QUESTION: Why hasn't continental drift thrown Stonehenge out of whack?
ANSWER: You recall that Stonehenge is a bunch of big slabs of rock on one of those lonely plains in England. It makes you think of Druids. And though you don't know exactly what Druids are, you imagine them wearing hooded robes and behaving in a manner that is distressingly grave.You also know that the slabs are arranged like the Greek letter Pi, with two vertical slabs supporting one horizontal slab. This was their version of Lincoln Logs. You may even know that the formation is oriented according to the summer solstice, so that it functions like a big calendar, letting you know when summer has arrived. (In ancient times the only available forms of recreation were breeding and astronomy.)
Meanwhile, there is the plate tectonics situation. The continents are constantly shifting and sliding and subducting and subverting, rearranging themselves. Over a very long period, of time, "North America" turns into "Lebanon." (If you catch our drift.)
Put these two phenomena together and you have to wonder: Shouldn't Stonehenge be wrong by now? As a calendar, isn't it a tad . . . unreliable?
The answer is no and yes: Stonehenge really is out of astronomical whack, but it's not because of continental drift.
The continents move at sub-turtle speed. The Eurasian plate is sliding away from the North American plate, roughly toward the East. Over several thousand years, this results in several dozen meters of movement, but because it's going toward the East it doesn't mess up the alignment with the sun. To do that, the Eurasian plate would have to move north or south, or, better yet, rotate, either clockwise or counterclockwise.
What has thrown Stonehenge out of line is the change in the tilt of the Earth's axis, and other wobbles in the planet's orbit around the sun. These are much more dramatic than continental drift. The Earth is a bit more tilted now than it was when Stonehenge was built - a change in the "obliquity of the ecliptic," to speak fancifully.
We called the authority on Stonehenge - THE authority: Richard John Copland Atkinson, a professor emeritus of archaeology at University College in Cardiff, Wales. He told us that, from a perspective within the center of Stonehenge, the position of the summer solstice sunrise has moved east by about two diameters of the sun. It was aligned originally in about 2100 B.C., he said.
Who were the builders, anyway? Were they Druids?
"Good heavens no! The Druids didn't exist until 1,500 years after Stonehenge was already a ruin."
Even the Druids, presumably, thought the place was kind of weird.
QUESTION: Why is America named after Amerigo Vespucci instead of Christopher Columbus?
ANSWER: America's name is based on a lie and a grave error. Vespucci claimed to have explored the New World in 1497, though this now seems to have been a fiction. He did make it in 1499 - way behind the times. Still, a German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemuller thought Vespucci was the first man to reach the New World, and in 1507 he suggested the name America. Waldseemuller's confusion may be due in part to Columbus' early insistance that he had reached Asia, not a new continent. That bit of foolishness cost him: Amerigo got two continents named after him. Chris got the capital of Ohio.
QUESTION: Why is it an insult to call someone a "turkey"?
ANSWER: Turkeys have a bad reputation, not entirely deserved. The wild turkey is a savvy creature. But the process of breeding and raising fat, white-meated domestic turkeys "has taken out some of the inherent cunning of the wild turkey," says National Turkey Federation spokeswoman Laurie Wilson. Contrary to popular myth, turkeys won't look up into the sky during a rainstorm and drown. But, lacking a mother's instruction, they don't know enough to find shelter in the rain, which can lead to sickness and death.
We've been buried in letters about our answer to the question, "Why does the weasel go pop?" No one agreed with us. But they also didn't agree with each other. It's a mess. The one thing we keep hearing is that "pop" is slang in England for "pawn." We knew that actually, but it hardly explains why a weasel would be pawned.
One reader said a weasel is actually a Cockney word for an overcoat. But we stick to our assertion that a weasel is a gadget used by tailors. The best description we've heard is that it is an appendage of a yarn-winder, and when the winder is full the weasel - which we still can't visualize - physically and audibly pops. But maybe tailors don't make much money and have to pawn their weasels.
1991, Washington Post Writers Group