Trash talk: Be careful what you toss


Q. How much could someone tell about you from a look into your garbage? Are you rich or poor, city dweller or suburbanite, wasteful or ecologically minded, etc.? –T. Frederick

A. "Garbology," the scientific study of garbage, was first developed some 30 years ago by the University of Arizona's William Rathje. Garbology can reveal a lot about your consumption habits, whether you eat lots of fresh produce or mostly from a can, how much "junk food" you consume, how much you drink (which may not comport with how much you say you do– what you tell a pollster at the front door may be contradicted by your garbage going out the back).

What medicines or drugs do you use? Do you own a computer? A cat or dog? Are there diaper-dousing babies in the household? Your observant garbage collector may know more about you than you'd guess. On a grander scale, archaeologists scrutinize discards of a culture as a barometer of its use of resources and ecological health: For instance, the average American today produces twice the waste of someone in Europe, 3-4 times someone in Japan, 40 times someone in India!

In general, the garbage of city dwellers is littered with take-out food containers, particularly for single males, says Dickinson College environmental studies professor Mike Heiman. Suburbanites may throw away lots of yard waste if they don't compost; country residents often burn their garbage in backyard barrels; the wealthy have gardeners to truck off this sort of trash. The rich also discard (or recycle) more fine wine bottles and imported beer containers. "As for the rest of us– well, Pabst Blue Ribbon and the other cheaper domestic brews rule," says Heiman.

Q. Bears can hibernate, as can ground squirrels, some species of hummingbirds, etc. So why not people? What does biological science have to say on the subject? –A. Bulger

A. Many animals undergo periods of extreme metabolic slowdown, or torpor, where heart rate and breathing slow, body temperature plummets, reports the journal Science. Bears of course do this seasonally, hummingbirds daily.

Now in a fascinating breakthrough, scientists are using hydrogen sulfide gas to induce torporlike states in yeast, worms, flies, and even common lab mice– the first "suspended" mammals and ones that don't normally undergo torpor. When room air was laced with 80-parts-per-million of the gas, which stinks like rotten eggs, the mice entered a hibernation-like state, says Dr. Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Within minutes they stopped moving and seemed to lose consciousness, their breathing dropped from 120/minute to 10/minute, body temperature from 37C to 11C. Then when the gas was shut off, the mice returned to normal, without apparent ill effects.

Such torpor in people, if possible, might prevent further damage after a stroke or heart attack, says Roth, or buy time for a patient awaiting a vital-organ transplant.

Q. Are there any foods of the present or past eaten by peoples of all cultures of the world? –J. Child

A. Speaking most generally, greens, berries, roots, or maybe meat would be answers, says Bruce Kraig, Roosevelt University historian and President, Culinary Historians of Chicago. These were primary types of food going all the way back to early hominids, and remain so.

Regarding prepared foods, the answer is bread, or the equivalent– ranging from wheat-barley-rye-oats flat or raised breads to corn-based tortillas and rice wrappers for Asian dumplings. If there's one kind of raw or wild food that was universally eaten from earliest humans to now, it would be insects, says Kraig.

"These are consumed both as a standard menu item in some parts of the world and also by us Westerners who regard creepie crawlies with disgust," Kraig says. "Our processed foods have officially allowable insect parts in them, so that all of us probably eat about 1/2 lb per year."

Then again, says Texas A&M University food scientist Mark R. McLellan, if you really think about it, covering all humankind in all locations past and present, the one food without question would be mother's milk.

Q. "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" Put another way, how does the "butterfly effect" help explain your local weatherperson's annoying propensity for getting the forecast wrong? –P. Michaels

A. Scientist Edward Lorentz's quote points to so-called "chaotic" systems where a very small change of input can bring about a very large change of output, or result, says Paul Hewitt in Conceptual Physics.

Picture a turbulent stream of water where you let a piece of wood float downstream; there's no predicting exactly where it will end up. Now release two identical pieces of wood just slightly apart and they will wind up vastly far apart soon after. That's a "chaotic" situation, very different from that of predicting where a planet or launched rocket will be at a particular time.

Of course weather is one of those chaotic systems, with the myriad varying conditions on Day 1 making predicting the weather on Day 2 or 3 or 4 an extremely iffy proposition. So don't blame your weatherperson, blame those butterflies.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at