Snake-icide: Reptiles' bites end misery

Q. If a venomous snake bites itself, will it die? -Adam

 A. Depends on the venom, how much is injected (often none is), and the health of the snake, says University of Florida herpetologist Max Nickerson. Could cause little reaction, or death if vital tissue is involved.

So why would a snake do this? Accidents happen, as when a strike badly misses its target. Then there are those stories of cornered or injured snakes biting themselves to commit suicide. Certainly a snake under stress may self inflict, most notably when it's pinned with a hook or stick and goes into a frenzy. Bright lights and heat may also trigger it: Brought into a TV studio, a sidewinder rattlesnake began biting itself and died shortly afterward.

Then there's the cold factor: Lowering reptiles' body temperature to freezing has been used as a humane way to euthanize them. "On several instances I found rattlesnakes with their fangs embedded mid-body after euthanization," Nickerson says.

Q: Brad meets Natalie on a MOO (multi-user object oriented domain). Over the weeks, some hot emails ensue, maybe he's even in love. When he presses for her phone number, the truth comes crashing down: Natalie's a genderhacking 50-year-old man. Argggghhhh! Why do this? ­C. Jorgenson

A. Gender swapping online is common, especially by men, says Rider University psychologist John Suler. Why males are so interested in experimenting with a female identity goes way beyond cyberspace, into much larger social/psychological issues. Possible reasons:

1. To anonymously explore a "feminine" side;

2. To draw attention and to wield power and control over other online males;

3. To investigate male/female relationships from the other side, possibly to pick up real dating techniques;

4. To gain chivalric advantage in online games;

5. To act out conscious or unconscious homosexual feelings.

Sometimes a simple lack of females in cyberspace seems the key factor, says Suler. Overheard chatroom remark: "Won't somebody at least pretend to be female?"

So, how to avoid becoming another disillusioned Brad? Some cagey women have suggested a reality check: If "she" can't tell you the difference between junior and misses' sizes, or what are typical pantyhose sizes, or how long hair dye is typically left on, or what day of her cycle a woman's flow is heaviest, then she's probably a he. When in doubt, ask for a phone number or place to meet.

Q. Laughter's a funny thing. What happens when it gets really out of control? Can a person die laughing? ­J. Lewis

 A. In then-Tanganyika, 1962, a group of schoolgirls started laughing so hard they cried, and the laughter spread to nearby villages, of such epidemic proportions it forced the closing of schools for six months, says Robert Provine in American Scientist.

The British journal Nature told of a 15-year-old epileptic undergoing brain surgery awake so she could give feedback. Suddenly she began laughing uncontrollably, telling the doctors, "You guys are just so funny."

One morning after a violent headache, 58-year-old Ruth was seized by a laughing fit that went on for hours in spite of a morphine injection, reports Vilayanur Ramachandran in Phantoms in the Brain. She became exhausted, the laughter persisting as noiseless grimaces, until she utterly collapsed. "I can say that she literally died laughing," the author writes.

The few reported cases of pathological laughter all seem to involve parts of the limbic system affecting emotions, says Ramachandran. "Given the complexity of laughter and its infinite cultural overtones, I find it intriguing that a small cluster of brain structures is behind the phenomenon– a sort of 'laughter circuit.'"

Q. An overindulgent parent, you buy your kid too many helium balloons at the fair, then look back shocked to see her soaring 100 feet into the sky. How many is "too many"? ­ R. Baer

 A. Figure a cubic foot of air to weigh about .078 pounds, so that's the upward buoyant force on a cubic foot of helium, which of course is lighter than air, says UVA's Louis A. Bloomfield in How Things Work. A cubic foot of helium weighs only about .011 pounds– the difference of .067 being the lifting force of the helium.

Now, how much does the child weigh? If you assume 40 pounds, then it will take about 600 cubic feet of helium to achieve liftoff either 600 biggish 1-cubic-foot balloons or a single enormous roped balloooooon 10 feet in diameter.

Just hope there's no big wind. As the gas leaks out, your high-flying daughter should come back down to Earth.


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