Question: Why so much superstition among baseball players? What did former Yankee pitcher Don Larsen have to say on the matter? What do psychologists have to say?

Answer: Athletes in many sports will wear lucky socks or engage in other forms of magical thinking, but baseball players are particularly susceptible because they have so little control over their day-to-day fate, say Tom Valeo and Lindsay Beyerstein in "Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans." And, say psychologists, if a player believes those socks will improve his performance, chances are he'll play with more confidence (a "placebo effect"). So is that why Boston's Wade Boggs won five batting titles? Boggs himself credited the chicken he ate before every game, plus his habit of leaving for the ballpark at exactly 1:47 for a 7:05 game, and on and on. Cleveland Indians' Mike Hargrove performed so many little batting rituals that he was dubbed "the human rain delay."

Players also observe taboos designed to avoid bad luck, such as NOT stepping on the foul line or NOT mentioning a pitcher's no-hitter while it's in progress. Don Larsen encountered this one during his 1956 World Series perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Midway through, his teammates started to shun him. Although completion of the game might have reaffirmed his teammates' notions, Larsen wasn't buying it: "I don't believe in superstition," he told a reporter. "I was more uncomfortable the last few innings because no one would talk to me or sit next to me. The only time I was happy was when I was on the mound."

Question: From a Wadsworth, Ohio reader: "I heard somewhere that 1,300 Earth-size planets could fit into the volume of Jupiter. I don't believe it!"

Answer: Astronomers tell us that Jupiter has an average equatorial radius of 71,492 kilometers (km), which is just over 11 times the radius of Earth (6,378 km). Since the volume of a sphere is proportional to the radius CUBED, Jupiter's volume is more than 11 x 11 x 11 =3D 1,331 times that of Earth.

As Bob Berman put it in "Secrets of the Night Sky," Jupiter is so large that 1,300 planet Earths dropped inside wouldn't quite fill it. It has more mass than all other planets combined — and doubled. "Our solar system is made up essentially of the sun and Jupiter. All the rest is an afterthought."

Question: When a smoker's life goes up in smoke, at what rate does this occur? Can you estimate the longevity price of a single pack or even a single cigarette?

Answer: What follows are average figures, since some smokers get lucky enough to beat the odds. Smoking kills primarily through cancer and heart disease, both late-onset diseases starting at age 50 or so, say Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam in "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin." Since life expectancy is less than 80, the average unlucky smoker will lose less than 30 years of life but more than 1 year (otherwise there wouldn't be such a fuss made about smoking). Taking the geometric mean of 1 and 30, smokers die an estimated 5 years earlier than nonsmokers.

If a person starts smoking at age 18 and dies at age 70, averaging a pack per day, that's about 400,000 cigarettes. Making the totally unverifiable but instructive assumption that each cigarette contributes equally to mortality, then each one will cost the smoker 5 years/400,000 =3D .00001 year =3D 5 minutes, or about the time it takes to smoke it. This rough calculation is borne out by a study in the "British Medical Journal" that found a 6.5 year life-expectancy loss (for less than one pack a day) and concluded each cigarette costs an average 11 minutes of life.


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