Why is this column here?
Because a darkness is upon the planet, shrouding the land with ignorance and vapidity and lies, zombifying the populace as it careens out of control toward a new and terrifying millennium. Because survival will be the reward for those with the courage and intensity to become skilled at information retrieval. Because an advertising campaign for a beer company asks "Why Ask Why?," urging Americans to drink, not think.
And finally: Just because.
Why Things Are has a simple goal -- to provide, with the utmost of intellectual modesty, the answers necessary for a thorough apprehension of the nature and destiny of Mankind and the universe. If space permits.
Why do objects fall at the same rate toward the Earth regardless of their weight? You would think that Marlon "The Refrigerator" Brando, if dropped from the top of the Empire State Building, would hit the ground before a paper clip that was dropped simultaneously. But (discounting any possible effects from wind or air resistance) they land at the same time.
Try an experiment.
Pick up a paper clip. Now pick up Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando is definitely heavier. What do we mean by "heavier"? We mean that, holding the 300-pound Oscar-rejecting actor by the lapels, we can detect that he is subject to greater gravitational force. But Brando has another distinct feature: He is hard to move. The more massive an object, the greater the force needed to move it from a state of rest. This is true whether you are rolling someone down the sidewalk or dropping him from a skyscraper.
The hard thing to realize is that the objects don't fall "because there's nothing underneath them." Objects fall because they are being moved by gravity. You do not, in fact, "drop" Marlon Brando; you just place him in a point in space. Since there is no structure to support him, gravity can move him without encumbrance.
The point here is that heaviness is a two-sided coin. As you get heavier, gravity pulls harder, but it is also that much harder to budge you. So weight doesn't make you fall faster or slower. That's your answer. Theoretically, if you had unbelievably sensitive instruments, and if you dropped Marlon Brando and the paper clip in separate experiments instead of simultaneously, you might be able to show that the cinematic giant hit the ground a fraction of a fraction of a microsecond more quickly than the paper clip. This is because the star of "The Godfather" exerts his own gravitational attraction and pulls the Earth toward him as he descends. So does the paper clip, but not as dramatically. This is worthless cogitation, though. Gravity is the weakest of the four known forces in the universe (except perhaps on Mondays) and even the porcine Brando exerts an infinitesimally slight pull.
Why does the full moon make people weird? It used to. It doesn't anymore.
You have to remember that, prior to the invention of electricity, night was a drag. After dark it was dark. Travel by horse and buggy with only a swinging lantern for illumination was terrifying. People stayed at home, and slept. Full moons were a huge deal. Full moons made the nights come alive. People traveled to see each other. They partied. They drank. They drank to excess. Which led to aberrant behavior. People noticed this and called it lunacy.
Fine. But what about now? What about all the cops, delivery-room nurses and bartenders who swear that nights with a full moon are absolute insanity?
It's the every-time-I-wash-the-car-it-rains phenomenon. Every time you wash the car it doesn't rain, it's just that when you wash the car and it does rain, it tends to stick in your mind. Same thing with the cops, nurses, etc. They tend not to remember the peaceful full moons, or the crescent and gibbous moons that are marked by lunacy. (There. We used the word "gibbous" in a sentence. We can coast the rest of our lives.)
Why do villains, after they capture the hero, think of some elaborate and chancy means of slowly killing him rather than just dispatching him with a single bullet to the back of the head? Beyond the obvious explanation -- James Bond and Batman are valuable commercial commodities that can't be liquidated -- there is a deep, obscure and timeless truth: There exists something even more villainous than murder.
The ritual of delaying the termination of the hero is called the Obligatory Elaborate Death. (Usually preceded by the Obligatory Spilling of The Beans, the moment of gloating in which the villain reveals his heinous plot.) Just the other day we saw Captain Kirk try to connive his way out of a jam. He'd been captured by an evil alien despot. The creep wanted to lynch Kirk on the spot. Kirk said disingenuously, "Where's the sport in a simple hanging? The terror, the intrigue, the FUN?" The evil alien despot, seeing the logic of this, decided that he would conduct a "royal hunt," in which Kirk would be tracked and killed like a wild animal. Eventually, of course, the evil alien despot was slain, and the Enterprise continued on its poorly defined and no doubt federal-budget-breaking mission.
