Creepy kitties: Cats appeal to the dark side


 Q. The household cat more than the dog has spurred much folklore and superstition. Why might that be? –Garfield

 A. The human/cat symbiosis is ancient and deep, the humans providing home and hearth, the felines both varmint clearance and cuddly comfort, says Juliet Clutton-Brock in A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. And cats have changed little in thousands of years– unlike hyper-bred dogs– with wild ferals and housecats still close kin.

But there's another side to it– the cat as creature of the night, solitary hunter off in the Black Deep, capable of issuing "the most blood-curdling cries when it's fighting." Little wonder cats became associated with witchcraft, sorcery, sympathetic magic. As late as the 1700s in Britain, superstition held that a cat corpse in the walls of a building would keep it free of rats and mice, and indeed dried cats have been unearthed during old renovations, apparently killed and placed "in a life-like position, sometimes with a rat beside it or in its jaws."

This was thousands of years after Egyptians mummified "sacred" cats in enormous numbers. It was forbidden to kill one, and Herodotus tells how if a cat died in the house, the family shaved their eyebrows. But x-ray studies by the Natural History Museum showed many cats were killed as young kits, their necks broken, possibly sold as votive offerings.

So many mummies, in fact, that 20th-century excavators spread them as fertilizer, says Clutton-Brock, including 19-tons shipped to England to be ground up for the purpose.

Q. The most common cause of headaches– guess what it is. Think cold. Think surprising. Think delectable. –Ben and Jerry

 A. Life's loaded with headache triggers, from coughs to sex to drinking too much to coffee withdrawal to life stress to foods like chocolates or cured meats triggering migraine attacks, says Temple University neurologist Joseph Hulihan in the British Medical Journal. Some headaches are benign and some herald serious disease.

A clearly benign one is Ice Cream Headache– "brain freeze" to kids– coming within seconds of ingestion of cold foods or drinks and peaking half a minute to a minute later. As many as a third of the population have felt its "stabbing or aching pain," usually midfrontal. Probably this makes ICH the world's leading cause of head discomfort.

Various ICH researchers applied crushed ice to palates and found midline touch points triggering bilateral pain; others led to asymmetries. Hot weather was necessary.

Since touching the back of the palate produces this "referred pain," avoiding such contact will eliminate symptoms, says Hulihan. Nobody's recommending giving up ice cream.

Q. In Powerball, the U.S. multi-state lottery with jackpots of $100 million and more, just how bad are your odds of winning BIG? –J. Whittaker

A. Here you pick 5 numbers from 1 to 53, then a Powerball number from 1 to 42. To match all 6, imagine selecting in sequence: You have 1 chance in 53 of getting the first number (1/53), then 1/52, 1/51, 1/50, 1/49– finally 1/42 for the Powerball. Multiplying these fractions, then again by 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 because order doesn't matter, you get a staggering 1 chance in 120,526,770!

To put such numbers in perspective, you're far, far more likely to crash your car while driving to buy your ticket, and about as likely to have your name picked at random out of a 20-foot-high stack of telephone books (where your name is listed only once). Put another way, if you filled the 20 largest sports stadiums in North America (totaling 2 million seats) and gave everybody a random Powerball ticket, you would have to repeat this procedure about 40 times to have at least one likely winner.

If you and your descendants "invested" in the Powerball lottery every week, purchasing 10 plays for $10, you wouldn't reach a 50-50 chance of winning the jackpot until around the year 160000. Moreover, by that time, you'd have spent about $84 million for tickets (in current dollars) to win the jackpot.

But somebody's gotta win eventually, so why not your great-great-great-great-great... grandkid.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at