STRANGE BUT TRUE- Oh, mummy: What you can learn under the wrappings


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. What does paleopathologist Frank Ruhli do that doubtless you don't, unless you're fascinated with dead people or their remains? –T. Garrett

A. In spite of his training as a pathologist, he followed his childhood infatuation with Egyptian culture to write his M.D. thesis on mummies, says Amy Barth in Discover magazine. Invited to Cairo to analyze CT scans of King Tut, he says he could hardly sleep at night anticipating possibly finding out if the king had been murdered and thus helping rewrite history. 

Ruhli currently directs the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, using his skills in advanced imaging to perform autopsies on the long-dead and to help investigate the death of famous mummies from Egyptian pharaohs to Otzi the Iceman. 

By examining these ancient skeletons, he tries to gain clues about how certain modern diseases evolved. "Being alone in a room with a naked, unwrapped mummy is a touching experience," he says, even if he's just working on a disembodied head. But he doesn't like the mummies to be pictured in magazines since there's no way someone who died 3,000 years ago can give informed consent. "I treat the mummy like a patient, as if some sort of human spirit remains," Ruhli explains.

Q. Could the Red Sea have parted its waters as described in the Bible, allowing the Israelites to pass across the previously flooded area? –G. Bush

A. For a fascinating natural explanation of the Biblical event, geophysicists Doran Nof and Nathan Paldor argue that a storm of even moderate strength, with winds of at least 40mph, could move the waters of the Red Sea separating Egypt and the Sinai in such a way that the sea level would drop by as much as eight feet, says Randy Cerveny in Weather's Greatest Mysteries Solved! Such a large drop is possible because the Gulf of Suez is a long, narrow, and relatively shallow body of water.

Now add to this "wind setdown" theory the possibility of a rare tidal situation. According to the Defense Mapping Agency of the U.S., normal tides in the Gulf of Suez average about 40 centimeters (16 inches), but with strong winds can go to eight or nine feet in the Bay of Suez. 

"Aha!" exclaims Cerveny: "That would suggest a combination of both wind and tides might produce major sea level changes for parts of the region."

Nof and Paldor give probabilities for a 10-14 hour sustained wind of 40mph as once every 1,000-3,000 years, and for sea-level-reducing tides of 10-18 feet as once every 75 years. 

"Consequently," argues Cerveny, "the combined probability of an extreme tide and sustained wind event is once every 150,000 years, making such a combination of sufficient rarity, I believe, to almost warrant the term 'miraculous.'"

Q. How did medical science discover that Viagra might serve as a connubial wonder drug? –R. Dole

A. Nothing complicated. Reportedly when the drug was being tested as a heart medicine, researchers noted a curious thing: At the end of the trial, all the female subjects had returned the leftover pills but the males hadn't, says Len Fisher in How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life. When the men were questioned about this, Viagra's wonder drug status was born.

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

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