A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Fifty Curious Questions

Bee Stunts Of The Week

What is it with men and bees? In my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – how’s that for a gratuitous plug? – I call for volunteers to extend the experiments into the calibration of the intensity of bee stings on various parts of the human anatomy. It seems that the call to arms is being answered, if these stories I stumbled upon this week are to be believed.

First we have Juan Carlos Noguez Ortiz, a worker on a honeybee farm in Ontario in Canada, who smashed the Guinness World Record for sitting in a sealed dome while more than 100,000 bees crawled over his face and neck. He endured the ordeal for 61 minutes beating the previous best of 53 minutes 34 seconds hands-down. Defying bee-lief, he claimed only to have suffered a couple of stings.

Less fortunate was Kiwi, Jamie Grainger, who accepted a bet for NZ$1k to help towards paying for his forthcoming nuptials by positioning his bare backside atop a hive of bees. Grainger, a serial risk taker who once accepted a NZ$500 bet to eat a slug, sat there for 30 seconds, was stung numerous times but claims it was the easiest money he had ever earned. It’s going to be one hell of stag do, is all I can say.

There’s nowt so queer as folk”, said a spokesman for the bee community.


Position Of The Week

My latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – now available via Amazon and all good booksellers (there is a distinction) – seeks to answer some of those maddening questions that life throws up. One that escaped my attention was: Which is the most dangerous sexual position for men?

Fortunately, the improbably named International Journal of Impotence Research, a flop if there ever was going to be one, has come up with the answer, reporting the results of some research conducted in Brazil into the circumstances which led to penile fracture in 90 victims. The answer, it appears, is doggy style. Men aged between 20 and 30 are most likely to suffer this injury because of their fitness and firmer erections. Eighteen unfortunates fractured their penises in the UK last year, according to the ever helpful NHS.

For women, if this incident which came to my attention this week is anything to go by, it may be deciding their respective positions in a three-some. Two women were discussing the point when one of them toppled 10 feet from the balcony of a house in the German town of Bad Breisig. She broke bones in her feet and legs. Her friend (or rival) rushed down the stairs to help her, slipped and broke bones in her arms and neck. Both had a stay in hospital whilst the chap, presumably, was left wondering why they were taking so long.

A good book and cup of cocoa seems the safest option.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty One

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty

Why do shoe laces keep coming undone?

When I was a small boy one of the rites of passage was to be able to demonstrate the ability to tie up one’s own shoe laces. It was a tricky business and required great perseverance and phenomenal powers of concentration. Eventually I cracked it and have never looked back since. These days, with Velcro fastenings and the penchant for wearing trainers without laces it is less of a vital accomplishment and, I’m sure, we will all be the poorer for that.

When you think about it, though, and I have the luxury of being able to, tying shoe laces is a rather odd and inefficient way of making sure that your shoes stay on your feet. Invariably, the laces work loose and at some point in the day you find that you have to bend down and tie them up again. I find round laces the worst and when I buy a pair of shoes, try to avoid them. For the enquiring mind the obvious question is why do shoe laces, however well tied, work loose of their own accord.

Fortunately, some research carried out by Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Berkley and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society may provide the clue to understanding this conundrum. As often is the case, the starting point was to take a couple of PhD students who were rich and uncool enough to own a pair of lace ups. They were asked to sit on a chair and swing their legs and stamp their feet. What they found was that these tow actions independently do not cause the laces to loosen. However, it is when you combine these two actions that trouble begins.

A runner was put on a treadmill and their actions were filmed using a slow-motion camera. What the scientists found was that when running, the foot strikes the ground with a force that is seven times that of gravity. As the fabric of the shoe squashes down on impact with terra firma, extra lace is freed at the top of the shoe, causing the knot to loosen imperceptibly. The trailing leg causes the free ends of the laces to move backwards and forwards, resulting in them being tugged outwards. The knot loosens causing a reduction in the friction which is holding the knot in place and eventually the free ends lengthen and the knot unravels.

It doesn’t happen all the time, the scientists say, but once the tension holding the knot decreases as a result of the movement of your feet, you will soon be bending down to tie your laces up again. It seems that some types of knot are more prone to coming undone than others. I use a granny knot but the tests conducted by O’Reilly show that these knots are five times more likely to come undone than a square knot. With a square knot you cross the end that is in your right hand behind the one in your left rather than passing the ends of the bow and knot over each other.

