Fossil muscle: Old jocks get results

 

DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

BY BILL SONES AND RICH SONES, PH.D.

Q. Is it easier for a 10-year-old or a healthy 100-year-old to add muscle mass? -A. Schwarzenegger

A. Yo, seniors! Take heart, for research shows it's never too late to pump iron and gain at least modest strength, say V. Gregory Payne and Larry D. Isaacs in Human Motor Development: A Lifespan Approach. Moreover, you stand a better chance of adding muscle mass than does a prepubescent child, who likely can benefit more than you in gaining neural adaptations to activate muscle tissues for improved coordination.

So youth surely has its advantages, but age does not need to bow out prematurely– just don't overdo it, check with your doctor first, and follow professional guidelines in preparation for those Centenarian Olympics.

Q. Just how desperate would your territorial predicament be if you were promised only as much land as could be enclosed by the skin of an ox? That was the story of Phoenician Princess Dido, c. 900 B.C.E. -J. Dryden

A. Forced to flee from her ruthless brother, she went by ship to Africa where she tried to buy land from a local ruler, who rendered the strange ox bargain, says John A. Adam in Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World. According to Virgil's Aeneid, Dido understood the "isoperimetric problem"– that of all perimeters, a circle will enclose maximum area. (From The Parsimonious Universe, by S. Hildebrandt & A. Tromba)

She used a straight part of the Mediterranean as one boundary, then cut the hide into thin strips to form a semicircular enclosure. If she had not used the coastline, then a circular perimeter would have been best. Picture the ox like a big cow, and approximate a big body "box" of 4 ft high x 2 ft wide x 5 ft long, yielding about 80 sq ft of hide.

Assuming she cut strips as thin as 0.1 inch wide, then the combined length of the strips would be about 10,000 ft. With the radius of the semicircle about 3000 ft and the sea boundary about 6000 ft, she managed to capture 0.5 sq mi, or equivalent to a square of land 0.7 mi by 0.7 mi!

Says Adam: "Princess Dido knew what she was doing!"

Q. The old myth about storks bringing babies has been repeated so often there must be something to it. True? -U. G. Turner

A. In old Dutch villages, residents noticed that the more storks there were in the area, the more human babies were born. Before long, the charming notion grew that birds and babies were linked together.

Here was a classic example of "illusory correlation" with uncertain causality: If birds and babies went hand in hand, there were three possible explanations: (1) the birds were bringing the babies (2) the babies were attracting the birds (3) both were related to a third, hidden factor.

Obviously, 1 and 2 wouldn't fly. The hidden factor, it turned out, was rooftops: More houses with rooftops meant more people and so more babies. More rooftops also meant more birds, which nested on the high, safe, level surfaces. When rooftops were redesigned, or people moved into apartment dwellings, the baby-stork correlation disappeared.

Other suggested hidden factors: Heat: Where there were babies, a fire was kept going all day long, so the birds stopped by for warmth (Using Statistics to Look for Relationships). Seasonality: Human births are more frequent at certain times of the year, and these just happen to coincide with stork nestings (psychologist Carol Tavris in The Los Angeles Times).

So there was logic to the old myth– bad logic!

Q. When German biologist August Freidrich Weismann cut off the tails of 22 generations of mice, he discovered their offspring all still had full-sized tails. Why did he bother? -F. Wife

A. To demonstrate the difference between inherited and "acquired" characteristics in genetics. But, says Isaac Asimov in his Book of Facts, if Weismann had stopped to think, he'd have realized that "more than 22 generations of Jewish boys have been circumcised... and each newborn Jewish boy comes into the world with a full-sized foreskin."

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