We found our villain expert in the person of James Combs, who teaches a course in politics and popular culture at Valparaiso University in Indiana. He explains villainy not in terms of pure evil or sadism or drama-lust, but as a rejection of Western values of individual liberty. The point of the Obligatory Elaborate Death is not to kill or even torture the hero but to rob him of his freedom, of his right to control his own life.
"Villains want to subjugate and control people while heroes want to liberate and free people," Combs says.
As long as there is totalitarianism in this world, there will be villains who want to kill their victims slowly.
Why don't contact lenses accidentally migrate behind your eyeball and work their way into your brain? There's a transparent layer of skin on your eyeball that runs about halfway back into your socket before it suddenly halts and folds up underneath your eyelid. In other words, the slot between eyeball and eyelid dead-ends before you get way back in the danger zone. There's still a fair amount of room, and the white part of the eye is fairly tough and insensitive, so people have "lost" their contact lenses there for months at a time. Also this is where car keys go.
Why do people experience de'ja` vu? It suddenly hits you: You just know you've been here before, in this same place, talking to this same person, who is wearing the same paisley shirt with the mustard stain on the lapel, making the same hackneyed observation. Was it in a past life? Is this proof of the supernatural? Does this mean that Elvis lives after all?
Negatory. De'ja` vu is sort of a mental hiccup, a brief, harmless malfunction of a basic mechanism of memory.
Here's what happens: Normally, when one is in familiar surroundings, two brain functions are triggered: a concrete memory of the place, and a separate, abstract feeling of familiarity. De'ja` vu hits you when the familiarity sensation is triggered without a specific attendant memory. You've probably been in a similar situation, but your brain doesn't remember it. To make sense of this discrepancy, your brain frantically tries to plug in available data (the mustard stain!). And so you are left with the sensation of reliving something, including telling details, but without the full clarity of memory.
Why does a female praying mantis devour the male during copulation? And why does the male stand for this? Let's face it: Nature is gross. When the male honeybee mates with the queen, his genitals explode and he falls dead to the ground. That's what they call going out with a bang. Deep beneath the ocean waves, dwarf male suckerfish affix themselves to the female and virtually wither away except for their testes. Then there's the male praying mantis, who gets his head bit off, literally, while procreating. There's a common theme here: The male of the species is nothing more than a sperm delivery unit.
The bigger picture is this: Nature is a machine, utterly amoral, and because it operates strictly according to the rules of math it is only incidentally beautiful and incidentally cruel. Evolution isn't a steady progression, a process of improvement with human beings at the end of the line. Rather we are all nothing more than devices designed to pass along a genetic package. Natural selection doesn't care if we have eyeballs at the end of long stalks, or if we die when exposed to air, or if we can survive only in the livers of sheep.
Praying mantises are the perfect example of this. As mantises begin to copulate in their buggy little way, the female extends her jaws and bites off the head of her suitor. As if this isn't insult enough, she then swallows the head and gradually eats the rest of the body. If this behavior proved to be a competitive disadvantage, the gene causing the cannibalism would disappear from the mantis population. But it's actually a great strategy. For one thing, the female gets a free lunch, not an inconsiderable fact in the world of bugs. Second, as Richard Dawkins notes in "The Selfish Gene," "The loss of the head does not seem to throw the rest of the male's body off its sexual stride. Indeed, since the insect head is the seat of some inhibitory nerve centers, it is possible that the female improves the male's sexual performance by eating his head." (Kids, don't try this at home.)So why doesn't the male flee the moment he lays eyes on this harridan? Because the Run Away gene can't compete with the Go For It gene. The exploding male honeybee, likewise, literally plugs up the queen and prevents other males from mating with her. Horrifying, but a great reproductive strategy.
Why do helicopters move forward, instead of just up and down?No, it's not that little propeller in the rear. That is a stabilizer. It's that the big propeller tilts slightly forward.