I doubt whether I will be able to obliterate a process that has been hardwired into my subconscious for over half a century. I find double knots help immeasurably but at least I now know why my shoe laces come undone. Perhaps I should invest in some slip ons.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Nine


The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Eight


Can you fry an egg on a pavement?

It is so hot outside, you could fry an egg on the pavement”. A curious phrase indeed and one I have always taken as being figurative rather than one grounded in fact. Leaving aside considerations of hygiene – after all, you can never be quite sure what has been on the pavement before – to the enquiring mind, the obvious question is whether it is really possible.

The starting point in our investigation is the humble egg. In order to cook, the proteins in an egg need to have their molecular structure modified by a process known as denature and then coagulate. For the process to start and be maintained to ensure the egg is perfectly cooked, temperatures need to be around 144 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. This would seem to rule out conducting the experiment in Blighty as temperatures rarely rise above 100 degrees and even then it is so rare that you could be waiting a long time to even attempt the experiment.

The next ingredient in the experiment is the pavement and its particular characteristics. Here I am indebted to some research conducted by Robert Wolke in his book, What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. Wolke found that temperatures of pavements can vary depending upon the composition of the pavement, whether it is in direct sunlight or not and on the ambient air temperature. Dark pavements consisting of tar or similar materials absorb more light than concrete ones and so would be the pavement of choice. But, disappointingly, Wolke found that pavements rarely reached a temperature above 145 degrees, frustratingly just short of the minimum temperature needed to cook an egg.

The next problem is that when you crack an egg and pour its contents on to your pavement of choice, the egg will cool it slightly and as the pavement is a poor conductor of heat you will be lucky, without an additional source of heat, to get the temperature back up to a point where the egg will be cooked evenly. The reason we fry an egg in a frying pan is that metal is a good conductor of heat and gets hotter, allowing the optimal temperature to be more easily achieved. If you really wanted to fry an egg al fresco using the natural power of the sun, then you would be better off using the bonnet of a car. As they say, make sure you have the owner’s consent before you try as the mess it leaves may cause offence.

Arizona is a state where temperatures are regularly high and humidity is low. The conditions are such that on 4th July each year – a day when we Brits celebrate the departure of the American colonies from the benevolent British Empire – the good citizens of Oatman hold an annual Solar Egg Frying Contest. As it says on the tin, the contestants have 15 minutes to fry an egg by harnessing the power of the sun. However, to illustrate and confirm Wolke’s findings, they are allowed to use artificial aids such as mirrors, magnifying glasses and reflectors to aid the process. The lack of humidity also helps because liquids evaporate more quickly and so the eggs dry out faster.

So, I suppose, the answer to our question is yes but only with some additional assistance.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Seven


Do humans have the same range of facial expressions?

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every picture tells a story. The human face can be wonderfully expressive and can give the onlooker a sense of what you are thinking or feeling without the need for you to utter a word. To the enquiring mind the obvious question is whether there is a stock range of expressions for emotions or, putting it another way, do humans make the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions.

An interesting question, you might agree, and one which a graduate scientist at the University of Minnesota, one Carney Landis, applied his mind to in 1924. The starting point was to assemble a group of volunteers, most of whom came from Landis’ fellow graduate students. His idea was to submit the group to a range of situations which would evoke different emotions, ranging from joy to fear, and examine the facial expressions that each made. To make life easier for himself, he decided to divide the human face into a series of sections following the musculature and paint lines around each section. By taking a series of photographs he would be able to determine how each volunteer responded and which part of the face moved in response to any given stimulus.

Having developed the methodology, the experiment began. The key, obviously, was to assemble a range of stimuli that would provoke a strong reaction. So, rather like a bush tucker trial, the guinea pigs were asked to put their hands in a bucket of slimy frogs. Whilst this was going on, Landis was happily snapping away. They were asked to look at pornographic images, were subjected to electric shocks, smell ammonia. You get the picture.

All went swimmingly until Landis produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Even allowing for the fact that sensibilities around animal rights were not as advanced as they might now be, this bizarre request caused a bit of a stir amongst the volunteers. What was interesting, and perhaps the most significant outcome of the bizarre experiment although the import seemed to have passed Landis by, was that only a third of the volunteers actually refused to carry out his command. Had he pondered this phenomenon, he would have pre-empted Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing experiments of 1963 into the extent that people would obey orders even if meant causing others harm. The students’ noble refusal to obey Landis didn’t spare the rats. Landis did the job for them.

