Finest hour: Chaplains embodied courage

Q. "It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, one of 230 survivors. What was the tragedy, what the heroic act? ­ A. Trebeck

 A. When the troop ship SS Dorchester was going down in the icy night waters of the North Atlantic, February 1943, panic and confusion reigned until four chaplains Methodist preacher George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Catholic priest John Washington, and Reformed Church minister Clark Poling– arrived on deck, opened up a storage bin, and began handing out lifejackets, says David Myers in Social Psychology.

They directed people to boat stations, all the while calming and preaching courage. Later, survivor Grady Clark described looking on in awe as the four gave out the last of the lifejackets and then selflessly gave up their own. As Clark moved off toward safety, "He looked back at an unforgettable sight: The four chaplains standing– arms linked– praying in Latin, Hebrew, and English. Other men, now serene, joined them in a huddle as the Dorchester slid beneath the sea."

Q. If someone slipped ice-nine into your drink, what would happen? OK, ice-nine was a fiction of novelist Kurt Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle), capable of freezing a person into a statue of ice or a doomsday icing of the oceans. But what about ice-II, ice-III, or real ice-IX? Party stoppers? ­Ice T.

 A. The real stopper is the combination of often-very-low temperature (-100C) and very high pressure (2000+ atmospheres) required to form these exotic ices. Most are out of this world– go to Jupiter's moon Ganymede or elsewhere in the outer solar system if you want to see some.

The ices are real– squashed molecules re-fitted into novel arrangements– but you'd have to respect someone who could cope with the temperatures/pressures to transfer a chunk of ice-IX into your drink glass. Still, says Caltech planetary scientist David J. Stevenson, about all you'd see is the crystal structure changing before your eyes, while releasing heat (perhaps explosively) and metamorphosing into everyday ice-I. "Afterwards, it would be like any other drink: There would be no way you could tell the water was once partly ice-IX."

Vonnegut's ice-nine is closer to something called "polywater," postulated by scientists in the 1960s but now discredited, says Stevenson. Real ice-IX was later created in a lab, no doubt boring the novelist to (frozen) tears.

Q. Where's the beef? What large animal today accounts for the greatest total biomass? ­A. N. Smith

A. We're No. 1! Add up the body bulk of the Earth's 6 billion human beings alive today, and you're talking maybe 400 million people-tons. Just to transport all of us at once, you'd need 40,000 10,000-ton ships.

Probably the closest competitor is our old barnyard friend, the cow. But at only about a billion globally, it's doubtful even they constitute a beefier bunch.

Q. Suppose you'd been blind all your life, then had an operation and could suddenly see. Wouldn't this be a wonderful miracle? ­S. Wonder

A. Not always. A number of blind patients have regained sight following cataract surgery, and while most could distinguish between, say, a cube and a ball, few if any could identify objects by name, says Dartmouth Professor Hany Farid, computer expert and cognitive neuroscientist.

But one subject reportedly knew tables and chairs by sight immediately, as well as certain letter shapes he had learned by touch. Apparently, variations in the patient's history, the extent of recovered sight, and even intelligence may confound the results.

People don't just see with their eyes– they see with their mind as well. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in An Anthropologist on Mars, told of Virgil, who went blind at age six, then following surgery 45 years later could see again. But it proved a troubling world of sight: Birds frightened him, because he had no idea how far away they were. At the zoo, gorillas looked to him like men; the dog he saw at home didn't seem like the dog he had known and loved.

So overwhelming was it all that when years later Virgil lost his sight again, he seemed grateful, at home again.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at