Q: If one cat has 20 toes, do five cats have 100? But first, are they all polydactyl cats? –M.E. Ow
A: "Polydactyl" means "many digits," and in a housecat means more than the normal 18 toes (5 + 5 in front, counting the 2 dewclaws, and 4 + 4 in back). Thus a 20-toed cat would certainly exhibit polydactylism, not at all uncommon, though in show breeds can be regarded as a disqualifying feature.
This is a dominant mutation, with an estimated 40 to 50 percent of kittens sharing parental polydactyly. So if the other four cats in question are among 20-Toe's progeny, 100 or more might not be a bad guess, especially since some polydactyls have 7 toes up front, 6 in back, or different numbers all around, says the online Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
One male cat named Mickey Mouse reportedly had 32 toes, at 8 per foot, says British cat welfare worker and freelance writer Sarah Hartwell. A condition known as double-paws can also occur, where "each paw is actually two fused mirror-image paws." One cat was said to have all 4 paws doubled, so when it sat at attention, "It had 8 paws in a row."
P.D. cats have also been dubbed "mitten cats," "thumb cats," or "Hemingway cats." The novelist was reportedly once given one, and dozens of its descendants wandering his old Key West estate today are polydacts ("for whom the toes are told").
Q: If you really know your classic art top to toe, try to cite two instances of human polydactyly (extra digits) in the paintings of Raphael. –B. Berenson
A: One is the case of six toes on the left leg of St. Joseph in "The Marriage of the Virgin," done in 1504, reports the British Medical Journal (bmj.com). This is probably deliberate, as Raphael was attentive to detail, and St. Joseph is the only barefooted figure in the painting.
This well-formed digit-plus, off the fifth toe, corresponds to a "postaxial polydactyly of type A." This relatively rare anomaly occurs in but 1 in 630-to-3300 live births among whites, more among blacks.
A second instance is the infant John the Baptist gazing at the Christ Child in "La belle Jardiniere" (1507). Since this type of polydactyly is an autosomal dominant trait (not sex-linked), "We may hypothesize that the two people who served as models for Raphael were relatives, probably father (St. Joseph) and son (the infant)."
Q: What's the secret to a good karate chop, that lets mere flesh and blood break a cement block? –Bruce Lee
A: Make that flesh, blood, and bone, which become like a knife blade as the hand is projected downward at 30+ mph for an accomplished black belt, says Curtis Rist in Discover, reporting on the work of physicist Michael Feld and others. At that speed, a 1.5-pound hand can deliver a wallop of 630 pounds, plenty more than the 430 required to split a typical concrete slab 1 1/2 inches thick.
But don’t try this, don’t try this, as serious bone and nerve injury can result. Both force and finesse are essential to a successful chop, requiring years of training and discipline. Such force is generated also by a good boxer, but a punch won't break the block because of follow-through damping vibrations. A punch is designed to knock an opponent down, to jar his brain, not crack his skull.
By pulling off at the last instant, his fist touching the block for fewer than 5 milliseconds– the finesse– the black belt sets the block to oscillating rapidly. It's like tweaking a rubber band, said Feld, coauthor of "The Physics of Karate" (Scientific American). When the board or block reaches its elastic limit, it starts to yield, and breaks.
Fortunately, notes Feld, bone can withstand 40 times more force than concrete before reaching its limit, and hands even more than that, helped along by cushioning skin, muscles, ligaments, etc. "A well-kicked foot can absorb about 2,000 times as much as concrete." But don’t try this!
(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org)