STRANGE BUT TRUE- Hammered: Spin around and then let 'er rip


Q. People will tell you it's the crudest and rawest event of the Olympics, where the athlete can lose his balance, get pulled off his feet, and feel like his arms are being tugged from their sockets. He certainly wouldn't wear ballet shoes for this one, right? –R. Nureyev

A. The hammer throw requires such intricate footwork and timing that U.S. gold medal winner Harold Connolly did indeed wear ballet shoes for his 1956 throw, says Vincent Mallette in The Science of the Summer Games. 

First the athlete enters the 7-foot throwing circle, then faces away from the ultimate direction of the hammer's release. He holds the handle in both hands and starts swinging the cannonball-like head around his body, building centrifugal force, leaning to "counter" the pull, up to maybe 140 rpm. Finally he lifts the hammer explosively and lets 'er rip, at 60 mph or more.

The hammer is basically the 16-pound shot of the shot put, on a wire with a handle, though no one has ever putted the shot over 76 feet (23.2 meters), while the hammer has been thrown 284 feet (86.7)– the length of a tennis court vs. a football field. 

"Nothing remotely like this was part of the ancient Olympics, but by the Renaissance it had become part of 'a hero's education' to toss heavy, ill-shaped things– stones, logs, sledgehammers"– says Mallette, though the hammer throw wasn't added to the Games until 1900.

Q. Of Earth's gold resources, which is the most plentiful? a) surface gold b) ocean gold c) core gold? –K. Midas

A. Make that c, b, a–in that order. Only the surface gold could make you rich, but there are tons upon tons in the oceans. The problem is ocean gold is too diffuse or dilute for economical recovery. Now scientists report an even richer deposit deep in the Earth's core, some 1.6 quadrillion tons as calculated by Australian geologist Bernard Wood. This amounts to more than 99 percent of all the gold, enough to coat the planet's surface to a depth of about half a foot, says Anne Wootton in Discover magazine.

When Earth formed over the course of 30-40 million years, the planetismals that crashed together contained gold that then was pulled into the iron-rich core, along with much platinum and nickel, while the surface was still an ocean of molten magma. With so much gold pulled core-ward, surface gold today would be even rarer than it is if not for the gilded stuff riding in on meteorites millions of years later, long after the cooling of the Earth's crust.

Q. What attempts are being made to rocket to the stars (beyond our dear Sun)? –J. Glenn

A. None whatsoever to date, due to the almost unimaginable vastness of space, says UCLA astronomer Luca Bertello. Consider that Voyager 2, launched in August 1977, has traveled outward from Earth about 5 billion miles. Yet this distance corresponds only to about 8 hours light time when it takes light 4 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 25 trillion miles away. 

The fastest rocket today plugs along at a snail's pace compared to the speed of light (186,000 miles/second), adds Stanford astrophysicist John Beck. "It would take 50,000 years to get to Centauri. Until we invent something like warp drive (if it's possible), any rocket we can imagine building would still take thousands of years to get there," he says.

Obviously, we won't be sending a couple of astronauts starward soon. It would be a trip of many generations. So it's likely that if humans visit other stars, it will not be as explorers or tourists but as colonists. 

"However, by the time these colonists get there," Bertello adds, "they will be as different from Earthlings as the Navajo are from the Chinese."

Q. Look out now, they're coming in to claim chunks of our territory, which we'll call "human species uniqueness." Who are these poachers? –S. J. Gould

A. In a classic scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a caveman picks up a bone and uses it as a weapon, a pivotal moment in human evolution, says New Scientist magazine. Tossed skyward, the bone becomes a spaceship, as we head for the stars. It had long been believed that we humans are the only species to use weapons, but chimpanzees have been found using spears to hunt bushbabies. And the parade of poachers continues:

Whales apparently have empathy, baboons and chimps can demonstrate abstract thought, chimps and elephants recognize themselves in reflections, scrub jays have foresight, and chimps show a basic sense of morality or justice. As to our vaunted language skills, whale songs employ a grammar and syntax, and chimps and monkeys have an extensive "vocabulary" of calls. Of course, no others are about to match our linguistic sophistication, but the point is we are not qualitatively different.

 Rather than grieving for the loss of our sense of uniqueness, suggests New Scientist, we should welcome it. "It might give us a stronger sense of connectedness to the rest of life," the article says, "boost conservation efforts, and even remove some of our 'unique' intellectual arrogance."

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