STRANGE BUT TRUE- Hot footn': Missing gene means side-stepping pain


Q. A "firewalker" can cross a bed of red-hot wood coals aided by the "Leidenfrost effect" (vaporizing foot moisture forms an insulating cushion) and by quick-stepping along. But what about the 10-year-old Pakistani boy who not only firewalked in street performances but could place knives through his arms, without apparent discomfort? –P. Musharraf

A. No physics trick here but rather a rare genetic mutation that left several members of the family unable to feel pain, says C. Brownlee in Science News. Although pain can be agonizing, it does serve to warn people to avoid dangerous situations and forces them to attend to wounds. Researchers traced the no-pain mutation to the SCN9A gene, critical to a cell-surface sodium channel for pain-signal propagation. But how the family's pain is cut off is still not clear, though people with some types of chronic pain have an abnormally high number of sodium channels containing the SCN9A-encoded protein, as reported by neurologist Stephen Waxman. "If researchers could craft a drug to make these channels inactive, as they are in the Pakistani family members, this might help millions of chronic pain sufferers worldwide, and give pharmaceutical companies a valuable lead," said Waxman.

Q. "There's gold in them thar hills!" But which hills, and how is modern gold mined? –Y. Sam

A. Most is now from South Africa and Russia. In one extraction process, gold-bearing rock is crushed and washed over copper plates covered with mercury, dissolving the gold, with the resulting amalgam then scraped off and distilled, says Dr. Joe Schwarcz in The Fly in the Ointment. About four tons of rock is needed to eventually yield an ounce of pure gold. The world's greatest total gold reserve is actually in seawater, but it's concentration is so small getting it out is not economically feasible.

Gold's properties make it especially valuable industrially. A thin layer of malleable gold is highly reflective and can be used on windows to save on air-conditioning costs. It's also such an excellent conductor of electricity that it is used extensively in computer circuits. "In fact, a new industry has recently arisen: recovering gold from computer scrap. One ton of computer rubble can yield 2 pounds of gold." Now that's PC "pay dirt"!

Q. Mite-y colorful word from a German medical dictionary: "steinlaus," or "stone louse" in English, meaning a rodent-like mite. It can be used to break down bladder, gall bladder, and kidney stones, goes the entry. So if the word was a mistake, as rumored, why deliberately include it? –A. Butts 

A. Research on the mite took off after its first listing, rather ironic since, in fact, the Steinlaus doesn't exist! The false entry may be a sort of in-joke, says New Scientist magazine, while serving the serious function of protecting copyright. After investing hugely in compiling lists of facts, dictionary editors face a problem protecting their work. Digital editions are especially easy to copy. So a fictitious entry is a perfect way to detect wholesale unauthorized copying. "If it turns up in someone else's dictionary, that's strong evidence of plagiarism."

Here's one from the New Oxford American Dictionary: "esquivalience," or "the wilful avoidance of one's official responsibilities." The editors confessed it was a copyright trap, "a deliberately badly formed word that could not arise in nature." Map-makers do something similar, as do computer security people with their "honeytokens."

Q. Off to sleep and Dreamland... What's coming next? What are you apt to encounter there? –J. Frost

A. Based on dream census studies, you'll be there, since in almost all cases the dreamers themselves take part in their nightly dramas, says David Bodanis in The Body Book: A Fantastic Voyage to the World Within. Familiar others appear 45 percent of the time, twice as many men as women for male dreamers, a ratio that soars to 3:1 with advancing age; 70 percent of the time dream figures are individuals rather than groups or crowds. About 20 percent of the time the dreamer's own family appears, mothers and fathers more than brother and sisters.

Most dreams are straight story lines without much emotion, and many are quite prosaic. When there's emotion, 2-1 negativity will prevail, especially fear, then anger and sadness. Visual imagery predominates, except for the long-term blind, who dream more in sounds or smells.

 In dream-deprivation studies, subjects– wired to an electroencephalograph– are awakened each time they start to dream. Once they fall asleep again, dream onset is faster than before, until they begin dreaming almost immediately upon sleep. Interrupting someone's dreams all night will make him act drunk or punch-happy the next day and could well be harmful if it continues for many nights.

 Yet human beings are highly individual, as witness Leslie G. of Durham, England, who after being bumped on the head by a forklift truck, lost his ability to sleep and dream, says Bodanis. "At bedtime he crawls under the covers with his wife until she's asleep then comes down to read or wander across the moors until dawn. He says he would give up everything he owns for a single good night's sleep."

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1 comment

Around 5 yrs. old my parents and I were living in Trieste, Italy (north). Around 1953 we were forced to move from Isola D'Istria due to Nazi occupation and moved in a common area large hotel in Trieste. Very poor, care packages from America, 1-free meal a day, my father bearly made enough money to support himself at jobs. My grandmother helped alot. Our space was sectioned off by sheets, we had 2-steel bunkbeds put together. When my father was in town, he staied w/us. We were there close to 3 yrs. before we came to America. One night my dad and I were sleeping on top of the bunkbeds, my grandmother and my mother were beneath. I woke up from sleep and on my right side there stood a man w/a white turban on his head and a white high collard button down jacket. His complexion was olive w/nice features, didn't speak, just stood there lookin at me, I turned to my right, to awake my dad - he stood there, once I awoke my dad and told him of the man, he disappeared. In 1955 I had never seen anyone of a different ethnic origin. I was not afraid of the experience and there was no communication. This has boggled me throughout my life, can anyone explain...