Questions that Stumped the Explainer

The Explainer is a neat feature of Slate Magazine, where its editors try to answer life's most perplexing questions (like How do you become a Santa Claus for the holidays? Sign up with a Santa distributor).

But every year, there are questions people sent that stump even the most able Explainers. Here are the questions that stumped Slate's Explainer in 2008:

Why don't humans have a mating season?

Is it just me, or do all national anthems the world over, no matter how rich and exotic the culture, seem to sound like European marching-band music? Wouldn't one expect China's national anthem be more "plinky"? Shouldn't Iraq's national anthem sound a little more "Arab-y"?

Why do cockroaches flip over on their backsides when they die? I sprayed RAID into a hole in my wall the other day, and by the next morning I found six cockroaches laid out on my floor, all flipped over and all very dead!

Why do the women gymnasts walk around between events with that goofy arm-swing gait?

Link - via Favorite Office Time Wasters

Previously on Neatorama: The 25 Most Important Questions in the History of the Universe

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"Who made up the rule that if you wore a shirt all day, went home, and washed it, you can't wear it the next day?"

LOL. I've always wondered about this.
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Wow! That's a lot of "unanswered" questions. Haven't these guys ever heard of David Feldman, and his series of "Imponderables" books? I know he answered the "dead cockroach" one.

I wish they'd numbered these. I know the answers, or at least prevailing theories, to quite a few. Here goes:

Squirrels - They're very light, have sharp, curved claws, flexible spines, nearly 360-degree vision and lightning reflexes. You'd be able to do stuff like that if you were built like a squirrel, too.

National anthems - The concept of national anthems is a European one. European rulers often "imposed" anthems on their colonies in other continents. I'm pretty sure that participation in international ceremonies (such as Olympic Games) may have put some pressure on other countries to come up with anthems; some directly recycled pre-existing music, others imitated it. In the effort to give it that "anthem" sound, much originality or cultural flavor was lost. Example: listen to Roumanian composer Georges Enesco's "Poeme Roumaine." Even before I read the liner notes, I could tell that it ended with the national anthem (no longer in use). Sometimes more "ethnic" tunes become "unofficial" national anthems, considered too "ethnic" for "mixed company."

Human mating season - As far as I know, only the females don't have a mating season. Sigh... But seriously, it may have to do with the way our brains develop; we function better when raised by Mom & Dad. Several other animals go into heat all year 'round, although it tends to be subdued in the wintertime. The animals' social structure has nothing to do with this, though, so it may just be the luck of the draw.

Peking to Beijing - "Chinese" is not a spoken language. China is divided into provinces, each with its own language. A common writing system was imposed on all the provinces long ago, along with the various family names; but the languages remain distinct. Mandarin is the most widely spoken one today. Beijing was always Beijing in Mandarin. "Peking" might have been a Cantonese, Szechuan, or even Japanese name for the city. As China opened up to the West in recent decades, the government found the American names for Chinese proper nouns terribly confusing or even insulting, and developed a system of transliterating Chinese into Roman characters called "Pinyin." The Pinyin spellings remain the same from province to province, but the pronunciation rules change depending on the province. So "Beijing" is pretty close to the way it's spoken in Mandarin. But if, for example, "Peking" comes from Hunan province, then "Beijing" would be pronounced more like "Peking" to someone from Hunan. Understand? I thought so.

Indoor tanning - I'd ask a cosmetic surgeon about the effects of UV rays on silicone. Your skin can't absorb all that radiation, and silicone doesn't last forever, either.

Sharks - Well-fed sharks will usually not attack. However, in the wild, the prey escapes about 9 times out of 10. Always assume that sharks near your boat are looking for something to eat, and stay out of the water unless you have a shark cage and really know what you're doing.

Early man's nails - As with most animals that sport claws, they'd get worn down just from frequent use. They also tended to be pretty long and thick. The presence of oils also strengthened them. (If you rub olive oil into your nails, they'll get very shiny and very strong!) They probably also got broken at times, and nail-biting was more a grooming technique than a nervous habit. No doubt some people figured out how to smooth those ends down by filing them on a smooth stone or clamshell.

