QUESTION: Why doesn't Arkansas rhyme with Kansas?

ANSWER: Because the words are totally unrelated.And because the French can't spell.

John L. Ferguson, state historian for Arkansas, tells us there used to be some Indians living at the juncture of the Mississippi River and what we now call the Arkansas River. In the 1700s the French explorers called them the "Arkansas" Indians, which was the name used by Algonquin-speaking Indian guides who lived up on the Ohio River. "Arkansas" meant "people of the south wind." The Indians didn't have a written language, so the French were merely approximating the spoken sound "Arkansaw," using their own peculiar spelling habits that have also given us lingerie, bouquet, denouement and contretemps, words that, as far as we're concerned, are horribly misspelled.

There has been confusion. Some maps have used the name "Arkansaw." And some people have insisted on pronouncing "Arkansas" as though it rhymed with Kansas (which, by the way, is named after the Kanza Indian tribe).

This matter became so heated that in 1880 a group called the Eclectic Society teamed up with the Arkansas Historical Society and delved into the origin of the name, concluding that Arkansas is a Gallicized Indian name and should be pronounced with the "saw" at the end. This was duly decreed in a special legislative resolution by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1881.

QUESTION: Why doesn't a black hole somewhere get so big and powerful that it eventually goes SKLURRP! and sucks the entire galaxy, including the Earth, into its dreadful maw?

ANSWER: This is not something you should worry about. It's something you should PANIC about. How can you sleep, we ask, knowing that as we wend our way through the void we might suddenly fall into one of these voraciously sucking galactic potholes that can slurp down an entire star as though it were a '67 VW Beetle? There have been reports that there may be a black hole at the center of the galaxy with a mass of as much as a million stars. Don't you want to know if that's SAFE?

We put this issue to some extremely eminent physicists, who told us that:

1. They were reluctant to be quoted by name in a column of this nature; and

2. Yes, it's safe.

The image of black holes that we all have is wrong. A black hole isn't really a sucking machine. It's not "antimatter." It's a thing - a collapsed star - very small and utterly dark. Sure, stuff can fall into a black hole and never return, but we should remember that the only force at work is gravity, and gravity is basically harmless.

"It's not magic. I know that's disappointing," says Jeremiah Ostriker, a Princeton astrophysicist.

It doesn't matter to us, out here on the edge of the galaxy, if part of the gravitational field we inhabit is created by a million individual stars floating around the center of the galaxy or by a single black hole with the collected mass of a million stars. Either way, the gravity we feel is the same.

Consider what would happen to us here on Earth if the sun became a black hole: nothing. The sun's gravity would remain the same. There'd be one major difference: It'd be dark outside. And cold. Life would end. But otherwise, no problem.

What makes black holes special is not their power but their size: they're tiny. The stuff that used to comprise an entire star can be crushed into an incredibly dense pebble. Gravity is stronger the closer you get to an object, and because a black hole is so small you can, in effect, get closer to its mass than you could if all that mass were spread out in something the size of a planet or a star. When you get too close, the gravity becomes so strong that not even light can escape. This is the "event horizon," beyond which is darkness and torment.

It's worth noting that as you get 10 times closer to an object such as the Earth, the gravity increases not by a factor of 10 but by a factor of 100. Let's say that, as you stand on your bathroom scale, which is about 4,000 miles from the center of the Earth, you see that you weigh 200 pounds. Now let's say that overnight, the Earth contracts a thousandfold, and when you wake up you are only four miles from the center. You get on the scale. You now weigh . . . 200 million pounds.

And that's before breakfast.