Question: It's hardly a hot stunt nowadays, but if you were newsreel cameraman Al Mingalone in 1937 intent on leaping over a house (yeah, a house — called "house-hopping"), what did you strap on for assistance?

Answer: In Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Al strapped on a harness with 27 large hydrogen-filled balloons attached, then ran toward the house and took a leap, says Jearl Walker in "Flying Circus of Physics." He did manage 25 feet of altitude but not enough. So with darkness coming on, he ordered the crew to add five more balloons.

Now up, up and away he went, over the house and more, because his safety line snapped and he became airborne. With a storm brewing, he drifted toward the Atlantic Ocean, his father watching in horror and then jumping into a car to follow. A local priest joined him, toting a 22-caliber rifle.

An hour later they spotted Al, 750-800 feet up, and stopped the car. Careful aim now! Bam, bam, bam. How many balloons to shoot? Too many could have been tragic.

Luckily, the loss of buoyancy turned out to be just enough to bring madcap Al in for a light landing.

Question: Ants with a built-in "pedometer"? Can you guess the clever way scientists figured this one out?

Answer: Knowing that Saharan desert ants can't follow an odor trail because the chemicals quickly fade in the heat, Harold Wolf of the University of Ulm, Germany, wondered how the insects found their way back to the nest from a food source, says "New Scientist" Magazine. Could they somehow estimate distance by keeping track of their number of steps? So Wolf's team removed about 1 mm from the tips of some ants' legs while adding 1 mm stilts (made of lightweight bristles) to the legs of others. These were all ants that had just visited a familiar food site.

Upshot: The ants on stilts typically went about 50 percent farther than the normal distance, then began pacing back and forth looking for home; the ants with shortened legs paced back and forth, apparently lost, after traveling only 50 percent of the way back.

Question: Most people will eat meat, some won't, for a variety of health or ethical concerns. When that fateful slaughterhouse moment comes, how bad is it for the animals?

Answer: "Instantaneous insensibility" via proper handling and stunning is the gold standard in humane operation of these facilities, says animal scientist and author Temple Grandin. This may be done with captive bolt, electrical or carbon dioxide euthanasia. Animal excitability and agitation are to be avoided using good equipment design and a well-trained staff.

For example, cattle and sheep will stay calm in conveyers that touch the animal in front and back; moving cattle through single file also helps.

People ask if the animals know what's about to happen, or if they're afraid of blood. Studies show that pigs watching the stunning of another pig have little or no change in heart rate, cortisol or B endorphin levels. Rather, small distractions like air-hissing noises or bright lights are more likely to lead to agitation and balking. Otherwise, cattle don't seem to react to the sight of blood.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com, coauthors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press.