Q: A curiosity of the season: Which may well have been the greatest "snowman" of all time?
A: It was 1949 and cowboy Gene Autry was singing about "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," no doubt because his wife convinced him to do it, according to "Mental Floss" magazine. Reluctantly, Autry did the song, refusing to do more than one take, but what a take: The recording became a commercial juggernaut, which the country singer later followed up with a song about a magical snowman. Thus was "Frosty" born, with Autry this time deciding to get in on the merchandising. He and Sears Roebuck teamed up to place Frosty "on everything from toys to earmuffs. The gimmick worked. With their combined muscle, Sears and Autry sold more than a million copies of the single and countless toys and books, making Frosty not just history's greatest snowman but one of its savviest marketers."
Q: How much of your time do you spend talking with people? What about time spent at a computer?
A: To answer such questions, researchers have test subjects wear on their belts Electronically Activated Recorders, or EARs, says David G. Myers in "Exploring Psychology: Ninth Edition." In this way, psychologists Matthias Mehl and James Pennebaker obtained activity samplings at the University of Texas, going well beyond any scientific laboratory: "For up to four days, the EAR captured 30 seconds of the students' waking hours every 12.
Results: Students spent 28 percent of their time talking with someone compared to only 9 percent at a computer keyboard. One of EAR's funnier findings, as Myers puts it, is we humans laugh 30 times more often in social situations than in solitary situations; that's 30 out of every 31 laughs occurring in groups. Have you too noticed how seldom you laugh when alone?
Q: Mathematics, as you know, has its delights and its strangenesses. Try this: Spread out on the floor a map of the city where you live. How likely is it that some point on the map is sitting exactly over its corresponding real-world location?
A: According to L.E.J. Brouwer's celebrated "fixed-point" theorem of the early 1900s, it is certain that such a point exists. In fact, many different fields have benefitted from this powerful theorem of topology, including game theory and economics.
Oddly enough, the theorem also teaches us about coffee stirring: When a stirred cup of coffee comes to rest, at least one "molecule" of the liquid will return to exactly the place where it started out, before the stirring. It is said the insight leading to this theorem came from Brouwer's observations of a cup of coffee.
Q: Is "brain pain" an apt description of a headache?
A: It has a nice ring to it, but it's a wrong ring. Brain operations can be done without anesthetic because the brain has no pain-sensing nerves, reports James Carlton in "Discover" magazine. But many of the brain's attendant structures had better be well numbed, says neurosurgeon Dimitris Placantonakis: For example, the cranial incision on the skin will require it, as will the "dura mater," the thick membrane surrounding the brain just beneath the skull, which is filled with pain receptors. "In general, only everything underneath the dura is pain-free."
So why headaches?
"That's the million-dollar question," says neurosurgeon Johnathan Engh. "The common headache isn't well understood, though it's essentially pain in the head not caused by the brain." As with migraines, tension headaches, etc., the dura and other non-brain structures can be irritated, as can muscles and the sinuses, Placantonakis adds. Various tumors, traumas, even frozen ice cream can trigger pain receptors in the head and neck to send signals to the brain.
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