Question: How much (or how little) does it take to turn on a turkey? Or, how wacky can the quest for knowledge get?

Answer: Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of Pennsylvania State University soon discovered that amorous male turkeys are far from fussy, reports Alex Boese in "Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments."

First, the researchers presented male turkeys with lifelike models of females, and the males definitely were interested. Next they disassembled the model piece by piece — tail, feet, wings — until only a head remained. Still the males were keen; in fact they preferred a head on a stick to a headless body.

Next question was how minimal they could make the head before it failed as a turn-on: It turned out that a freshly severed head worked best, followed by a dried-out male head, then a 2-year-old "discolored withered and hard" female head. Last place went to a plain balsa wood head, though even that one worked.

"Before we humans snicker at the predilections of turkeys," says Boese, "we should recall the case of Thomas Granger, the teenage boy who in 1642 became one of the first people to be executed in Puritan New England. His crime? He had physical relations with a turkey."

Question: You don't see women or men carrying home supermarket groceries balanced on their heads, but if they did, who would pull off this feat with the least effort?

Answer: You Western shoppers can step aside because some Kenyan women (and in other cultures) have so mastered the art of head-carrying they can balance and transport loads up to 20 percent of their body weight — or a 25-pound bag of potatoes for a 125-pound woman — without having to breathe heavily or exert any extra effort, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics."

Biomechanics is their secret, with the carrier's center of mass moving in a rhythmic up-down fashion and her weight shifting from foot to foot, much like the motions of a unicyclist.

All of this may require no more effort than carrying no load at all, presumably because the load causes the women to shift potential energy to kinetic energy more efficiently. Without carrying anything, these elite load-bearers walk a lot less efficiently but still more so than, say, European or American women.

Question: What's driving the fascinating new field of "roboethics," i.e., how to govern the behavior of robots?

Answer: In his sci-fi story "Runaround," Isaac Asimov postulated his Three Laws of Robotics: 1. Robots should not harm human beings; 2. Robots must obey orders; 3. A robot must protect its own existence (so long as this doesn't conflict with the first two laws). Truly, bots are everywhere, from assembly lines to assistants for the aged to military aides ... prompting governments to wrestle with roboethical considerations, says Robert Sawyer in Science magazine. This is not only because robots are being used to kill people (unmanned airborne drones locate and drop bombs on individuals, as in Iraq) but also because some look and act like humans (Honda's Asimo can even dance).

Recently, South Korea established a Robot Ethics Charter and the European Robotics Research Network set standards of robot "safety, security, privacy, traceability, identifiability." Japan, with its aging population, foresees robot caregivers in many homes and has issued policies for how they should behave and be treated.

We're not quite to the point in the story where a police officer gets a fully robotic partner or a human marries a robot. But already in the United States, a Michigan jury awarded the family of the first human ever killed by a robot (accidentally, in 1979) a $10 million settlement, up to that point the largest personal-injury award in the state's history.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at [email protected]