STRANGE BUT TRUE- Wordy inquisition: How a familiar puzzle got its start


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. "The fans they chew their pencils,/The fans they beat their wives./They look up words for extinct birds–/ They lead such puzzling lives!" Fans of what, as penned by U.S. humorist Gelett Burgess some years ago? –W. Shortz

A. The early 20th century "word-cross" puzzle, later a "cross-word" puzzle, finally a "crossword," by U.S. journalist Arthur Wynne, a Liverpudlian emigre who was trying for something boldly new for the 1913 Christmas edition of the New York Sunday newspaper World, says David Crystal in Language Play. Wynne originally slotted the words into a diamond-shaped grid which eventually became standardized into a square. 

The new fad crossed the Atlantic to Britain, where numerous organizations were invited to submit potential entries. At one point, it is reported, officials at the London Zoo announced they would no longer answer telephone enquiries about the gnu, the emu, or any other three-letter creatures. The genre is continually evolving, adds Crystal, with compilers devising more and more ingenious, even "tortuous" puzzles and adopting such professional pseudonyms as Torquemada and Ximenes, leaders of the Spanish Inquisition!

Q. How to mummify a corpse: Pump in an embalming mix of salts, then draw out whatever moisture can be removed, "turning up the thermostat" to "cook off" the H2O and wrapping the body in hundreds of yards of linen to help facilitate the 70-day demoisturization process. Push the arid airflow up to max. For a regal touch, smother the body in honey to ward off decomposition and to keep fungi and bacteria at bay. When and where was this done? –K. Tut

A. The honey was reportedly applied to Alexander the Great in the warm, arid environment of ancient Egypt, part of the mummification process 5,000 years ago, says Amy Barth in Discover magazine. Mummies' long-kept secrets are coming to light these days as interdisciplinary groups like the Swiss Mummy Project in Zurich use MRI and the like to probe mummies' internal structure without harming the fragile figures. Forensic examiners carefully access soft tissue for evidence of disease, trauma, and cause of death– vitamin C deficiency, syphilis, tuberculosis– while bones reveal height and lifespan, and teeth provide clues to diet and nutrition. 

Although Egyptian mummies are best known, such remains also turn up in China, South Africa, and Greece. 

Apparently, "It's never too late to look your best. In ancient Egypt, the deceased's skin was sometimes cut and stuffed with layers of mud to make tissue look livelier," Barth writes.

Q. Where on (in) Earth did that flashy engagement ring diamond come from? –L. R. Kelly

A. From the upper regions of our planet's mantle, pushed surface-ward via volcanic eruptions, says University of Tennessee planetary geoscientist Lawrence Taylor in Physical & Chemical Properties of Diamonds and Their Inclusions. 

Geologically marvelous, diamonds are the densest form of carbon, their atoms fitted like myriad tiny pyramids. A diamond may not be forever, but it's about as hard as things in Nature get, formed under a pressure of 40-60 kilobars (600,000-900,000 psi) and temperatures of 1100- 1400 C (2000-2500 F), coming from Earth depths of 120-180 km (75-110 miles).

Common especially in South Africa, Zambia, and Russia, diamonds can be thought of as highly, highly compressed chunks of coal, says University of California-Los Angeles paleobiologist William Schopf. Lower-grade ones are used industrially in things like saw blades, hard enough to cut rock. Synthetic diamonds are now made commercially, "so, buyers beware when purchasing that engagement ring."

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

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