Frogfall: It's raining fish and fowl


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. From a Cincinnati reader: "Can anyone yet explain the fish rain in Honduras and the frog rain in other parts of the world? Could it ever literally rain cats and dogs?" –P. Michaels

A. Fish, frogs, and strange debris such as books, letters, a box of chicken, and an ice-encrusted turtle have reportedly fallen from the sky during rain and storms, says Keith C. Heidorn, the Weather Doctor and author of The BC Weather Book. Most likely a tornado or waterspout lifts them to great heights within a thunderstorm cloud. Thus fish could easily be carried many miles and dropped on an unsuspecting population. Another possibility is that large waves from hurricanes launch the fish up into strong winds which ferry them afar. In extreme conditions, people, cows, even vehicles have become airborne, so a dog or cat would be easy.

Q. On the one hand are Birale, Saami, Yup'ik, Livonian, Enets and Narau; and on the other hand are Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and English. What are the two hands here? –M. D. Berlitz

A. The first are a few of the world's many endangered languages, often with fewer than 50 speakers, says Daniel Comiskey in the Indiana (University) Alumni Magazine.

The second includes the largest languages, with maybe hundreds of millions of speakers, dubbed predator languages because they swallow up the littles. Languages today are dying at the rate of about one every month, but number of speakers is not always the critical issue. In fact, only 20% of the world's 6,000 languages have 100,000 speakers or more. To survive, a language needs to be used in everyday life by a community of committed speakers, who speak it with their children, says New York University linguist Gregory Guy.

What stands to be lost when a language dies is the richness of diversity, says Mark Abley in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. For example, endangered Karbadian, of the Caucasus Mountains, has 48 consonants and 0-3 vowels. In Boro of India, "onsra" means "to love for the last time." Mohawk is polysynthetic, where "I am currently bringing the sugar to someone" becomes "tkhetsikhe'tenhawihten:nihs."

It's told that 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt went looking to study the Atures people of Venezuela. Led by a neighboring tribe through the isolated village by torchlight, he was taken to the cage of a parrot, which recited its limited vocabulary, says Comiskey. "Thus, the last speaker of the Atures language was a bird."

Q. That new drug you're taking that just hit the market. Guess who's been included in the experimental test group? –T. Leary

 

A. You– because the testing process probably isn't over, says Robert Matthews in "A Risk We Have to Swallow" from NewScientist magazine. For a decent chance of uncovering side effects that show up in 1-in-1000 people, the clinical trials should as a rule include 8 million recruits. Yet "most clinical trials involve fewer than 1000 patients."

While this is often big enough to show a drug's effectiveness, it may fail to detect side effects even when occurring in as many as 1-in-every-10 people. The result is a drug like Vioxx that winds up being used for a while, then is withdrawn as the data accumulate.

"What's beyond question is that clinical trials are typically far too small to detect worrying levels of side effects," Matthews says. So society can wait for years until countless small clinical trials assure a new drug's safety, or go forward, carefully monitoring benefits vs. risks. In this sense, we all become volunteer guinea pigs when we newly medicate ourselves.

Q. What's the trick to ear wiggling– V. VanGogh

A. No trick at all. It's in the genes and runs in families, like the ability to curl one's tongue, says R. Steven Ackley, communication disorders specialist at Gallaudet University, and a wiggler. The three extrinsic muscles of the ear are probably becoming vestigial in humans. Moving the ears and tightening the forehead was probably part of early man's bluffing challengers for a mate, much like other primates still do. To be sure, we do not need to orient our pinnas toward a sound source the way wolves can do. Some of us (throwbacks) can still contract at least the "auricularis posterior," which pulls the pinnas back.

"But give our species another hundred thousand years or so, and there may be no more Stan Laurels among us," Ackley says.

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