STRANGE BUT TRUE- Insider's view: Trapped in a tornado's funnel


Q. If you could look up into the funnel of a tornado, what might you see? –Dorothy

A. One of the few ever to do this and survive was Captain Roy S. Hall, in May 1948, whose house's roof was lifted off and the walls collapsed, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. When Hall spotted a neighbor's house, he was relieved that his own place was not flying through the air– until he noticed something horrible: Not far off, something descended to just a few meters above the ground, and hovered with a slow vertical oscillation. That something was curved, with a concave surface facing him. "With shock he realized this hovering thing was the inside surface of the tornado funnel, and so he was inside the funnel!"

It looked to be about 1,000 feet, swaying and bending, with rings along its length and a bright center like a fluorescent light fixture. 

He saw nothing being pulled up through. He also had no trouble breathing, so he figured the air pressure could not be too low and marveled at the total silence– in contrast to the dramatic noise during the tornado's approach. "Suddenly the funnel moved away, and Hall's family came out of hiding to find him."

Q. This story begins with a baby's disappearing pee (alarming Mom), wends its way through leak-proof tape and mortar, improved meat packagings and gasoline, extinguished fires, even the construction of the English Chunnel. Can you identify the versatile chemical "star"? –B. Walton

A. It's "super slurper," technically a "cross-linked polyacrylate polymer," says Dr. Joe Schwarcz in The Genie in the Bottle. That's the stuff in superabsorbent diapers, where the disappearing pee went. In some cases it can retain 5,000 times its weight in water! After diapers came feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products.

Acrylic polymers were also used in leak-proof tape for undersea cables and in a mortar that swelled on contact with water for a tight seal (the tunnel under the Channel). In meat packages, they absorb excess fluids. In gasoline, they can remove water. There're coated corn seeds, self-moisturizing soil mixes, preparations to keep lawns watered. And a Florida firefighter noticed the only item not consumed by flames was a used diaper: "The polyacrylate had swelled with water and acted as insulation against the flames... During a fire, the substance can be applied with a hose over virtually anything, preventing it from burning." As one librarian put in upon discovering super slurper's use in drying out waterlogged books, "It sucks, but that's a good thing."

Q. What famous author offered the following sentence to help cure what not uncommon language addiction? "A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field." Clue: think double negatives. –J. Brinkley

A. Straight double negatives are one thing, such as comedian Rodney Dangerfield's "I don't get no respect." These were fine back in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's day, but use them today and you won't get no respect since they're regarded as nonstandard English, says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky. But a subtler type of double negative that is not unacceptable and not uncommon either is called litotes (LIGHT-o-tease), Greek for "understatement for effect," as in "The raccoon-like ringtail 'cat' is not uncommon in metropolitan areas."

A litotes is defined as "a deliberately weak positive expressed by the negative of its opposite." The problem with litotes, as in the question– from British author George Orwell– is they are overused in pretentious conversation, says Davidson. As Orwell advised, "Use litotes only when understatement for effect is not uncalled for."

Q. Why aren't there five days or 10 days to a week? Isn't 7 days just an arbitrary number? –G. Harrison

A. Actually, 10-day weeks have been tried, says Daniel J. Boorstin in The Discoverers. In 1792, following calendar reforms instituted after the French Revolution, weeks were officially 10 days long, days were designated by Latin numerals, three such weeks made up a month, plus there were five or six extra days at the end of the year for holidays and sports. Days were divided into 10 hours, each hour was 100 minutes, a minute was 100 seconds.

Obviously, the notion didn't fly, or you might be reading this at 3:98 on VIII-day.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at