Q. Have you heard the incredible story of how the starling came to North America? Soon to be a major motion picture.
A. Today dense flocks of the birds roost in buildings and trees, wreaking havoc in cities. Or they devour grain in fields and feedlots, making life miserable for farmers.Other birds don't love them either. They're aggressive and tenacious, often ousting adult wood-peckers, bluebirds and swallows from nesting sites, reports Neil A. Campbell in "Biology: Concepts & Connections." Then they dump out the baby birds and move in their own offspring.
But 100 years ago starlings were nowhere to be seen in North America. So how did these nasties - now some 100 million strong - get a clawhold here? During the 1800s and early 1900s, introducing new species of plants and animals was all the rage in North America, explains Campbell. One particular civic group pledged to introduce all the species mentioned in Shakespeare's works, including this one by Hotspur in "King Henry the Fourth": "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but `Mortimer.' "
That did it. Over a hundred of the birds were set free in New York's Central Park in 1890, to a cheering crowd. If somebody had told them they were also cheering the eventual need for mass trappings, application of chemical repellents and poisons, electrified meshes and fences, and hundreds of millions of dollars lost annually, you doubtless could have knocked them over with a feather.
Q. Insomnia is common enough. Have you ever lost sleep over "pseudoinsomnia"?
A. Some people will think they're not getting a good night's rest but sleep lab tests show they're sleeping just fine. One hypothesis, reports Josh Gerow in "Psychology: An Introduction," is that such sleepers dream of lying awake and trying to get to sleep, and in the morning remember these dreams and conclude it was a fretful, sleepless night.
Usually just finding out that they're sleeping normally is enough to cure their pseudoinsomnia.
Q. Would a baseball tossed off the top of a tall building be going faster than a pitched fastball by the time it hit the ground? Could somebody catch it?
A. This stunt has been tried a couple of times. Terminal velocity of a falling baseball is probably around 95 mph, notes physicist Peter J. Brancazio. That's about what a good major league fastballer can muster.
But catching a horizonal, well-controlled pitch is one thing; fielding a ball plummeting unpredictably out of the sky is another. In 1938, a couple of pro catchers nabbed balls tossed from atop a 700-foot Cleveland skyscraper after watching the first few rebound 13 stories off the pavement.
The following year, playing "Top This," San Francisco Seal catcher Joe Sprinz stood with mitted hand beneath a blimp 800 feet up. One dropped ball smashed into bleachers; another pounded into the turf.
Then Sprinz got under one and wished he hadn't: The down-plung-ing orb slammed into his glove and shoved it back into his face, breaking five teeth and fracturing his jaw.
And the ball got away.
Q. Imagine you stumbled into a time warp and back onto a Mesozoic plain. Could you outrun a dinosaur?
A. By analyzing footprint remains and estimated weights of large dinos, zoologist R. McNeill Alexander, in his book "Animals," concludes that a 37-ton brontosaur may well have been about as athletic as an elephant.
Elephants can't gallop or jump but can run at least 10 mph, and probably more.
The much lighter horned-dinosaur Triceratops, at 7 tons, may have been able to gallop, but probably not as fast as a buffalo, speculates Alexander.
A really fast human can run at about 27 mph very briefly, 22 mph averaged over a 100 meter race. But most of us run a lot slower than this, so fleeing a pursuing dinosaur would have been an iffy proposition, depending on one's physical condition, the type of 'saur and terrain, and whether the beast recently had lunch.