Frantic fetus: Erratic events in utero



Q.  Imagine a camcorder set up to record all fetal movements right from the start. What would the movie show?M. Moore

 A. Lights, cameras, action– and plenty of it, letting Mom-to-be know that her baby's nervous system, skeleton, and muscles are indeed working, says David Bainbridge in Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy.

Fifth month for first felt movement is common, earlier for women who have already had a child. Ultrasound scans show lots of early embryonic activity, such as somersaults and hiccups, but fetal movements are quite erratic. Many Moms learn tricks to prompt their babies to perform on cue, such as a caffeine and sugar "hit" of chocolate, or coaxing by particular voices. But "in the last month of pregnancy, fetuses start to move less because they are running out of kicking space by this time." End of movie: A star is born!

Q. When a doctor was on trial for killing his wife in 1893, what did the DA do to seal the case?O. Simpson

A. In a celebrated 1893 case, physician Dr. Robert Buchanan was accused of killing his wife with morphine, but the medical examiner testified that the victim lacked the telltale "pinpoint pupils," says Dr. Joe Schwarcz in Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know (ECW Press). Under media pressure, the coroner ordered an exhumation, which indeed revealed a morphine dose sufficient to cause death. But what about the unconstricted pupils?

A witness recounted hearing Buchanan rail against an accused morphine poisoner and call him incompetent because all that had to be done to mask the pinpoint eyes was to apply belladonna, which would dilate the pupils. To prove this reversing effect, prosecutors applied atropine to a dying cat's eyes.

When this story surfaced, "another witness recalled Dr. Buchanan putting drops in his wife's eyes before she died. The good doctor was executed in the same electric chair in which the 'bungler' had met his end two years earlier."

Q. Prove your mathematical mettle by calculating how far an "ideal" bouncing ball will travel before it comes to rest, dropped from 10 feet high, and on each bounce rebounding exactly half its height.M. Miller

A. Let H = initial height = 10 feet. Then the first bounce will go to 1/2 H, the second bounce to 1/4 H, and so on. If you add together all the fractions, you get exactly 1 H, or 10 feet total for all the "up" bounces. But after each bounce up, the ball must fall the same distance, so add in another 10 feet. Finally, add in the 10 feet the ball fell before the first bounce, for a total of 30 feet. Presumably, ideal balls don't wear out, because this one must bounce an endless (infinite) number of times before coming to rest.

Q. Would modern mechanical clocks be any different if they had been invented in the Southern Hemisphere?C. Cuckoo

A. Clock predecessors were ancient sundials, whose shadows north of the equator move in a "clockwise" pattern, as we say it today. This is an accident of history since mechanical clocks originated in the Northern Hemisphere, but had they been invented in Argentina or Australia or South Africa and then spread round the world, clockwise and counterclockwise would be reversed.

Also following the sundial, early clocks had only one hand, says And it's no coincidence that 12 o'clock is at the top of the clock's face, because the sundial's shadow is pointing North (or near enough North) at that time.

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