Sunday May 6, 2012

Q: What does a serious researcher do to really start 'talking turkey'

A: Ethologist Joe Hutto went to live with wild turkeys to experiment with the imprinting phenomenon, in which young animals become attached to the first moving object they encounter and adopt it as their "mother," reported Jon White in "New Scientist" magazine.

"Wild turkeys are hard to come by," said Hutto, "so when I lucked upon some wild turkey eggs, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Once the imprinting occurred, though, Hutto realized this would be a 24-hour-a-day commitment: He had to be with the brood of poults before daylight so that when they flew down from the roost their "mother" was there waiting, and he had to remain until after dark or they’d try to follow him and be left on the ground, vulnerable to snakes and weasels.

During this time, Hutto learned to "talk turkey." In mastering the 25-30 calls researchers had already identified, he realized that the language was even more complex.

Q: Six "burning" curiosities: What is fire’s favorite planet? What’s a most colorful definition of a "bonfire"? Why are candle flames orange at the bottom and yellow at the top? Water of course puts out a fire, but when does fire actually make water? How did the ancient Greeks start a fire? What good may have come from the Great Fire of London, 1666, that destroyed almost 80 percent of the city?

A: Earth is the only known planet where fire can burn, because everywhere else there’s not enough oxygen, answers LeeAundra Keane in "Discover" magazine.

In photosynthesis, sunlight and heat create chemical energy in the form of wood or fossil fuel, then fire uses chemical energy to transform these into light and heat. So a bonfire is basically "a tree running in reverse."

Candle flames are blue at the bottom because that’s where they take up fresh air, and yellow at the top because the rising fumes partly suffocate the flame’s upper part.

To show that fire can make water, place a cold spoon over a candle and observe the water vapor condensing on the metal. The ancient Greeks started fire with concentrated sunlight; today, the Olympic torch is still ignited with a parabolic mirror that focuses solar rays.

Finally, the Great Fire of London may have ended an outbreak of bubonic plague that had killed 65,000 people the year before, with the fire "frying" the rats and fleas that carried the plague-causing bacterium.

Q: Teratogens are environmental agents that can cause harm to a human embryo or fetus: alcohol, tobacco, aspirin, etc. As the list of these continues to grow, moms-and-dads-to-be grow increasingly concerned.

In fact, what fraction of babies are born healthy, without abnormalities? a) 76 percent; b) 86 percent; c) 96 percent?

A: Thanks to the marvels of human biology, only 4 percent (c) of babies are born with abnormalities, and most of these are so slight as to have minimal impact on daily function, say V. Gregory Payne and Larry D. Isaacs in "Human Motor Development: A Lifespan Approach."

In the battle against these problems is a growing array of diagnostic prenatal tools -- ultrasound, amniocentesis -- not cures of course but welcome aids in alerting expectant parents and health-care professionals.

Q: Can you cite an unquestionable quartet of life’s "be-happy" acts?

A: Start with doing good deeds. Researchers at University of California, Riverside, found that performing acts of kindness makes people happier, says "Wired" magazine. Unless, that is, the acts become mere repetitive tasks.

Get exercise. Even just everyday movements like doing housework can contribute to healthy heart function. According to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, exercise has the same kind of physical effect on the brain as anti-depressants.

Get lots of hugs. Penn State scientists found that students who were hugged frequently were happier than those who weren’t.

Finally, consider getting a pet. Studies at Miami University showed that pets provide as much social support as other humans. 

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.