Smelly clues: Closed nose kills appetite

Q. A friend who's studying psychology invites you to dinner but says you must eat blindfolded. For dessert, you need to clip on a nose plug too. Still hungry? ­J. Child

 A. Expect to lose your appetite. Appearance is a big part of eating, says University of Cincinnati psychologist Robert Frank. Worse, if something is served you can't identify, this will distort how it smells. "Unidentified aged cheese or fresh tuna whiffed by a blindfolded person will smell awful, but just one look will bring back the appetite."

Add a nose plug and you'll be lucky to have a clue. In one test, 95 percent of blindfolded subjects knew they were drinking coffee, but this dropped to two percent when they were also nose-plugged. Now tasters couldn't even distinguish chunks of onion from apple or raw potato (better hold the apple pie). "In fact, people who lose their sense of smell permanently often lose all interest in food."

Q. What was the largest explosion ever on Earth? ­E. Teller

 A. Probably when a Mars-sized object hit some 4.6 billion years ago, vaporizing huge amounts of rock that went into orbit and eventually accreted to form the Moon, says Brown University planetary geologist Carolyn Ernst. One of the next biggest was the impact from the 6-10-kilometer- diameter stony asteroid (or larger comet) that dug out the Chicxulub crater on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, 145-180 kilometers across, energy of 100 million megatons of TNT, believed to be the beginning of the end of the dinosaurs and myriad other species 65 million years ago.

In recent times, the volcano Krakatoa on an Indonesian island erupted in 1883 with the energy equivalent of 200 megatons of TNT; Washington State's Mount St. Helens in 1980 was at 400 megatons. The Tunguska fireball of 1908, over Siberia, likely from a stony sky-streaking object some 50 meters across, created a shock wave that felled an estimated 60 million trees at some 10-15 megatons of TNT.

By comparison, the deadly Hiroshima atomic bomb had energy equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT (.015 megatons), says Ernst. The largest nuke ever produced was the Soviet Union's Tsar Bomba ("King of Bombs"), estimated at 100 megatons TNT. In 1961, a scaled-down 50-megaton version was tested "in the largest man-made explosion to date."

Q. What's mighty curious about the sentence, "Show this bold Prussian that praises slaughter, slaughter brings rout"? Clue: Try sleeping on it. ­D. Hacker

A. A psychiatrist studying problem-solving during sleep posed this in a newspaper, says A. Alvarez in Night, and a day or two later a reader reported a dream in which actor Michael Caine presides over a crazy stage show where a comic Elizabethan figure kneels and puts his head in a guillotine. The figure peers up apprehensively and rolls his eyes. The audience roars with laughter, then the figure struggles to his feet, saying, "Shhhh! Laughter is a capital offence!"

More riotous laughter, then the figure doffs his hat and bows. The dreamer glances at Caine for a clue, but he says he must "dash," waves and exits.

The dreamer awakes now with the answer. If the first (or capital) letter of each word is lopped off, the trick sentence becomes, "How his old Russian hat raises laughter, laughter rings out."

It was a remarkable dream, says Alvarez, making its point several ways. Not only is the figure about to be decapitated, but he terms laughter a "capital offence." The "dash" and hat-doffing further hint at the separation of letters. Plus, the uproarious laughter expresses in mime what the transformed sentence says: "laughter rings out."

"In other words, the problem was unconsciously solved before the dreamer discovered it."

Q. Which holds more memory, your personal computer or your brain? By how much? ­B. Gates

A. Figure your brain at about 100,000,000,000,000 synapses connecting its 100,000,000,000 neurons, says University of California-Berkeley computer scientist Stuart Russell. The connection strengths of the synapses can be regarded as the repository for long-term memories, very roughly equivalent to 100 terabytes (100,000,000,000,000 bytes = 100 trillion).

"Few, if any, personal computers have this much storage, but some large corporate and government systems store more information than this on magnetic disk, optical disk, or tape."

Raw storage capacity aside, your brain is vastly more complex than any computer. Only certain areas of the brain are devoted to memory, mostly the hippocampus and the outer region known as the cortex. And there are aspects of the human brain that as yet have no counterpart in computers, says Russell, such as the processing of emotions by the combined neural and endocrine systems.

To a large extent, you are your brain– but a brain is a lot more than just memory. Don't forget it.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com