Why are some quarters red? You are probably either thinking "Great question!" or "Huh?" For those skeptics, please indulge us: Some quarters have been painted red, or partially red. They've been circulating for years and years. But you never see any red nickels or red dimes or, except in the world of cliches, red cents.
Our Why Things Are investigative staff has spent months trying to track down a solution. We called the U.S. Mint. We badgered the Federal Reserve. We developed trustworthy sources at companies that make vending machines. We have contemplated the issue over long lunches at fashionable restaurants. The major break in the case came when we realized that the word for a person who has an unnatural obsession with coins -- a coin hobbyist, in short -- is "numismatist." This allowed us to then track down the obligatory hobby publication, Numismatic News. Alan Herbert, the magazine's answer man, put us out of our misery.
"These are so-called 'house' or 'shill' coins that a bar will use in a juke box," he said.
The idea is that people won't feed the juke box unless it's already throbbing. So the bar employees are given color-coded quarters to put in it. Later, when the machine is emptied by the juke box vendor, it is obvious which ones were put into the machine by patrons and which ones by the bar employees. The bar keeps all the red quarters and gets a share of the silver ones. Of course, this system doesn't always keep everyone honest, which is why those red quarters sneak their way into general circulation.
What makes this scenario seem likely is that it explains why the only red coins you see are quarters: That's all a juke box will take.
So why red? Why not green?
Because women don't paint their nails green. The coloring comes from nail polish, which sticks to a coin better than anything else.
Why doesn't passion last? Have you ever considered that maybe this is just your own personal problem? That while you poke at your TV dinner next to your silent, sullen, flatulent spouse, there are other long-married couples who right now are dashing gleefully into their bedrooms wearing elbow pads and crash helmets?
Nah, it's everyone. Robert J. Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale, has shown that in the vast majority of couples, not only passion but almost everything else declines over time: ability to communicate, physical attractiveness, sharing of interests, having good times, ability to listen, etc.
(Let's just go kill ourselves right now, okay?)
What does survive, frequently, is commitment. Commitment, in Sternberg's view, is one of the three essential components of love. The other two are passion and intimacy. If you have all three, that's consummate love. Commitment alone is "empty love." Intimacy alone is "liking." Passion alone is "infatuation." Intimacy and passion but no commitment is "romantic love." Commitment and intimacy but no passion is "companionate love." We advise you to keep a chart with you at all times, for handy reference in emergencies.
Sternberg says love is like any addiction: You build up a tolerance.
"It's like with coffee, cigarettes or alcohol," he told Psychology Today. "Addiction can be rapid, but once habituation sets in, even an increased amount of exposure to the person or substance no longer stimulates the motivational arousal that was once possible."
(Why does he talk that way? Because he's a scientist. He's licensed to talk that way.)
We'll offer our own answer for why passion doesn't last: Nobody's that interesting.
Why do we remember the middle names of assassins? First, the cosmic explanation: Names are codes. In rolling a name over in our mind we try to crack the code, to decipher why this man Lee Harvey Oswald would do such a thing to the president. Middle names in particular tend to be strange, formal, antiquated, a nod to Gothic ancestors. Wilkes. What kind of name is that?
Beyond the etymology there is a much simpler answer: Police blotters always use middle names to avoid misidentification. There might have been a Lee Jehoshaphat Oswald in Dallas, too. The news media report the full name, and then soon it takes on a life of its own, becoming a single expression, like Sammydavisjunior. You would never say Lee Oswald or John Booth or James Ray or Mark Chapman. The one modern exception is Sirhan Sirhan. His middle name was Bishara. Unfortunately it's almost impossible to say Sirhanbisharasirhan, with all those sibilant sounds swooshing together, so we have to shorten it. The result is a name with a kind of formal weirdness, an enigmatic structure that perfectly fits the inexplicable nature of the crime. Sirhan Sirhan, a name so evil you have to say it twice.
Why do the same referees appear in every televised pro football game? We were concerned that this was just our own personal misconception, as opposed to a universal misconception.
But then we called up Jerry Markbreit, seemingly one of the most omnipresent football officials and author of the candidly titled memoir "Born to Referee." Markbreit assured us he hears the question all the time.
