Reptiles in repose: Not hard to soothe a savage beast

Q: Could a very daring and knowledgeable person hypnotize an alligator? Don't try this! ­C. Dundee

 A: More than 200 years ago, the Seminole Indians in the swamps of Florida discovered a peculiarity of gator behavior that is daily demonstrated today in parks such as Busch Gardens in Florida, says psychologist Jacob Empson in Sleep & Dreaming.

 Called "tonic immobility," when the creature is caught in a noose and turned on its back, mouth held shut and tail held still, a few slow strokes to its belly will most often put it into a "trance." Then, when released, it will remain completely motionless until touched again, when it "springs into writhing activity."

The key to holding fast such formidable jaws is that their opening muscles are not formidable at all, and can be restrained with one hand, even for a fully grown gator, says Empson. Just don't be around for the downward chomp!

Q: How do ventriloquists manage to "throw" their voice, so it seems to be coming from somewhere else? Is this a trick of the larynx, throat, mouth, or lungs? ­C. McCarthy

 A: Ventriloquists can't actually change the location of their voice, but they can produce the illusion of doing so by not moving their lips, says Ohio State University linguist Keith Johnson. It's easy to tell where a sound comes from when we can see it being made, like seeing someone talk. But we're not that good at locating sounds in space when all we have to go on is what we hear.

So when ventriloquists don't move their lips, they take away the best cue for locating the source of their voice. Our brains then go on a hunt to find out where the voice is coming from. "If the ventriloquist moves the mouth of a dummy in time with the words, we will 'see' the dummy talk. If the ventriloquist looks off into a corner of the room while talking, we may follow his/her eyes and hear the sound coming from the suggested location– because, well, it has to come from someplace!"


Q: Suppose you're a "sack-drop engineer" on a goodwill flight to deliver bags of flour to flood-ravaged hinterlands. To land the food on target, you must know that... a) a sack falls straight down to ground beneath the release point, because the plane flies on after the drop is made b) a sack will fall well behind the release point, having been pushed backward by onrushing air c) a sack will fall far in front of the release point, carrying along the plane's horizontal velocity all the way to the ground? ­I. Newton

A: c) A sack falls in a curved trajectory, reaching about 30 meters/second for a three-second drop from 50 meters up, says Keith Lockett in Physics in the Real World. The sack will land well in front of the release point, much closer to where the plane will then be than to where it was at drop-time.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at their email address above.