The other two thirds, with some reluctance, set about butchering the rats. The trouble was that the executioner’s art is a rather skilled one, calling for a steady hand and steely determination, and most made a bit of a fist of it. According to Landis’ notes, “the effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation”. It is hard to imagine the scene of devastation as the rats suffered a slow and painful death. Perhaps Landis should have concentrated on looking at the expressions on the rodent’s faces.

And the result of this rather bizarre experiment? Try as he could, Landis could not see any correlation between an emotion and expression. It seems that people have a wide range of facial expressions to convey the same emotion. Still, it is good that we have cleared that one up.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Six


The other week I suffered a minor mishap which resulted in a sharp blow to the Niagaras. Jolly painful it was too. Gentlemen of a certain disposition, I am led to believe, actually enjoy having pain inflicted on their testicles and are even induced to part with their hard-earned cash for the pleasure. Astonishing as that may seem, I have unearthed a couple of scientists who carried out a bizarre series of experiments which involved crushing their testicles with weights in the name of science.

The intrepid duo were Dr Herbert Woollard of the Department of Anatomy at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School and E. Arnold Carmichael of the National Hospital Research Unit in Queen’s Square in London and an account of their experiments and eye-watering findings was published in the September 1933 edition of the Brain. What the mad-cap scientists were researching into was the phenomenon known as referred pain or reflective pain. This is where pain is perceived in a part of the body other than where the painful stimulus has occurred. Examples are where someone suffering from an angina attack would feel pain in their back, neck or shoulders rather than in their chest and where amputees attribute pain to a limb that has been amputated. As a medical phenomenon, referred pain has been acknowledged since the 1880s but there is still no definitive explanation for it.

In the early 1930s this would have seemed a fruitful area of research for Woollard and Carmichael. I have noted before that what marks out a scientist from the hoi polloi is their ability to make a massive and astonishing leap in logic to find a new and unchartered line of enquiry to explore. Their light-bulb moment was to realise that of all the internal organs the testicles were the most accessible to investigating referred pain and so they set to it.

The report is a creature of the time and so we do not know who had their balls crushed, how they were selected or whether they took it in turns. As to methodology, the victim lay spread-eagled on a table, exposing his testicles and then his colleague placed one into the pan of a scale before placing weights of varying sizes on to it. The reactions were duly noted and published. At 300 grams the victim experienced “a slight discomfort in the right groin”, at 550 grams “severe pain on the inner side of the right thigh with indefinite testicular sensation” and at 650 grams “severe testicular pain on the right-hand side of the body”.

The problem was that from the perspective of investigating referred pain, these findings were not very helpful as they had not eliminated the feeling of pain from the affected body part. So Woollard and Carmichael developed a further twist, so to speak, by numbing all the nerve endings leading to the testes. Quite how this was accomplished was not revealed in the report and so the mind is left to boggle. The experiments began again but the scientists’ ambitions were thwarted because try as they could they were unable to eliminate the pain experienced in the testicles.

So this line of enquiry shrivelled like a wrinkled prune because despite their convenience the testicles proved to be a tad too sensitive. Unsurprisingly, no other scientists have picked up the baton.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Five


How embedded is lying in Britain today?

It is a regrettable fact but most, if not all, of us have been guilty of lying at some stage in our life. We might tell lies or at least be economical with the actualite to spare someone’s feelings like when we comment on someone’s new hairstyle or clothing.  We might term these as white lies. On the other hand we might tell a whopper, perhaps we should term this sort a big lie, if we want to deflect attention from ourselves or get ourselves out of a hole. As the referendum campaign last year was based on both sides on a tissue of half-truths and downright falsehoods, the question that pops into the enquiring mind is how embedded is lying in Britain today.

Fortunately, some research has been conducted into the subject including an online survey conducted by the Science Museum in London in 2010. Nearly 3,000 responded to the survey, of whom 51% were female and the average age was 44.5, in which they were asked to reveal how often they told little white lies and how often whoppers. 9.7% of the sample categorised themselves as prolific liars, telling 6.32 little white lies and 2.86 big ones a day. The majority of the respondents – only 24.4% said that they didn’t lie in a typical day – owned up to 1.16 white lies a day and 0.15 whoppers, suggesting that the prolific liars tell on average 19 big lies to every one told by the everyday liars.

