Sunday July 8, 2012

Q: What’s a most surprising way to predict whether your marriage is likely to last?

A: Take a look at your spouse’s early photographs from youth or college and check out his or her "smile intensity" and hope to see a beaming smile rather than a faint or ironic one, suggest DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein et al., as reported by David G. Myers in "Psychology: Tenth Edition."

As the Jewish proverb goes, "As at 7, so at 70," stressing the continuity of who we are. In fact, the research showed that "none of the people who fell within the top 10 percent of smile strength had divorced, while within the bottom 10 percent of smilers, almost one in four had had a marriage that ended."

Yet the researchers emphasize that the cause of the correlation is unclear.

"Maybe smiling represents a positive disposition toward life," Hertenstein offers. "Or maybe smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a greater likelihood of a long- lasting marriage." Or it could just be that smilers tend to have a larger support network to bolster marital stability.

Yet this is not to say that early faint smilers will later experience marital misfortune, Myers concludes. "Happily for them, life is a process of becoming."

Q: How cold is outer space? Can anything be colder?

A: There’s something much colder -- brrrr! -- than outer space’s 2.7 Kelvin (-270 degrees Celsius), which is the average temperature far from any stars, says Duke University physicist Henry Greenside. Scientists have attained about 0.000,000,000,01 Kelvin (100 billionth of a degree) for a cloud of atoms trapped inside laser beams. By comparison, outer space is a heat wave.

Future researchers will create colder temperatures but never down to "absolute zero" (0 Kelvin)

"The reason is that cooling requires some kind of ‘refrigerator,’ and no real refrigerator is perfectly efficient, so it will inevitably generate a little heat -- defeating absolute zero."

Q: If you spent an overnight at a major league baseball ballpark, what unusual sights might you notice?

A: Not much except the local rats that come out to exert their nocturnal preeminence on the premises, says Dorothy Seymour Mills in "Chasing Baseball: Our Obsession with Its History, Numbers, People and Places."

Taking a page from the very unusual, journalist Rob Neyer and author Bill Nowlin, a Boston Red Sox authority, decided to spend the whole night at Fenway Park, "just to see what it felt like."

But beyond the noises of the cleanup crew and the scurrying of rats, Nowlin felt that nothing much happened.

"Yet boasting to fellow fans later about their adventure, they found the common reaction to be, ‘Wow! I wish I’d done that!’ "

Q: You likely use word-location indexing and PageRank every day, but do you know what they are?

A: They’re algorithms or mathematical procedures at the heart of web searching, elegant examples of computer science, says John MacCormick in "9 Algorithms that Changed the Future."

Search engines need to index billions of web pages efficiently, then must rank them to identify the few best matches. The indexing works much like a book index, giving an alphabetical list of words and the web pages where each word occurs.

But importantly, the location of the word on each web page is also saved. For multi-word queries, this word-location indexing allows the search engine to determine how closely grouped the words are on a page without having to access and rescan the page. And if all the query words are close together, then that page should be ranked high.

Perhaps the most beautiful web-search algorithm is PageRank, named both for its function and for Google’s cofounder Larry Page. PageRank keeps track of the number of incoming links (hyperlinks) for each web page, with more links signifying greater importance and authority.

And if the links coming into a page are themselves of high authority, this should add to the page’s ranking. Says MacCormick: "Without the core idea of PageRank, most web-search queries would drown in a sea of thousands of matching but irrelevant web pages.

PageRank is indeed an algorithmic gem that allows a needle to rise effortlessly to the top of its haystack."

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