Return to sender: Your boomerang will come back

 DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. What makes a properly thrown boomerang come back? –C. Drake

 A. Some 20,000 years ago, stone agers in what is now Poland used boomerangs for hunting, and these weren't supposed to come back, says Cambridge University's Hugh Hunt in his online Unspinning the Boomerang. Their odd hockey-stick or banana shapes and weight distributions allowed them to be thrown great distances, with a wobble and unpredictability that made them harder for a bird or kangaroo to dodge. Trial and error resulted in some boomerangs that did curve around and come back– used for play or sport.

A boomerang, with "arms" shaped like airplane wings or airfoils, curves because it behaves like a gyroscope. The spin causes the wings to move through the air at different speeds and to generate uneven lift. The resulting twisting moment causes the boomerang to "precess" and move in a circular path. "This is a bit like a baseball pitcher's curve ball where the spin generates lift which pushes the ball sideways, but the real difference is that a baseball does not behave as a gyroscope. Just as well: You wouldn't want a 90-mph baseball coming back at you!"

Q. To a good-looking stranger at a bar: "Hey, I'm feeling psychic. If your street address doesn't begin with a 1, 2, or 3, drinks are on me." Are you gonna get lucky?

A. Don't need much luck. Though you'd think that covering only three digits out of a possible nine would give you a 1-in-3 chance, this ignores "Benford's Law." It's a surprising fact that there are more addresses beginning with a 1, 2 or 3 than all the rest put together. Just open a phone book at random and you can verify this for yourself: Beginning digit 1–about 30% of addresses, 2–18%, 3–12%, 4–10%, 5–8%, 6–7%, 7–6%, 8–5%, 9–5% (American Scientist magazine).

So your address gambit will win about 60 percent of the time, far better than the 33 percent your bemused subject might suspect.

Why the numbers work out this way is still not well understood. But as physicist Frank Benford pointed out, the pattern obtains wherever there are lists of "amorphous" data, like addresses, stock market quotations, populations of cities, areas of rivers, heights of mountains, etc.

Next challenge: The stranger's cell phone number!

Q. Is that car you drive a "she," a "he" or an "it"? How about your computer? The nation you live in? That baby being pushed in a carriage along the street? –J. Brinkley

A. Many nouns are given variable gender, depending on whether they're thought of in an intimate way, such as vehicles or countries– "she can reach 60 in 5 seconds," "France has increased her exports"– says David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language."

Pets are often "he" or "she" though an anonymous baby may become "it." It is not obvious why some entities are personified and others not, or why female personifications are used with guns, tanks, and trucks. Certainly anger, aggression and other typical gender stereotyping are not the clues here.

"The only consistently male trend in personification which the author has heard in recent years is in computing, where word processors and other devices are widely given male pet names and pronouns."

Remember Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the computer Deep Thought, when asked about Life, the Universe and Everything replied, " 'Yes, there is an answer. But,' he added, 'I'll have to think about it.' " (His answer, it turned out, was "42.")

Q. When did the kiss get added to the human romance repertoire? –G. Simmons

A. Actually, kissing is older than humanity itself, says anthropologist David Givens in Love Signals. Many mammals "kiss" before mating as a way of stimulating a partner's maternal instincts. "Dolphins nibble, cats give playful bites, dogs lick faces or nuzzle flanks, and chimps press lips in their courtship."

Lips evolved to create an airtight seal around a nipple, and the sucking reflex gave rise to the kiss. Every society uses some form of kiss or nuzzle gesture in courtship, including not only lip-to-lip but lip-to-tongue, tongue-to-tongue, nose-to-nose, and cheek-to-cheek, plus an exotic assortment of biting and face-rubbing.

"Just as adults feel compelled to press their noses against a baby's buttery face, so lovers touch faces to reassure each other they mean no harm," says Givens.

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

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