Space burger: Don't use meteor for a weenie roast

Q. A fiery meteor streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, glowing incandescent, and thuds down loudly in your front yard. Could you grill a hamburger on it? –G. Foreman

A. It's a common misconception that meteors are hot, says Bob Berman in Secrets of the Night Sky. In August 1991, when one hit on a front lawn in Noblesville, Indiana, two boys close by were able to touch it immediately. "The icy lower atmosphere deep-freezes the stone so that it's only slightly warm by the time it reaches the ground,” Berman writes.

Q. What's one singularly extreme way for men to add 14 years to their lives? –H. Hefner

A. The average man may run a 100-meter race faster and lift heavier weights than the average woman, but nowadays women outlive men by about five or six years, says Professor Thomas Kirkwood of Newcastle University, England, in Scientific American magazine. By age 85, there are roughly three women to every two men; by age 100, the ratio is more like two to one.

So why does "the weaker sex" live longer? Beyond lifestyle, stresses, or habits such as smoking and drinking is biology. Evidence is stacking up that high levels of male fertility-boosting testosterone are bad for long-term survival. Further evidence from rodents suggests that cells in a female body perform damage repair better, thanks to the ovaries. Moreover, as many dog and cat owners can attest, neutered male animals often live longer than their intact counterparts.

Might the same be said for humans? Eunuchs were once treated as members of the elite in many societies, with some records suggesting they outlived normal healthy men. Also years ago, castration of men in institutions for the mentally disturbed was surprisingly commonplace.

"In one study of several hundred men at an unnamed institution in Kansas, the castrated men were found to live on average 14 years longer than their uncastrated fellows,” Kirkwood says. 

"Nevertheless," stresses Kirkwood, "I doubt that many men– myself included– would choose such a drastic remedy to buy a few extra years."

Q. Why does having something pushed into my ear make me cough? –Dumbo

A. Called Arnold's ear-cough reflex, this was first described in 1832 by anatomist Friedrich Arnold and is evident in about two percent of people, says Maurice Little of the United Kingdom in New Scientist magazine.

The vagus nerve (Latin for "wanderer") not only goes to the external ear canal but also the larynx, heart, stomach and intestines. Stimulation of the auricular branch of the nerve can produce a cough in susceptible people; a variant is vomiting caused by reflex stimulation of the branch supplying the stomach. 

In ancient times, wealthy Anglo-Saxons who enjoyed feasting were said to have poured cold water into the ear to produce vomiting, allowing them to indulge further. The Romans supposedly achieved the same result during their orgies by tickling the ear canal with a feather.

Such reflexes are generally explained as the "confusion" of one nerve pathway (usually sensory) with another (usually motor), adds Joseph Gennaro of the University of Florida Medical Center. For example, rubbing the skin at the back of the neck causes widening of the pupils, and scratching the inner skin of a man's thigh can have an unmentionable effect.

"This kind of information is used clinically to test a particular neural pathway and can also be used to liven up otherwise dull parties," Gennaro writes.
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