STRANGE BUT TRUE
Q. How would you feel if you discovered a couple of homosapiens featured in one of the cages at your local zoo?
A. That’s a bit how the editors of Scientific American magazine felt when they observed the encagement of so many species with humanlike traits, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins and porpoises, as expressed in “Free Willy and All His Pals: Orcas and Elephants Are Smart, Social and Way Too Large for Captivity.” For example, orcas and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, suggesting they too possess a “concept of self.” In addition, they are as dependent on companionship as we are, sometimes following descendants through life for as many as four generations. “When a clan member dies, elephants mourn — there is no other word for it.” In Kenya, elephants from various families tended to a single ailing matriarch, and even after her death, they repeatedly caressed her body. Other elephants were observed sprinkling their dead with soil or covering them with leaves.
Captivity takes a heavy toll on such smart and sensitive animals. “Zoo elephants die young, often after becoming obese and infertile. They frequently develop psychological tics such as swaying and head bobbing. ... Captive orcas become unusually aggressive, biting and ramming one another as well as trainers,” perhaps over-stressed to the point of becoming psychotic. Yet wild orcas have never killed anyone.
The editors concluded: Though some confined individuals may not survive if released, “the ones that can be, should be, and captive breeding programs should be terminated.”
Q. What’s possibly the latest in eyewear technology to help train hockey players to see the puck amid all the muscled bodies and the pandemonium of an excited crowd?
A. Players can follow the tiny, wily puck by using the Nike SPARQ Vapor Strobe, whose lenses quickly switch between transparency and opaqueness, producing stroboscopic visual conditions that allow the wearer to see only snippets of action, says Sarina Tracy in Photonics Spectra magazine. When neuroscientist Stephen Mitroff, of Duke University, tested the device on the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, he divided them into two groups: the control group showed no change, but those who wore the eyewear had “improved vision, visual attention and the ability to anticipate the timing of moving items,” bettering on-ice skills by a huge 18 percent.
As Mitroff explains, “Training the eye to operate effectively in these choppy conditions, the eyewear strengthens the vision and concentration of the wearer through a visual workout ... And it's not just athletes that can reap these benefits: potential also exists for medical, military and physical rehabilitation applications.”
Q. Time for a most fitting final question: How will the universe end?
A. The prevailing theory is that everything got started 13.75 billion years ago in a gigantic explosion known as the “Big Bang,” says astronomer Jim Bell in “The Space Book.” The expansion of the universe is evident as all the galaxies recede from each other. Maybe this will continue forever, or until what astronomers call the “heat death” of the cosmos perhaps 10-to-the-100th-power years from now. Or, there may be a more violent future in store for the universe, with the gravitational attraction between clusters of galaxies pulling everything back together again to become one tiny massive black hole “singularity.”
“What happens then?” Bell poses. “Another Big Bang? Or perhaps a Big Bounce? New observations and computer models may help figure out — to borrow a line from the modernist poet T.S. Eliot — whether the universe will end ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’”
Send questions to brothers Bill and Rich Sones at firstname.lastname@example.org.