Strange but true: Loud drips can scare you to death

Published: Monday, Jan. 5 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Question: Can you imagine circumstances where the loud dripping of plain water into basins set beneath your bed frightens you to death? Clue: You're blindfolded and strapped to the bed.

Answer: In 1936, in India, recounts Nobel Laureate Bernard Lown in "The Lost Art of Healing," an astonishing experiment was conducted on a prisoner condemned to die by hanging. He was given the choice instead of being "exsanguinated," or having his blood let out, because this would be gradual and relatively painless. The victim agreed, was strapped to the bed and blindfolded.

Unbeknownst to him, water containers were attached to the four bedposts and drip buckets set up below. Then after light scratches were made on his four extremities, the fake drip brigade began: First rapidly, then slowly, always loudly. "As the dripping of water stopped, the healthy young man's heart stopped also. He was dead, having lost not a drop of blood."

Dying of fright can occur in one of two ways, explains Dennis Coon in his "Essentials of Psychology, Exploration and Application." The stepped-up heartbeat and other physiological reactions of the "fight-or-flight" response can kill directly; or "parasympathetic rebound" can be deadly, where the body works to calm itself and goes too far the other way, and actually stops the heart. Cases abound of soldiers dying of fright in savage battles or of people dying at other very emotional times. Voodoo deaths also pay testament to the amazing power of the mind over the body.

Question: When talk turns to nuclear weapons of mass destruction rated in megatons of TNT, how is this destructive power to be pictured? What is a megaton?

Answer: That's a million tons. First imagine a large truck, capacity 30 tons, then 33,000 such trucks fully loaded to carry the 1,000,000 tons of "payload" — 1 megaton of TNT, suggests Art Hobson in "Physics: Concepts and Connections." At 15 meters per truck, with no spacings between, the convoy would stretch 310 miles; for 10 megatons, make that 3,100 miles, or trucks all the way across the U.S.

For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, released just 12 kilotons of nuclear energy, or 12,000 tons; Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 20 kilotons. Thus it would take some 50 Nagasakis to equal just 1 megaton!

The largest weapon ever detonated, says "Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia," was the "Tsar Bomba" (King of Bombs) at 50 megatons, or trucks half way around the world.

Question: A bruising football linebacker specializes in goal-line stands where he dives up and over the line to collide with the running back, who is also trying to dive up and over for a touchdown. Usually there is little gain, lots of pain. So now the linebacker wonders proudly, what's the measure of his stopping power?

Answer: Football physics says linear momentum = mass x velocity, or for this 100-kilogram (220 pounds) guy launching himself at 5 meters per second (18 km/hr; 11 mph), that's 500 kilogram-meters per second of body momentum, say Jerry D. Wilson and Anthony J. Buffa in "College Physics." Not bad, and analogous to a 1-kilogram artillery shell leaving the barrel at 500 meters per second (1800 km/hr; 1100 mph). It too has momentum of 500 kilogram-meters per second. So if the guy wore a full-body bulletproof energy- absorbing "jacket" and soared high not into an oncoming opponent but into an artillery projectile instead, there would be quite an impressive midair momentum standoff!

CHEERS from the duly-impressed spectating crowd.

Question: Here's one for the books: How was it determined that the normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit?

Answer: Erroneously! Though this precise-sounding number has been known to generations of parents and doctors, it is wrong, says Temple University's John Allen Paulos in "A Mathematician Reads the Newspapers."

Recent tests involving millions of measurements found a figure of 98.2 F.

But don't blame German physician Dr. Carl Wunderlich (1815-1877), who did the original statistical study of normal body temperature of thousands of people in Europe.

The Dr. actually found a range of temperatures, says Paulos, then averaged them and sensibly rounded to the nearest degree: 37 Celsius! When this was converted to Fahrenheit, however, the rounding of the two-digit figure was forgotten and 98.6 was taken to be accurate to the nearest tenth of a degree.

"Had the original interval from 36.5-37.5 Celsius been translated, the equivalent Fahrenheit temperatures would have ranged from 97.7 to 99.5."

As one "Fever Phobia" Web site puts it, "A curse on the person who invented the arrow pointing to 98.6 on many old thermometers!" Temps can vary from morning to evening, person to person, kids to adults or how the temp is taken (oral vs. rectal) or phase of the menstrual cycle.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com

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