Stone Age DNA - Define "normal!" Seriously, though. They would look like a Stone Age person. They probably looked a lot like us, though, because the Stone Age isn't as far back as you might think. You're probably thinking of a Neanderthal, which may have been a different hominid species. We can't tell yet if Neanderthals COULD have mated with Cro-Magnons ("modern" humans). Chances are, though, neither hominid species would have found the other attractive enough to give it a shot. DNA mutates over time, so a person with DNA identical to a Stone Age person's would have those physiological characteristics. However, if this was Cro-Magnon DNA, then the person would probably not have a hard time fitting in today. (We're not sure how Neanderthals thought, but they were certainly not stupid. However, their brains were different from ours.) A Stone Age Cro-Magnon would be just as capable as a modern human, and could learn to surf the web, surf the waves or shoot a bow-&-arrow just as we all can.

Assault in Ohio - Insufficient data. If the woman fell by accident, then it sounds like your brother jumped to the wrong conclusion. But if you omitted to tell us you pushed the woman, then... There's also the possibility that the woman fell on her own, but out of malice decided to accuse you. I hate when people do that. If that's the case, you need a very good detective on the case.

Burma's dictator - It's not just his medals that are full of B.S. He's a dictator, and as such is self-aggrandizing. (By the way, people like that turn up anywhere in the world.)

Middle East oil - Not all oil reserves are connected, and you need oxygen to fuel combustion anyway. You weren't planning on doing something rash, were you? But, no, you needn't worry about an errant missile blowing country-sized chunks off the map.

Personal coaches - A friend of mine coaches, and he was once a pro athlete until an injury ended that career. Most good coaches, too, can continue to coach an athlete with greater ability than they themselves ever had, since they can recognize that ability and direct their student accordingly. (I guess you could think of it almost as a jockey getting the best performance out of a race-horse.)

Presidential pardon - President Abraham Lincoln wrote official pardons for officers and enlisted men during the Civil War. However, the military is an extension of the executive branch of the Federal government. While I'm sure that a president can give a public gesture of pardon to a convicted civilian, I'm pretty sure that an official pardon would have to come from the governor of the state. Then again, the Federal government may intervene on a number of cases. If your case were to gain the interest of the president, I'm sure he or she could issue a pardon that could supersede what the governor might have to say.

Stomach - The stomach walls are pretty thick relative to its size, and it tends to retain its shape regardless of how full it is. Organs may press on it, but not very much (abnormal growths notwithstanding). Stomachs can become over-full, though, and can shrink if one cuts back on eating for long enough. The same applies to the lungs, which look more like sponges on the inside than bags.

Black holes in Bermuda Triangle - Black holes form when a super-massive star (bigger than our own sun) collapses at the end of its life. The resulting object is called a "singularity" and is incredibly dense. This density creates a gravitational field so powerful that light can't even reflect off of its surface. It can't swallow EVERYTHING around it, but it would be inescapable. (It even distorts time!) The Bermuda Triangle seems to be the site of some unusual geological activity that affects magnetism, climate, weather and ocean currents in that region. In the past, some ships and planes were lost there (and in plenty of other spots in the world). But it's not a black hole. Besides, even small airplanes routinely fly through it without incident. If you take a commercial flight through the Triangle, and the plane seems to hit unusual turbulence, it's usually the pilots havin' some fun with you.

Shirt - Someone in the garment industry.

Panda names - In China, to double a person's name is a sign of affection. It's sort of the diminutive form. Ling the woman was probably Ling-Ling when she was a cute little girl. Pandas are always regarded as children, so their names remain doubled and therefore "cute."

Human on fire - Yikes! Most people on fire go into shock or suffocate within about 10 seconds if they're conscious. Chances are if they were in a car that crashed badly enough to become ENGULFED in flames, they were knocked (mercifully) unconscious. As for burning to death, that can take much longer --- perhaps a minute or so. One can be fatally burned in less time, but could linger for days before succumbing. One man aboard the Hindenburg when it burned up actually walked away from the wreckage and asked for help. All his clothes and skin were burned away, and he was all exposed, roasted muscle! Apparently, once his nerve endings were gone, it didn't hurt so much. He died an hour or so later.

Anna, I hope you've learned by now that the Large Hadron Collider isn't going to destroy the Earth. (Besides, since black holes also distort time, if we were to be swallowed by one, we'd not even notice.) I also hope that by now you've learned to not never use no double-negatives.
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Q." Who made up the rule that if you wore a shirt all day, went home, and washed it, you can't wear it the next day?"
A. Someone who didn't have at least one really cool t-shirt.
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