STRANGEBUTTRUE- Print loss: When your whorls go AWOL


Q. Do people ever lose their fingerprints? –M. Jackson

A. Even just a bad case of poison ivy can do this, though the skin will usually replace itself eventually, Edward Richards of Louisiana State University told Katherine Harmon in Scientific American magazine. Frequent losers are bricklayers who wear down print ridges, or people working with lime, or paper-pushing secretaries. 

Because skin loses elasticity with age, many older folks have muted prints. In one striking case, a 62-year-old man from Singapore had a fingerprint scan by U.S. customs officials that showed no prints at all! As reported by the Annals of Oncology, the chemotherapy drug he was taking– capecitabine— had caused swelling and peeling of his palms and soles. Released when officials decided he was no security risk, Mr. S. explained he had not noticed his condition before setting out on his trip.

Intentional fingerprint mutilation has also been documented, as when 1934 gang-leader Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas pulled a gun on police and was shot. "When they compared his post-mortem fingerprints," recounts forensic expert Kasey Wertheim, "police found that his prints had been cut by a knife, resulting in semi-circular scars around each fingerprint. The amateur job, though, left more than enough ridge detail to identify him."

Q. How many Fs are contained in the following sentence? Finished files are the results of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years. –F. Eff

A. Partly because your initial processing of the letters was primarily acoustic rather than visual, you probably missed some of the six Fs, especially those in the three "ofs" that sound more like Vs than Fs, says David G. Myers in Psychology.

Q. Why are maps oriented north? –F. Magellan

A. This is completely arbitrary.

The choice of the seeming physical reason– the poles– is a function of modern rationality wedded to Eurocentrism, says Matthew Edney, cartographer at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Wisconsin, in Science Illustrated. 

"It could equally be a south orientation," Edney writes. In the past, the direction in which maps were oriented depended on political, cultural and religious interests: Medieval Christian world maps placed east, the supposed direction of Paradise, at the top, while the first Islamic mapmakers chose south.

The invention of the magnetic compass had no apparent influence on map orientation. The first compass in Europe was actually painted to point South to help those in the Northern Hemisphere define their local meridian, useful for sailing and astronomy. Geographical maps began to be oriented North in the 15th century under the influence of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, whose known world was just the Northern Hemisphere. In the 19th century, attempts were made to standardize cartography and "that's when north at the top became the real standard," according to the author.

Q. What can happen when you and your Twitter friends begin to literally quake in your boots? –S.M. Garcia

A. When you tell them what you're feeling and where, the U.S. Geological Survey will get the earthquake message fast– as the government has developed software to scan the torrent of "tweets" flowing through the popular social network, says Sid Perkins in Science News magazine. Analyses show that the number of quake-related words spikes right afterward, providing clues to the earthquake's range and magnitude in various locales. The best thing about this is its speed: Information gleaned from Twitter posts is available almost instantly, whereas other sources often require 15 minutes or more.


Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at