Don't panic: The halo you see is yours


Q.  Where's the scariest place you might see a halo around someone's head? How about your own head?T. V. Mary

A. The story is told of an 18th century climber scaling Mount Brocken, highest peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, when suddenly he glanced up and saw before him in the haze a human figure with a halo around its head, says Larry Gedney in the Alaska Science Forum. "Understandably startled by this apparition, he lost his hold and fell to his death."

Called the "Specter of the Brocken," such apparitions have long been reported. It's now known that what's actually being seen is a shadow of the climber, surrounded by colored rings in the mist. But the shadowy figure often looks bigger than it really is– since distance is hard to judge– i.e. a haloed giant! (This rainbow-like full 360-degree circle– called a "glory"– is more commonly seen today by frequent fliers who spot it around the shadow of their plane on clouds below.)

In a less scientific era, says Philip Laven in his online "Glories and the Brocken Specter," it's easy to see how people might have interpreted these rings as a divine sign. "Perhaps the idea that saints have halos around their heads originated from reports of glories."

"The bottom line is," says Gedney, "if you're camping in the high mountains when the sun's behind you, there's a mist or cloud in front of you, and you see a ghostly figure with a halo approaching, don't panic. It's only you."

Q. From a Williamstown, Mass., reader: "In the movies, whenever James Bond goes to the casinos in Monte Carlo, roulette seems to be the game that everybody's playing. Whenever I go to casinos here in the U.S., however, hardly anyone appears to be playing roulette. What's up?" ­R. Redford

A. Quite simply, roulette is a better deal in Europe than America, says Williams College economist Victor Matheson. In Europe, roulette consists of a wheel with 37 numbers from 1-36 alternately colored red or black plus a number 0 in green. American roulette wheels have 38 numbers which include both a 0 and a 00.

In Europe, a player who places a $1 bet on red or black has a 48.6 percent chance of winning $2 for an "expected" return of 97.3 cents (18/37 times $2). In the U.S. the same bet has only 47.4 percent of paying off for an expected return of 94.7 cents (18/38 times $2).

That extra three cents may not sound like much of a difference, but for the U.S. player it amounts to almost double the loss, on average, for every dollar wagered! Similarly, the more exotic bets in roulette return less in the U.S.

"Little wonder that, among table games, European casinos take a much larger percentage of revenues from roulette while American casinos earn their money from blackjack and similar games," Matheson says.

Q. When human egg meets human sperm, it's not 50/50 as to boy/girl in the making– not even close. Can you supply the numbers to the unfolding saga of the disappearing males? ­G. Steinem

A. Actually, 126 male embryos begin life for every 100 females, says Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., in The Roots of the Self. Maybe the sperm carrying the boy-begetting Y chromosomes are better swimmers and get to the egg first. But speed does not equal hardiness: the XY (male) unit is far more likely to perish in the womb, bringing the ratio of actual births down to 105 boy babies for every 100 girl babies.

After birth, the trend continues as more males die in infancy, more males die in childhood, and males die earlier in adulthood, until by age 100 the original situation is reversed and a 5-to-1 female-to-male ratio prevails.

Q. Has modern munitions science finally got the secret to "Greek Fire," terror weapon of the Byzantine Empire used from the 7th century to the 9th century to defend Constantinople successfully against its many attackers? ­D. Rumsfeld

A. No, this is an authentic "lost weapon," reports Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts. "All we know is that Greek Fire (liquid flame) burned all the more fiercely when wet, and it could be floated toward the enemy's wooden ships."

Writers of antiquity referred to flaming arrows, pots, and incendiary brews of pitch, naphtha, sulfur, and charcoal, says Encyclopedia Britannica. But true Greek Fire was evidently petroleum based. It could be hurled in firepots or pumped through mounted tubes– early flamethrowers. Amazing its victims, it was a bizarre fire that could be projected downward, says It struck a panic as it seemed to "follow swimmers in the waters, and start conflagrations that could not be quenched."

One of the top military secrets in history, the "recipe" was handed down from emperor to emperor, surrounded by trusted eunuchs.

Greek Fire's exact ingredients died with the Byzantines.

As these things go, G.F.'s time had run out anyway, says Texas A&M historian James Bradford, as new long-range artillery increased the distance at which battles were fought. Now the once-terrorizing fire would just burn out harmlessly before it could be delivered to its target.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at