STRANGE with Bill and Rich: Animal Olympics


Q: In the wide-open Animal Olympics, where might we humans pick up a gold medal or two? a) sprinting; b) long-distance running; c) weight-lifting; d) jumping; e) throwing; f) gymnastics;

A: Forget sprinting, weight-lifting, gymnastics and jumping, since "pound for pound, a chimp is about four times as strong as a human, our jumping and gymnastic abilities are similarly weak, and we are sluggish sprinters," says Graham Lawton in "New Scientist" magazine. But there arE two areas where humans could contest for gold: long- distance running and throwing. At marathons, a well conditioned athlete can do 20 kilometers per hour (12 mph) for several hours, comparable to a wild dog, zebra, antelope or wildebeest.

"This talent of ours depends on speciaL adaptations of the feet, legs, hips, spine, even the rib cage. We are specialized for long-distance running, perhaps as an early adaptation for hunting or scavenging."

And while marathon glory is possible, the javelin gold is a certainty. Other primates can fling objects with force but only humans have the shoulders and wrists to launch a spear or rock with power and precision. Evolutionary biologist Paul Bingham has argued that our accurate overarm throw was the key factor in human evolution, allowing us to hunt for all-important protein, which in turn helped drive critical brain adaptations for fine-motor control,technology, language. Cooperation among humans led us toward civilization.

Concludes Lawton: "So give your amazing physique the credit it deserves. Human achievement is not the product of brains alone."

Q: This is not a trick question, but how fast does a 90-mile-per-hour (mph) fastball actually travel?

A: "Pressure drag" slows the flight of almost any ball moving faster than a snail's pace, says Louis A. Bloomfield in "How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life." As a result, baseball pitches slow significantly during their flight to home plate, and the faster they're thrown, the more speed they lose. So a 90-mph fastball moves at 90 mph only early in its flight, then loses about 8 mph along the way (a 70-mph curveball loses about 6 mph), giving it an average speed more like 86 mph.

A batted ball fares slightly better proportionally, or hitting a home run might become impossible. Still, the drag on horizontal velocity is so great that a long fly ball tends to drop almost straight down into the outfielder's glove.

Drag also limits the downward speed of a falling ball to about 100 mph -- called "terminal velocity."

"Even dropped from a plane, its velocity won't exceed this value," Bloomfield adds.

Q: How many words would you guess you learned between your first birthday and your high-school graduation?

A: Roughly 60,000 words is likely your vocabulary in your native tongue, though about half of what you say uses only the most common 150 words of all those you know, says David G. Myers in "Exploring Psychology: Ninth Edition."

That's 60,000 words over 17 years, or 3,500 per year; now dividing 3,500 words by 365 days in a year yields about 10 words you learned every day. "How you did it -- how those 3,500 words could so far outnumber the roughly 200 words your schoolteachers consciously taught you each year -- is one of the great human wonders," Myers marvels.

This astonishing human facility for words also extends to our effortlessly assembling them with near-perfect syntax and spewing them out three words a second in sentences we organize on the fly as we speak -- all the while adapting our utterances to our social and cultural context.

"Given how many ways there are to mess up, it's amazing that we can master this social dance."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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