"I have people say, 'You know, you're on every Monday night game,' " he said. "It's an optical illusion. I get that everywhere."
So what causes the illusion? Our initial guess was that one or two blue-chip crews work all the really big games, but it turns out that the NFL assigns the crews randomly. Our next supposition was that the referees are specially selected to look identical. There is a seed of truth there. The NFL tends to pick white guys between the ages of 40 and 60, and they must adhere to strict tonsorial codes, like no long hair, beards or mustaches. Most are successful businessmen, straight arrows all the way.
Markbreit writes that officials are "reserved, disciplined, follow-orders men who are willing to place ourselves in a strictly regimented environment. All of a sudden, for a few days at a time over 20 weeks, we have to follow rules we didn't make -- and we like it." They cannot take an alcoholic beverage at any point while on the road for an NFL game. They cannot be one minute late to a meeting without being reprimanded. They must never swear. They're even trained to be5have like robots. Their hand signs are identical, stiff, peculiar, dehumanizing.
In baseball, the umps and the managers are always screaming and spitting and kicking dirt at each other, but you never see this in football. Ed Marion, executive director of the NFL Referees Association, gives the reason: Baseball and basketball officials belong to a union. Football referees don't, so their jobs are not quite so secure, and their bosses call the shots.
"The less we're seen, the more they like it," says Marion.
Why did Prufrock say, "I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?" The line is the dramatic, quirky zenith of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of those excruciatingly important literary lines that high-school students are supposed to analyze at term-paper time with original insights. Naturally there's not a jot of meaning that you can detect in the dang thing, so you are forced to consider truancy or drug abuse before finally settling on simple plagiarism.
We can help. The first mystery that must be solved is why the line is memorable at all. The main reason is that the mantra "I grow old ... I grow old ... " is the most economical statement about the essential tragedy of life, and therefore of literature. You can't condense the pain of mortality any further. (Though the all-time prize goes to Shakespeare for those stage directions that say simply: Dies.) Then you get to the kicker, the payoff, and it's unforgettably silly: "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." What a goofy rhyme! How Mother Hubbard of him! But it's perfect. It's like a Herman's Hermits song: You hate it but can't get it out of your head. It actually reads, at a quick glance, like the first thing he managed to come up with on a tight deadline. (We would have chosen, "I shall wash my underwear with Bold.")
Traditionally, students have been told that Prufrock will need to roll up his trousers when he gets old because he'll be thin and shrunken and won't want his pants to drag on the ground. That's a tedious argument of insidious intent. Eliot is being far more profound. Prufrock is a brilliant, pompous, self-pitying guy who wants to score with women but doesn't have the nerve. He's letting life pass him by. He's going bald and dresses like a banker. He desperately needs a fashion transfusion.
A fold at the bottom of the trouser leg used to be considered a frivolous elegance of fashion-conscious young men. Prufrock is therefore imagining himself reinvented as a dandy. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk along the beach." What a hepcat he'll be!
The meaning of the peach line is, well, a little fuzzy. Perhaps he's saying he won't worry about his dentures getting yanked out. Though we tend to think he's fantasizing about some other bold move in his new life as a sexual superman. But that's not a proper subject for a family newspaper.
Why is marble always so cold? Touch a few things. Metal is cold. Glass is cool. Plastic is slightly warmer than glass and styrofoam is "room temperature." Now ask yourself this: Why shouldn't everything in the room be the same temperature?
Don't be a dolt. Everything is the same temperature. You've simply discovered conductivity. (How exciting! Get the beers!) Your fingers are, at the surface, about 85 degrees. The objects in the room are probably about 72 degrees. So when you touch something, heat is transferred from you to the object. Some substances do the trick quicker, making them feel colder. Marble is dense and makes close contact with your skin; styrofoam is mostly air, which is why it's good for holding coffee.
Now that you have mastered the subject of conductivity, you're ready to move on to "specific heat." This is the extent to which is it difficult to heat something up or cool it down. Marble has a high specific heat, which is why it not only feels cold when you first touch it but also refuses to heat up. Lie down on marble and the heat will be drained right out of you.
Next week: Why science is inherently boring.