Q. How might today's e-cowboys retitle the old range song, "Get Along, Little Dogies"?

A. When Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist Daniela Rus tackled an Australian cattle rancher's problem of herding 24,000 cows across range land the size of Vermont, she devised a "smart collar" to help keep the cows from straying, says Science magazine. The bovines wore GPS-equipped headsets that made noises — like the sound of roaring lions or crashing cars — to scare them back if they started to leave the designated area.

Eventually, researchers settled on barking dogs as the most effective noise. And if this didn't work, a solar-powered unit would deliver a mild electric shock. Now Rus is working on headsets programmed to herd the herds from pasture back to their barn, even logging in to follow specific cows. She and a colleague plan to add webcams so e-cowboys can scan for trouble and possibly use heart-rate monitors to check animal stress loads.

So make that "Get Online, Little Dogies."

Q. Photographically, at least, how might you "stop" a bullet in mid-flight?

A. Extremely short film exposure times are key, possibly done by limiting illumination time to maybe 10 microseconds, or one hundred-thousandth of a second, say David Falk et al in "Seeing the Light." This is doable with modern electronic flash units.

If the camera shutter is left open for several stroboscopic flashes, the photograph will show a multiple exposure of the speeding bullet. If the bullet moves faster than sound, say 1,000 feet/sec., then in one hundred-thousandth of a second, it will go only 1/100 foot. In other words, the bullet will move barely a tenth of an inch in that time, appearing to be virtually frozen in space. (An early action-stopping photo by Eadweard Muybridge was used to settle a bet that all four legs of a running horse do indeed simultaneously leave the ground.)

Q. Historically, what was the "oil guzzler" that preceded today's "gas guzzler"?

A. In the U.S., when people first noticed oil, they didn't quite grasp the energy angle. Instead they did what any industrious American would do; they bottled and labeled it and sold it as a health tonic. Several hundred thousand bottles of the stuff are said to have been purchased and, perhaps, consumed. (Susan Kruglinski in Discover magazine)

Q. Laboratory rats listening to the music of Mozart and Schoenberg? What were social scientists trying to prove with this one?

A. Oddly, the rats that had been brought up listening to Mozart came to prefer Mozart and the Schoenberg rats preferred Schoenberg, says Richard E. Nisbett in "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?," edited by John Brockman. The researchers placed trip-switches on either side of the cages, enabling the rats to move freely to the side where their preferred composer could be heard.

The point of the experiment was to show that rats — like people — are susceptible to the "familiarity effect," where familiarity breeds liking or at least acceptance for a wide variety of stimuli.

When people were shown unfamiliar Turkish words or Chinese ideographs, from 1 to 25 times, it turned out that they liked the symbols more the more often they were exposed to them. A classic example of this was the historic experience with the Eiffel Tower: Upon completion in 1889, it was mocked as a "grotesque blot on the landscape." But soon, just as Professor Henry Higgins of "My Fair Lady" grew accustomed to Eliza Doolittle's face and came to love her, Parisians came to adore their iconic landmark.


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