Profiling the responses of those surveyed, the prolific liars were most likely to be at the younger end of the age scale, male and working in more senior occupational roles. They did not see their mendacious trait as one that they would grow out but recognised that it could and had landed them in deep do-do, costing them their relationships or their jobs. This is not too surprising as they would most likely try to pull the wool over the eyes of their partners and children whereas everyday liars were more likely to lie to their mothers.

Further light was shone on the propensity to lie by research undertaken by the Science Centre NEMO in Amsterdam and published in the ever popular Acta Psychologica. Surveying some 1,005 people, aged between 6 and 77, they tested the ability to and frequency of lying across the age groups. Overall, the ability to lie convincingly improved through childhood, peaking in early adulthood, categorised as aged between 18 and 29, and gradually declined as the age profile increased. As to frequency, teenagers admitted to telling more lies than any other age – are you surprised? – and there was a similar inverted U-shape in the age distribution with the old fogies lying as infrequently as those at the younger end of the age spectrum.

Worryingly, the figures for British lying compare adversely with comparable statistics from the United States. There, only 5% of the respondents were responsible for more than 50% of the lies and 59.9% claimed that in a typical day they didn’t lie. What the surveys can’t tell us is whilst there appears to be a definite pattern to lying frequency and proficiency whether people increase and then lose their ability as they age or once they are a prolific liar or an everyday liar, that is what they are for the rest of their natural.

My biggest problem with surveys and research such as this is how much credence we should place on responses from self-confessed liars. Of course, a liar rarely lies all the time and therein lies our problem.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone? Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Four


How to guarantee a group photo without capturing anyone blinking

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever a group photograph is taken there is always at least someone who manages to be snapped with their eyes shut. Blinking is a natural eye function that spreads tears across and removes irritants from the surface of the cornea and conjunctiva. For the perfectionists amongst us and for those with an enquiring mind the obvious questions are is it possible to get a group photo without someone blinking in it and how many shots will you need to take to be sure you have one picture with everyone wide-eyed?

The obvious answer is just one, provided you give each of the subjects a pair of matchsticks to prop their peepers open. However, if you want a natural photo or at least as natural as a group photo is ever likely to be, then you need to resort to some mathematics and probability theory. Fortunately someone cleverer than I has cracked their grey cells to shed some light on this first world problem. Step forward, Dr Piers Barnes, a physicist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

The starting point is the blink. The average number of times a person blinks when they are having their photo taken is ten and an average blink lasts 250 milliseconds. Unlike yawning where one person can trigger off a spate of copy-cat yawning amongst bystanders, there is no evidence that one person blinking influences another. Each blink is an independent event and when we have a group of people each of their blinks will be independent of each other’s. The only occasions when this might not be the case is if the group are standing in something like a sandstorm but let’s ignore this unnecessary complication. Each blink will also be random – they won’t all occur uniformly every six seconds.

In good indoor light the shutter of a camera stays open for eight milliseconds, a period of time considerably shorter than the duration of a blink. So from a probability theory perspective the chance of someone blinking while a photo is being taken is the expected number of blinks which we will call x multiplied by the period of time (t) during which the photo could be spoilt. The reciprocal, 1 – xt, is the probability of one person not blinking while a photo is being taken.

Following this logic through, if you have a group of people posing for a photograph – we will denote the number by the symbol n – then the probability of a good group photo with no one blinking would be 1 minus xt to the power of n and the number of photos required to get the perfect shot will be 1 over 1 minus xt to the power of n. With me so far?

Plotting the results of the formula on to a graph you will find you have a normal distribution which will enable you to calculate the number of shots you would need to guarantee, at least statistically speaking, a perfect photo for any size of group. What it does mean is that if there is a group of fifty or more, there is virtually no chance of an unspoilt photo. Remember that when you are planning your wedding photo list.

Of course, in the heat of the moment even the brainiest of photographers might not be able to make the necessary calculations. Helpfully, Barnes has developed a rule of thumb for calculating the number of shots for groups of under twenty people. In good light divide the number of people by three and in poor light use two as the denominator.

So now we know. Happy snapping!

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone? Available now. Just follow any of the links