What a doll! Barbie rocks into her 40s


Q. She's 40-something though ageless, still a teenager after all these years, first conceived in the U.S. yet sprung to life in Japan after World War II, today reborn at the rate of two a second, 60 million a year, her bodystuff from Saudi Arabia, nylon hair from Japan, cotton dresses from China, brought together in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, making her truly a "global citizen" found in 140 countries around the world. Who is she? ­M. Stephens

 A. She's Barbie, the most profitable toy in history, reaping her creator California-based Mattel Corporation well over a billion dollars in annual revenues, though Barbie was never made in the U.S., say Anthony Giddens et al. in Introduction to Sociology. Only her cardboard packaging and some of her paints have been U.S.-made, exemplifying manufacturing in the "global commodity chain."

What a doll!

Q. At 1483 feet (452 meters) the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are the world's tallest, radio and TV antennas aside. How much weight is on the walls at the bottom? Could a mile-high (1.6 km) building be built? ­I. Hulk

 A. Reinforced concrete weighs about 160 lb/cubic foot, so above each square foot of wall-bottom surface stands 1483 x 160 lb = 237,000 lb, says Paul Campbell of Wisconsin's Beloit College, in his essay "On Size and Shape" in For All Practical Purposes: Mathematical Literacy in Today's World.

And that's not counting the tower's contents! The crushing strength of reinforced concrete is about 8.5 million lb/cubic ft, leaving some margin for the mile- high tower. In fact, U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright once proposed such a tower– never built– for Chicago. Other limiting factors: taller buildings bending dramatically with winds; the perils of fires as revealed by 9/11 and the World Trade Center towers; and traffic difficulties posed by tens of thousands of people living, working, or visiting there. Also for a mile-high structure, much more space must go to elevators, plumbing, conduits for heat and air- conditioning, plus in an emergency, people must walk down!

The architects of the Petronas Twin Towers maintain that the main limit is human physiology, says Campbell. Differences in air pressure from top to bottom impose a limit on elevator speed, meaning long travel times for "vertical commutes." So "human psychology might also present some limits."

Q. If you fire a gun straight up in the air, won't the bullet return to earth at the same speed it left the barrel? ­E. White

A. It would if fired skyward on the moon, but on earth air resistance would cap falling speed at a "terminal velocity" far less than muzzle velocity (350 mph vs. 1600 mph for an AK47 assault rifle). Still, this can be lethal, and people celebrating on a crowded city street with guns for noisemakers have been known to kill, says Florida Tech space scientist Jim Gering.

Now imagine shooting a bullet so high into the sky that by the time it comes back down the launch point has rotated with the turning earth, so the bullet falls far away. This angle of rotation varies with latitude– small at the poles, big at the equator– termed the "Coriolis effect."

Critically, this effect must be compensated for when firing longrange artillery, a fact not well understood during World War I when the Germans trained "Big Bertha"– range 75 miles– on Paris. The Allies countered with their own artillery, but missed due to the Coriolis effect.

Similarly, in a naval fight near the Falkland Islands, the British shots while well aimed were mysteriously landing about 100 yards to the left of German ships, adds Jearl Walker in Flying Circus of Physics. The gun sights had been set for Britain's northern latitude and had not been adjusted to take into account that the Coriolis effect acts in the opposite sense in the southern hemisphere.

Q. A drink or two will relax you, but what if you just think you had a couple of drinks? Suppose the host is serving vodka tonics but forgot to put in the vodka? ­S. Foley

A. This was an actual experiment by addictive behaviors specialist Alan Marlatt. Says the doc: "Disinhibition" (relaxation of inhibitions) will occur even under this placebo condition, leading to a "think drink" high. Corollary: For guys who get a bit sexually uptight at times, a think drink or two prepared by a lady friend might be just what the doctor ordered (breaks the ice without the physiological sexual downside to actual booze).

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