Strange But True: Facts not worth crying over


Q: Why cry?

A: Crying actually encompasses two very different processes: vocal wailing and tearing, says Sonia van Gilder Cooke in "New Scientist" magazine. Human babies are great at wailing because it's a very effective way of grabbing the attention of caregivers. Yet interestingly, for the first couple of weeks human babies don't shed tears because their tear glands haven't yet developed. Over time, a baby's crying becomes less vocal and more tearful, perhaps for sound evolutionary reasons: Wailing advertises vulnerability to everyone around, including predators. Thus, "once a child can move around, it is wiser to use the covert signal of tears."

Also, crying changes throughout our lives. Around adolescence, crying over physical pain is replaced with crying over emotional pain. "Many people also start to evidence moral crying, in reaction to acts of bravery, self-sacrifice, and altruism. Why we do this is still a mystery."

Another mystery is why we increasingly shed tears over things that are positive. One theory is that "tears of joy" do not so much reflect unalloyed happiness but are rather bittersweet, as events like weddings and holidays "remind us of the passage of time and mortality. This may be why children usually do not cry out of happiness; they don't yet make the association with sacrifice, loss and impermanence."

Q: When does your checkout line altruism peak and when does it wane? Let "Human Nature" be your guide here.

A: That's the journal that revealed the telling logic of such decisions, whether in a supermarket or elsewhere, reports "Discover" magazine. You're more likely "to allow a line-jumper if the benefit to the person is greater than your cost, such as waving someone with a few items ahead of you when you're pushing a full cart." Generally, this makes great sense in the cost-benefit scheme of things in society. But don't expect the same generosity if you're carrying a bottle of beer, the researchers found. Concludes the magazine, "Yes, even in the checkout line we're being judged."

Q: Astronomy buffs, are you up on a "yottowatt"?

A: We humans have long been fascinated by collisions, whether it's two cars colliding or two railroad cars or planes, the sky's the limit. Collisions often mean drama, damage, injury and a whole lot of energy released. How much? There may be thousands of watts, or millions, or billions, but for a "yottawatt" (YOT-ah-wat) it's a million billion billion watts, or 10 to the 24th power (24 zeroes), says Christopher Crockett in "Science News" magazine.

For the energy that blasted out from the collision of two black holes — detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — make that 36 septillion yottawatts, or 3.6 times 10 to the 49th power. "Rather than a flash of light, the power came out as ripples in spacetime. As the black holes merged, three suns' worth of mass transformed into gravitational wave energy in a few milliseconds." ("Physical Review Letters")

As Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne explained it, the collision "created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time," yielding "50 times more than all of the power put out by all of the stars of the universe put together." Says Crockett, "Now that's a lotta watts!"

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