STRANGE BUT TRUE- Enemy bugging: Military may tag along with insects


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. Imagine you're a psychology PhD student taking your oral exams when the professor quizzes out of the blue: "How far can an ant see?" Quick now, what do you remember about the compound eyes of insects? –R. Bailey

A. The above student reportedly turned pale, mentally reviewed everything he had read about insect vision, and then admitted "I have no idea," says James Kalat in Biological Psychology. 

With an impish grin, the professor replied, "Presumably, an ant can see at least 93 million miles– the distance to the sun."

Groan! Yes, this was a trick question though it illustrates an important point: How far an ant– or a person– can see depends on how far the light travels. We see because light strikes our eyes, not because we send out "sight rays." 

But that principle wasn't known until the Arab philosopher Ibn al-Haythem (965-1040) demonstrated that light rays bounce off any object in all directions although we see only those rays that strike the retina perpendicularly. 

"Even today," says Kalat, "a distressingly large number of college students believe that energy comes out of their eyes when they see."

Q. How might lightning knock down a whole group of people, such as the players in a baseball game? –B.Franklin

A. You're most familiar with a direct solo hit, which can send a large amount of current through the chest, stopping the heart, paralyzing the muscles required for breathing, and causing internal burns, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics.

A more subtle way of injury or death lies in the "ground current," or lightning current along the surface. If the victim stands with one foot closer to the strike point than the other, the ground current can detour up one leg, across the torso, and down the other leg. If the amount of current is small, them victim might suffer only temporary paralysis. In some cases, ground current can knock down several people at once, including baseball players.

Cows, horses and sheep are usually in more danger from such current because their front legs and hind legs are well separated, resulting in a greater amount of ground current directed across the body. "People can stand with feet together but sheep cannot."

Q. Do the rich live longer than the poor? If so, why? –D. Trump

A. It probably has to do with degree of control over one's life, says David G. Myers in Psychology. Money buys control; lack of money leads to unavoidable circumstances and frustration. The correlation became apparent in studies of grave markers, where the bigger and more prestigious the headstone, the longer the span of years noted. This status bonus amounts to two to four years among humans, but is evident even among nonhuman primates occupying various levels of the pecking order.

Q. First we had mighty Superman, logical Spock and gentle E.T., then aliens buzzing by Earth for nefarious purposes. What's wrong with this picture? –R. Serling

A. Anthropomorphism, or ascribing human qualities to nonhumans. Due to very down-to-Earth budgets, TV programs and movies have given us the "little green men" cliché for extraterrestrial life forms, says biologist Zen Faulkes in the Rational Enquirer.

The easiest way to make an actor into an alien is to alter skin color and ear shape, and if the producers and makeup men want to get really elaborate, they might spring for a rubber suit.

"As a result, almost all aliens we see look an awful lot like we do: bilaterally symmetrical bodies, two legs, two arms, and a head is the rule for Hollywood extraterrestrials. The majority have also mysteriously learned the English language."

Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould pointed out that even on Earth, if evolution were re-run from its starting point, chances are nil that humans would emerge again in our current form. Far less should we expect intelligent life on other planets in other star systems, with vastly different environments, to resemble us so closely.

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

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