Drop dead? Mice survive great falls

Q. Some animals carry around their own parachute in

case of falls. Who is among this foresightful set? ­S. Little

 A. Rats and mice, along with their smaller animal brethren. "Terminal velocity" is the key.

A skydiver jumping out of a plane accelerates to around 160 mph, depending on body weight and positioning, then goes no faster. Small animals have more surface area for their weight, so in falling they generate more air resistance and peak at a much slower speed, with their body acting as a built-in parachute.

A mouse can fall several thousand feet onto a hard surface and suffer little more than a daze, points out J. B. S. Haldane in his essay "On Being the Right Size." A rat can fall out of an 11th-story skyscraper window, then go on about its business. A much longer drop than that would probably do in the rat, but creatures smaller than mice can plunge from very great heights and go virtually unfazed.

Q. Aren't we humans all one big family– and not just figuratively speaking? ­C. Darwin

 A. If you trace your family tree back just 30 generations, and assume 25 years for a generation, your ancestry over this 750 years encompasses first two parents, then four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, 32 great-great-great-grandparents, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048... finally, 1,073,741,824 people!

But 750 years ago it was the 13th century, and there were fewer than a billion people in the world. Which means that more recently than a scant 30 generations ago, your mother's and father's gene lines were merged, with ancestors common to both.

Follow your lineage back 50 generations, and the number of common parental ancestors grows enormous– so enormous in fact, says Guy Murchie in The Seven Mysteries of Life, that the entire human species can be encompassed "within the scope of 50th cousinhood."

This would mean that your own ancestors include not only some whites and blacks, Chinese and Arabs... but all the whites, blacks, Chinese, Arabs, Malays, Latins, Eskimos... who lived on Earth around A.D. 700. "It is virtually certain, therefore, that you are a direct descendant of Muhammad and every fertile predecessor of his, including Krishna, Confucius, Abraham, Buddha, Caesar, Ishmael, and Judas Iscariot."

Q. You're going in for surgery under general anesthesia. Any chance you'll be able to overhear what the operating team says while you're unconscious? ­M. Oblinger

 A. Don't rule it out. A woman named Karen had an oral cyst removed, then was told in the recovery room that everything was just fine, report Philip Zimbardo and Ann Weber in Psychology. But for days afterward she felt depressed and at night had bad dreams.

Hypnotized by a therapist who asked her what was wrong, she blurted out: "The cyst may be cancerous!" This, it turned out, was exactly what the surgeon had said minutes into the operation, before a biopsy proved him wrong.

Karen's case is not unusual. Because our hearing sensitivity remains, even casual remarks in the operating room can be dangerous. On the positive side, "Therapeutic suggestions during anesthesia may improve patients' postoperative recovery, as shown by reduced use of morphine and earlier discharge."

Q. You're at a roulette wheel betting blacks vs. reds when a string of blacks gets under way. After six or seven in a row, people nearby start to notice. Then it's 10 in a row... 15... near pandemonium is breaking loose. Now you figure, by the law of averages, red is overdue, so you bet $500 on the 16th spin. Smart move? ­E. Murdock

A. You just fell for the common "gambler's fallacy," the erroneous belief that one chance event can influence the next. In fact, there's no way the wheel can remember from spin to spin what came up before.

In How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff recounts an extraordinary situation at a Monte Carlo casino on August 18, 1913: After 15 or so blacks in a row, everybody at the roulette table started doubling down on red, figuring it was way overdue. But not until the 27th spin did the string of blacks come to an end, and by then just about everybody was broke. Except the house, which cleaned up to the tune of several million francs.


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