Probing poop: What an offal story

Q. Getting really down and dirty, what do anthropologists learn about ancient peoples from coprolites?–Divine

 A. These are artifacts of fossilized human dung sifted from the soils of caves, shelters and tombs, and bearing clues to how our ancestors ate and lived, says Paul Spinrad in ReSearch Guide to Bodily Fluids.

Early last century, researchers simply broke apart coprolites, but by the 1950s "rehydration" hit, where deposits were "soaked, sliced, separated, centrifuged, sniffed, sieved, stained and smeared on slides." Then the lab would figure out the foods involved chemical composition, pollen, parasites, etc.

One leading paleo-scatologist took to varying his own diet to study the stools. He even went very high-fiber "to see how closely he could counterfeit the feces left by the Vikings– except for the parasites."

Fibrous vegetable matter, insects, meat with bone chips, even human flesh (cannibalism) are all identifiable. Food preparation– grit means milling, charcoal means parching or roasting– can also be copro-read. To researchers, this is serious business, says Spinrad. One 100-year-old stool displayed at the Archaeological Resource Center in York, England, was said to be in "mint condition" and valued at 20,000 pounds. "Freud would have loved it."


Q. Is it really true that the only human-made thing big enough for astronauts to see from the Space Shuttle with the naked eye is the Great Wall of China? ­J. Glenn

 A. No, despite a popular quiz-show making this claim, says former astronaut R. Mike Mullane in Do Your Ears Pop in Space? Along with the Wall, cities, very large ships, jet plane vapor trails, air and water pollution, airport runways, even big buildings can be seen. "But night-time city lights are the easiest and most spectacular human-made objects to view. They look like lava flows, because the city centers are bright and the lights of the suburbs trail away from them."

To figure such visibility, bear in mind a mission shuttle may be orbiting 200-400 miles up–not as high as you might think. Compare that to the distance to the horizon from an airliner at 35,000 feet, which is about 200 miles. You can see plenty in all directions from the plane window.

Q. What happens to an unpaid debt that swells and swells for 500 years due to compounding interest? Would there be enough money anywhere to pay this off? ­R. Warfield-Brown

 A. The notion was put to the test in 1996 when a New College of Oxford administrator discovered that King Edward IV of England, on July 18, 1461, had borrowed the modern equivalent of $384US from the school, paid back $160 but the remaining $224 was never repaid, say Jeffrey O. Bennett et al. in Using and Understanding Mathematics.

That left 535 years of accumulating interest on the $224 debt, did it not? After all, had the money been deposited in an interest-bearing account, wheelbarrowfuls– maybe even truckloads– of dollars would have accrued.

That's what the administrator argued to the Queen of England, and assuming an interest rate of four percent per year, "calculated that the college was owed $290 billion!"

That is of course well more than most nations produce in a year, and the administrator didn't seriously expect to collect. So he suggested a compromise figure of two percent reducing the debt to around $9 million. This he said would pay for a modernization project at the college.

True enough, but there was no clear record of any agreement to repay with interest, and even if there were, who would feel obligated to pay 500 years later? Certainly not the Queen, and "the debt has not yet been paid."

Q. What happens when two powerful locomotives are set to racing open throttle toward each other on the same track? ­R.R. Bill

A. Showman P.T. Barnum never tried this, but a man named William Crush of the Katy Railroad did, in Waco, Texas, in 1896, before 30,000 spectators.

As recounted by David Halliday et al. in Fundamentals of Physics, the pair of engineer-less 270,000-pound locomotives sped at 90 mph each, totaling 180mph approach velocity. They collided with a fury equivalent to 100 pounds of TNT, calculations later showed. Too bad the figuring wasn't done beforehand: Shrapnel and debris flew every which way, killing several "ringside-seated" onlookers.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at