STRANGE BUT TRUE- Kicking space: Why unborn babies drive mom wild


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. You wouldn't want to do this, but if you could ultrasound scan a developing baby 24/7, what fetal gyrations would it record? –S.S. Thiagaraja

A. For many women, when they first feel the baby move is when they really believe they're pregnant, usually the fifth month, but possibly earlier for previous Moms, says David Bainbridge in Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy. Many women describe these early fetal movements in terms of a little butterfly trapped inside them, but soon these seem much more violent.

Ultrasound scans show early embryos to be extremely active, even performing somersaults. But the movements are very erratic, often seeming to stop for days– panicky days for Moms, who often learn tricks to make their babies move on cue. The combined caffeine and sugar "hit" of chocolate may rouse some fetuses into action while others may respond to particular voices. Mothers may also become concerned if their babies seem to be hiccupping or having a fit.

"Yet no matter how outlandish a fetus's movements, they are almost never a sign that anything is wrong," says Bainbridge. "Also, in the last month of pregnancy, fetuses often move less because they are running out of kicking space."

Q. Seems like everybody's twittering and tweeting these days, but is there really e-infrastructure enough for the world's billions to be text-messaging each other at about the same time? –W. Jaquith

A. Short answer, yep, says Princeton computer scientist Perry Cook. A single tweet is 140 characters, which is 8x140 bits. Even with overhead, retransmissions due to errors, etc., it can be assumed a tweet takes only about 2,000 bits or so. Just talking on your cell phone takes much more than that per second (your voice is coded into digital form and transmitted as digital Binary digITs, or bits, just like the characters of your tweets).

Or for a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate, think of it this way, says Max Planck Institute software specialist Paul Francis. Let's say that everybody in the world has a chat with one other person, for about 3.5 billion conversations, and that each of them types about 5 characters (or bytes) per second– very roughly 20 billion cumulative bytes per second globally. Now high-speed links in the core of the Internet can generally handle a billion bytes per second, and with hundreds of such links, it's quite likely the Internet could handle this. But keep in mind that most chat conversations go through servers and that these servers are not provisioned to handle such high numbers of sessions, so in fact it wouldn't work. Yet in principle, the basic Internet infrastructure (routers and links) has the capacity.

Q. What do the very best baseball hitters know to leave behind in the dugout when they head for the plate? –M. Mantle

A. Baseball with its many strategies is often thought of as a thinking person's game, but the smartest hitters "leave their brains in the dugout," reports the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. As Yogi Berra once put it, he couldn't think when he hit. When baseball coach Tom Hanson did his doctoral dissertation on the thinking hitter, he claimed that batters simply have no time to think during the four seconds it takes for a good fastball to get to the plate. The best hitters are the ones who are most relaxed, argues Hanson, since tension and anxiety tighten the muscles and slow them down. Information should go from the eyes to the hands and bypass the brain. Hitters, keep in mind: "If you're thinking, you're in trouble."

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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