Question: "Cyborgs" like "RoboCop" (1987) that combine humans and machines might seem the most far-fetched of film creations. Could they ever make the long leap into reality?

Answer: The seeds of these fictional hybrids already exist, says Sidney Perkowitz in "Hollywood Science." In 2000, a Northwestern University researcher installed part of the living brain of a sea lamprey, an eel-like fish, into a small wheeled robot. Via implanted electrodes, the brain was connected to light sensors on the robot and to motors controlling its wheels, powering the brain-driven robot toward or away from light sources. Going even further, Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University implanted electrodes into a monkey's brain (the brain lacks pain sensors) to connect the animal to an artificial arm that mirrored the movements of the monkey's real arm. "Eventually, Nicolelis could train the monkey so that merely thinking about moving its arm moved the robotic arm correspondingly."

Then neurologist Phillip Kerney implanted electrodes into the brain of a stroke patient who could barely move. With training, the patient learned to move a computer screen cursor by thought alone! He could pick out letters to spell words, opening up for him once again the "blessing of communicating" with other people.

All of these show that "hybrid connections are feasible, with potential to help the injured and even to expand human physical and mental capacities — just as RoboCop is stronger and a better shot than any human policeman."

Question: There's obvious charm in your parrot imitating what you say, but what could be the point of such mimicry capability for species in the wild?

Answer: You and your parrot occupy a select niche in the animal kingdom: The ability to learn vocal signals is restricted to songbirds and hummingbirds and parrots among birds, humans and bats and whales among mammals, says biologist Timothy F. Wright.

Depending on the species, the regional "dialects" that arise from large numbers of wild birds imitating each other may help males and females from similar areas find one another, says avian biologist Michael Schindlinger in "Scientific American" magazine. Regional song learning may also allow territorial neighbors to become familiar and help identify drifters. Further, imitative vocal learning is a ready-made display of healthy neural functioning that embraces hearing, memory, muscle control for sound production — all potentially important in mate selection.

Question: Do you know the cultural sources of superstition surrounding Friday the 13th?

Answer: The day is doubly worrisome in that both Fridays and the number 13 have been believed unlucky. Fear of 13 goes by the seemingly unpronounceable "triskaidekaphobia," from the Greek "tris" for three, "kai" for and, "deka" for 10, plus "phobia" for fear, says Julian Havil in "Nonplussed! Mathematical Proof of Implausible Ideas."

Fretting over the number 13 has any number of justifications: 13 were present at the Last Supper; in Norse mythology there were 13 at a banquet when the son of Odin was slain, leading to the downfall of the gods; the near-catastrophic explosion on the moon rocket "Apollo 13" on 13 April 1970, two days after its launch at 13:13:00 CST from pad 39 (13 x 3).

And as unluck would have it, every year has at least one Friday the 13th and many have three, in February, March and November for a non-leap year; January, April and July for a leap year. As you can see, the only possibility for consecutive months having Friday the 13th is February and March of a non-leap year. For you triskaidekaphobes, the next consecutives are in 2009, 2015 and 2026.


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