Babble on

Q: Linguistically speaking, who are the true "citizens of the world"? ­J. Piaget

A: They are newborns, whose ears take in the sounds of life, including the phonemic building blocks of English, Spanish, Estonian, Zulu. You name it, they're all there, hundreds of distinct sounds of all the world's tongues (about 40 in English). But before long they won't be heard, just as somewhere between six and 12 months Japanese infants stop distinguishing between English "r" and "l."

Even before speech begins, an infant's brain is being "sculpted" by talk, the pre-wired neural machinery pruning itself until what isn't reinforced by words heard or lips read starts to fade, as shown by brain wave monitorings and linguistic responses, says Richard Restak, M.D., in The Secret Life of the Brain.

Cross-cultural generalists at the get-go, their minds multidextrous, infants "by the time they reach one year of age become language specialists," said University of Washington speech and hearing scientist Patricia Kuhl. "Babies born in Brooklyn start speaking Brooklynese."


Q: What if King Kong materialized at a baseball stadium for an at-bat? How far might he drive the "pill"? ­J. Palmer

A: Lacking verifiable data, best bet is to go with Yale physicist Robert K. Adair's expert estimate in The Physics of Baseball on how far an Olympic-level human male, ox-strong, quick as a cat, carrying nearly 300 pounds on a near-seven-foot frame, might unload the orb.

Assume further a friendly pitcher feeding fat fast balls over the center of the plate to this King (Kong) of Clout, who swings a 42-inch-long 4-pound bat by taking a couple of young Babe Ruth-like steps into the ball– a batter's windup, so to say.

"I estimate he could hit the ball well over 500 feet under standard conditions at sea level," says Adair. This compares to about 450 feet for a major league power hitter, unless the pitch is super fast, pulled down the line, on a 100-degree day, with a tailwind, in mile-high thin-air Denver. Give King Clout all these extra edges, plus a ball wound exceptionally tight, and 600 feet or more becomes possible, a beast of a homer, something to roar about.


Q: What's the cause of water mirages lying up ahead on hot asphalt roadways? Can the same principle crash-dive a pelican (no) or send a castle skyward (yes)? ­P. Fonda

A: Just about everybody's seen them, where the very hot air near the road surface and cooler layers above form a temperature gradient that bends light from the sky up to the viewer's eyes. The observer then mentally extrapolates straight back along the rays to believe there is a body of blue water up ahead, says Jearl Walker in Flying Circus of Physics, With Answers. Hot air fluctuations will add a shimmer, as if the water were flowing.

Delightful mirage, but not much fun for the pelican supposedly flying for hours over dry wheat fields, then spotting what looks to be a long black river in the midst of the prairie. When the bird puts down for a cooling swim, it knocks itself unconscious on a road (The New Yorker). Couldn't have happened that way, though, says Walker, because "Light rays from the sky could never be so refracted as to return at such a large angle to the ground."

A more believable– and beautiful– mirage is "Fata Morgana," oft-seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily. For this one, says the Alaska Science Forum, alternating layers of hot and cold air above the ground or water surface can create several images of the same distant object, some upright and some inverted, seemingly stacked up to look like "a castle half in the air and half in the sea."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at