Sunday May 5, 2013

Q: The story of plastic began in the 1850s with the creation of Parkesine, by British inventor Alexander Parkes, and then 50 years later came Bakelite, by American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland, whose "Material of a Thousand Uses" was molded into telephones, home appliances, cameras, and, oh, 997 other shapes.

How has this story played out in our society today?

A: The world’s 7.2 billion people use some 600 billion pounds of plastics annually, with the market still growing by about 5 percent per year, says Rebecca Coffey in "Discover" magazine.

Plastics are made from l-o-n-g chain polymeric molecules, like strings of beads that can fold and curl, the most common being polyethylene in bags and bottles.

In one recent year, grocery bags alone numbered more than 100 billion in the U.S., enough if strung together to circle the Earth nearly 800 times.

As it turns out, bacteria and fungi are unable to digest most of the huge plastic molecules, "which is why the 31 million tons of plastic waste loaded into American landfills each year retains its Barbie doll and pink flamingo shapes pretty much forever," Coffey adds. Although they don’t easily biodegrade, some plastics do "photodegrade" as sunlight turns them brittle and causes breakage into small pieces that get swept into storm drains and out to sea.

Q: What’s the toughest instrument to play in anybody’s orchestra? Let’s hope you’re "first water" enough to know.

A: "Second fiddle," quipped famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, says Anu Garg in "A Word a Day."

In an orchestra, the concertmaster is the "first chair" violinist who sounds the notes from which all the others tune their instruments and take their cues when playing without a conductor. So the second violin (second fiddle) occupies a subordinate position.

Obviously, Garg explains, Bernstein wasn’t "commenting on the skill required to strum second violin in an orchestra, but on the difficulty for most of us to be in the secondary role."

Such "ordinal language," as Garg terms it, expresses "the deep human need to arrange things in order, to classify and enumerate."

Here are a few other characterizing concepts, in ascending order: "First water" (best grade or quality, as in a precious stone like a diamond), "third degree" (intensive questioning involving rough treatment), "fourth estate" (the journalistic profession), "fifth wheel" (useless), "sixth sense" (extrasensory perception), and "seventh heaven," hopefully needing no explanation.

Q: What do your "unsightly" hands have in common with car tires. Clue: Think traction.

A: Unsightly when the skin gets wrinkled and puckered after an extended soaking in dishwater or the bath, etc.

"This was long thought to be caused by osmosis-induced swelling in the outer layer of skin," reports "Science" magazine, but evolutionary biologist Tom Smulders of Newcastle University, United Kingdom, points out that the actual purpose of the pucker on hair-free skin of the hands, feet and toes has been unclear.

Unclear, that is, until 2011 when a team of neuroscientists hypothesized that "the wrinkles help enhance our grip on wet or submerged objects just as tire treads improve traction on wet roads."

Smulders decided to test out this "clever" hypothesis: He had volunteers pick up 45 submerged objects such as glass marbles and lead fishing weights and perform several precise hand movements.

According to the journal "Biology Letters," after a 30-minute soak, subjects with wet hands completed the tasks up to 12 percent faster than when their fingers hadn’t been soaked. Yet the wrinkly fingertips did not provide an advantage when handling dry objects.