Let it fly: Spiders cast web to the wind


Q. Ever notice those spider webs stretched between a shrub and a tree? How do spiders get across to put up the first string to start the process? –E. B. White

A. It's a breeze! Orb-weaving spiders release a strand of sticky silk from their spinnerets, letting it blow in the wind until this "bridge thread" sticks to something perhaps quite a distance away– the arachnid equivalent of throwing a grapnel, says University of California-Riverside entomologist Doug Yanega. This is essentially the same trick spiders use to get airborne, called "ballooning," except that they don't let go.

Q. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio's amazing 56-consecutive-game hitting streak has stood as the record since 1941. What are the chances of someone breaking it? –B. Bonds

A. Consider: The 10 highest lifetime batting averages are all around .350, and these players averaged close to 4 official at-bats per game and typically played about 2,000 games. Running .350 through a computer simulation for an entire career of 2000 games and then doing this for a million such careers show the likelihood of a 56-game-or-more hitting streak to be only 3 chances out of 10,000. Put another way, you would need 2,500 such careers to reach a 50-50 chance of repeating Joe D.'s streak. For players with averages more like .325, this falls to around 1 in 25,000, with 17,000 careers needed for even-money.

There have been only 35-40 players in the 100+ years of baseball with lifetime averages of .325 or better (DiMaggio himself had a .325 lifetime average, batting .357 for his miraculous 1941 season). So unless the gods of chance hurl a thunderbolt, you can bet it will be many thousands of years before some hot-hot-hotshot steps to the plate a few hundred times and bests Joltin' Joe's "streak of streaks," arguably the most improbable record in all of sport.

Q. Armies throughout history have "let loose the dogs of war." When the Nazis stationed along the Maginot Line did this during World War II, hoping to use dogs as messengers, were they successful? –R. Tin Tin

A. Fleet and silent, the dogs proved almost impossible to shoot by French soldiers trying to staunch the information flow. Then one French dog handler tried an experiment, releasing a small female messenger dog who had just gone into heat, says University of British Columbia psychologist Stanley Coren in What Do Dogs Know?

As per her training, she returned to her post later that evening– trailing behind her a dozen normally obedient German Army dogs "who had discovered something much more powerful than their military training."

Q. Doing good things for other people is obviously good for them, but how about for you? Is there a concrete answer to this sort of question? –M. Teresa

A. See if this is concrete enough: One study of 2,000 Presbyterians showed better mental health for the help- givers than for the receivers, says Stephen Post, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Case Magazine.

Also, when reviewing essays nuns had written in the 1930s, neurologists found that those nuns who had expressed positive emotions outlived the others by an average of 10 years and suffered less dementia.

A third study showed that volunteerism reduces depression among young people, and that the volunteers did better in school and got into better colleges. "With generous behavior," says Post, "people have fuller lives, deeper self-esteem, and a more creative engagement of their capacities. It's paradoxical but true: It's good to be good."

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