," Myers says.

So the size-smarts correlation is modest and further complicated by the fact that while highly educated people show more brain synapses, it is not clear whether the educated grow more synapses or those with more synapses seek out more schooling.

Q. Comparing the series of numbers 1, 2, 3... and the series of even numbers 2, 4, 6..., which has more? Asked another way, isn't infinity a really bizarre idea? –L. Carroll

A. The ... after the 3 and the 6 indicate that these two series never end, or in other words that they are both "infinite" series. But consider: Since the 1, 2, 3... series contains all of the numbers in the 2, 4, 6... series plus many others (the odd numbers), wouldn't it be true that the 1, 2, 3... series overall has a lot more numbers?

If you think so, you're not yet attuned to the concept of infinity.

There are in fact equally many numbers in both sequences. To prove this, just imagine "mapping" the series 1, 2, 3... to the series 2, 4, 6... as follows: 1 maps to 2, 2 maps to 4, 3 maps to 6, etc. It soon becomes clear that every number in the 1, 2, 3... series can be mapped to a number in the 2, 4, 6... series, "using up" all the numbers of both. This means that a set that is just part of an infinity can be as large as the entire infinity! Bizarre indeed!

Q. Spotting a lightning bolt outside, you count off about five seconds before hearing the thunder. So how far away was the flash? What if you had counted 10 seconds or 30 seconds? More than a 100 seconds? Is this possible? –B. Franklin

A. The speed of light, at which the lightning flash travels, is approximately 186,000 miles per second, while the speed of sound, the thunder speed, is about 770 miles per hour. Consequently, as the lightning is more distant from you, the observer, there is an increasingly longer difference in the time between "flash" and "bang," says climatologist Randy Cerveny in Freaks of the Storm. 

So at five seconds, your distance from the lightning strike was about a mile. Double that to 10 seconds, and the strike was two miles away, 30 seconds would be six miles away.

The apparent world's record for longest separation distance between flash and bang, according to a published scientific story circa 1920 by meteorologist L.C. Veenema, was on two separate occasions of more than 100-seconds each. Dividing the five seconds into 100 shows the lightning strike was more than 20 miles away. No other reports suggest anything close to this. The next contender was reported by an astronomer in Paris in 1712– a 72-second difference, or more than 14 miles.


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