STRANGE BUT TRUE- Up, up, and...When balloons slip the leash


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q: It's hardly a hot stunt nowadays, but if you were newsreel cameraman Al Mingalone in 1937 intent on leaping over a house (yeah, a house– called "house-hopping"), what did you strap on for assistance? –B. Routh

A. In Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Al strapped on a harness with 27 large hydrogen-filled balloons attached, then ran toward the house and took a leap, says Jearl Walker in Flying Circus of Physics. He did manage 25 feet of altitude, but that wasn't enough. 

So with darkness coming on, he ordered the crew to add five more balloons. Now up, up and away he went, over the house and more– because his safety line snapped and he became airborne. 

With a storm brewing, he drifted toward the Atlantic Ocean, his father watching on in horror and then jumping into a car to follow. A local priest joined him, toting a 22-caliber rifle. An hour later they spotted Al, 750-800 feet up, and stopped the car. 

Careful aim now! Bam, bam, bam. How many balloons to shoot? Too many could have been tragic. Luckily, the loss of buoyancy turned out to be just enough to bring madcap Al in for a light landing.

Q. While most people will eat meat, some won't, for a variety of health or ethical concerns. When that fateful slaughterhouse moment comes, how bad is it for the animals? –G. Wooddell

A. "Instantaneous insensibility" via proper handling and stunning is the gold standard in humane operation of these facilities, says animal scientist and author Temple Grandin.

This may be done with captive bolt, electrical, or carbon dioxide euthanasia. Animal excitability and agitation are to be avoided using good equipment design and a well-trained staff. For example, cattle and sheep will stay calm in conveyers that touch the animal in front and  back; moving cattle through single file also helps.

People ask if the animals know what's about to happen, or if they're afraid of blood. Studies show that pigs watching the stunning of another pig have little or no change in heart rate, cortisol or B endorphin levels. Rather, small distractions like air-hissing noises or bright lights are more likely to lead to agitation and balking, bringing on fear pheromones that enter the blood and can affect many animals at once, says Grandin. Otherwise, cattle don't seem to react to the sight of blood.

The above are small mercy measures, to be sure, but for the animals, small is all there is in this arena.

Q. Did the movie "Jurassic Park" get it right when one human tells another that if they stand stock still, T. rex won't be able to see them, even though the beast is right in front of them? Was "sight for 'saur eyes" really that bad? –A. Popkin

A. Actually, not only did T. rex have some of the best vision in animal history, but at that range it would also have smelled the people, says University of Oregon computer scientist Kent A. Stevens in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

By studying skull bones and measuring eye positions in facial models of several types of dinosaurs, the scientists concluded that T. rex had a binocular field of view of 55 degrees, wider than modern hawks. The wider an animal's binocular field, the better its depth perception and capacity to see objects– even those that are motionless or camouflaged. 

The huge eye sockets suggest very large eyes for T. rex. If those eyes were bird-like rather than reptilian in design, it might have had better vision than our own for seeing fine detail. Also since the eyes are very far separated, T. rex might have been able to see in depth much farther than we can.

The point is, says Stevens, that T. rex had better vision than that needed just for scavenging and could well have been a predator. Over the millennia it evolved sight- improving features, such as the snout becoming narrower and lower and the eyes enlarged and facing forward more. "It was a selective advantage for T. rex to see three-dimensionally ahead of it, and with the size of its eyeballs, it couldn't help but have excellent vision."

Q. In a baseball game, who's off and running with the crack of the bat– or at least he had better be or risk losing his job? –G. Triandos

A. An outfielder with a flyball headed his way. The sharp crack-of-the-bat vs a sullen clunk is a telltale clue, reaching him in only 0.3 second and signaling whether he needs to run in for the catch or get on his horse and race deeper into the outfield, says Yale physicist Robert Adair in Scientific American. If the outfielder waits to visually determine the ball's upward angle, this will take another 1.7 seconds– often too late to get the job done.

This classic crack comes from air being forced out from between bat and ball in less than 1/2000th second, resulting in a sound of about 500 Hertz; the clunk is the crack plus the duller 170-Hertz bat vibration when struck away from its "sweet spot." The sound of a well-hit ball is not just louder or sharper but different altogether, Adair told the Acoustical Society of America. Struck at most points, the bat will vibrate like a guitar string, producing a dull thud and possibly stinging the hands; but the crack is explosive, out-rushing air.

A ball so clobbered flattens and wraps itself fleetingly around the front of the bat.

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

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1 comment

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