Stand back! More powerful than speeding bullet

Q. It's got energy sufficient, if all were harnessed, to hurl a car into orbit or melt 100 tons of ice. To take its temperature, you'd need a thermometer that registers 50,000 degrees, five times hotter than the sun's surface. It routinely shoots holes into aircraft, explodes oak trees, blows people's shoes and socks off. It crackles with 500 times the voltage of the electric chair. What's this sizzling something? ­ B. Franklin

 A. Lightning.

Q. Odds are overwhelming you spent the better part of your waking day doing this, without giving it a thought. Chairmen and chairwomen do it plenty, as do others in seats of power, from county seats to embassy seats to seats on the stock exchange. But prestige and social status aren't the story. Even the lowliest among us do this in dozens of places daily, at work, at home, with family and friends, or alone. Yet the "we" here is not the world we but the Western or Westernized we. So what are we doing?- M. van der Rohe

 A. Sitting on chairs, says University of California-Berkeley sociologist and professor of architecture Galen Cranz, author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design. As inevitable as this sedentary posture might seem, it is far from natural and not even done in half the world. "A Chinese man might squat to wait for the bus; a Japanese woman might kneel to eat; and an Arab might sit cross-legged to write a letter."

And not because they can't afford chairs: Many throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Polynesia just prefer not to buy one. Chairs are cultural, invented long ago by anonymous would-be-off-the-ground sitters. If the king's throne has come to symbolize "really high sitting" in the West, the bathroom "throne" is a joke, signifying low-status sitting.

 

Q. What common metal of today is suspected of playing a role in bringing down the Roman Empire? From the "environmental health and toxicity" file. - Caligula

 A. Lead. Over 2000 years ago, the Roman Empire used tremendous amounts, with production rates as high as 55,000 metric tons/year, say Daniel Botkin et al. in Environmental Science: Earth As a Living Planet. This went on for centuries, with lead used as a base for medicines and cosmetics, in pots in which grapes were crushed and processed to make wine, in cups and goblets for drinking the wine, and for making pipes carrying running water in the homes of the wealthy.

"Some historians have argued that lead poisoning among the upper class was partly responsible for Rome's eventual fall. Certainly it may have resulted in widespread stillbirths, deformities, and brain damage!"

Supporting the suspicion are findings of high lead content in the bones of ancient Romans. More recently, measurements of ice in Greenland showed four times the normal lead level during the period 500 B.C. to A.D. 300.

"This suggests that the mining and smelting of lead during the Roman Empire added lead into the atmosphere that eventually settled out in the glaciers of Greenland."

 

Q. In extreme circumstances such as wartime, bizarrely fortuitous advantages can make the difference between life and death. How bizarre can these get when a man battles to survive hypothermia in a cold sea? ­L. DiCaprio

 A. At the outbreak of World War II, recounts Oxford University physiologist Frances Ashcroft in Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival, her grandfather Walter was assigned to medical orderly, arrived at the front, and within months was shot in the knee. The wound became infected– these were pre-antibiotic days– and he was evacuated to England in critical condition.

En route across the Channel the ship was torpedoed and sank, and her grandfather– half-delirious with fever, and strapped to a wooden stretcher– slid out into the cold sea. Somehow, he survived, says Ashcroft, or she would not be here to tell the story:

First lucky factor was his being strapped tightly to the stretcher and unable to move, which probably helped hold his body heat near him. Second, he was a big man, with a subcutaneous layer of insulating fat. Third, his fever upped his metabolic rate, a heat dividend.

Many healthier men died that night of hypothermia, but the fates shone on Walter, who as he lay semi-conscious in the water, glimpsed a small blue floating handkerchief, which he clutched desperately. "And when he was rescued, his fingers were still curled around the ragged blue charm."

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at StrangeTrue@Compuserve.com.