Strange But True: Consider the real value of the web

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Q: Tallying the overall "net" value of the World Wide Web, does it come out positive or negative?

A: Some innovations in life are almost inarguably good, such as certain medical advances. Others have a more varied picture, such as automobiles providing mobility but at a cost of an annual 1.3 million deaths on the roads. And perhaps one of the most stunningly varied involves the World Wide Web, says Vaclav Smil in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine.

Certainly the Web contains a wealth of information, in every language and on almost every subject — so much so that trips to the library now seem very last century. Today, without any effort at walking or lifting books, you can have an electronic copy of the information right in the comfort of your home. Yet, "when I checked the first 30 websites in my 2005 Oxford book 'Creating the Twentieth Century,' I discovered that 19 of them (63.3 percent) were defunct Who ever heard of a library losing nearly two-thirds of a collection in a single decade!"

Sure, the Web lets you order the oddest consumer items directly from anywhere in the world — if you don't mind getting your Visa card information hijacked in the process by a teenager in Latvia. And "it contains practically every great poem ever written in scores of languages — but also the outpourings of semi-educated, self-appointed, and endlessly opinionated, logorrheic bloggers."

As Smil concludes: "Are these positive or negative considerations when trying to net the value of the Web? Or are they the very essence of its existence?"

Q: Why does human excrement smell so bad?

A: Because it's full of bacteria we don't want to ingest, answers human evolutionary biologist Peter Ellison of Harvard University. We've evolved the ability to detect bacteria by odor and register that odor with the emotion of disgust. The same holds for rotting food. Interestingly, mothers often report that breast-feeding infants do not have stinky diapers until after supplemental foods are introduced, at which point the bacterial load in the excrement changes dramatically.

Q: When they talk about the "circle of life," who's doing the talking, and what's the circularity all about?

A: Some astronomers may talk this way, referring to the close-to-circular orbits of planets with a high likelihood of harboring life, says Ken Croswell in "Scientific American" magazine. Circularity is good because then the planet doesn't go so close to the star and get overheated; an elongated elliptical orbit, on the other hand, means long periods of extreme cold that are bad for any potential life forms. "The more planets a star has, a recent study found, the more circular the orbits tend to be. Because planets on circular orbits do not move toward or away from their star, their climates may be stable enough to foster advanced life."

In our own solar system, the sun's eight or nine planets have fairly circular paths. Earth's orbit, for instance, has an eccentricity of just 1.7 percent (with 0 percent being a perfect circle and near 100 percent an extreme ellipse). Even Mercury's and Pluto's oval-shaped orbits (21 percent and 25 percent) seem tame when compared to many planets orbiting other stars, where eccentricities can reach 60, 70, even 80 percent.

Such wild worlds tend to be in solar systems with only a planet or two, say astronomers Mary Anne Limbach and Edwin L. Turner of Princeton University. In contrast, solar systems with four or more planets feature moderately round orbits. Adds planetary scientist Jack Lissauer of the NASA Ames Research Center, "This newfound correlation makes sense because planets on circular orbits do not interfere much with one another."

So let's hear it for this special circle of life.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at sbtcolumn@gmail.com


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