STRANGE BUT TRUE- How sweet! Newlyweds, warriors-- both love honey


Q. It's pretty robust stuff in that it never spoils– never ever. It's also a handy thing to have around, even on a battlefield: during WWII, it was used to treat wounds of soldiers because of its moisture-attracting and -absorbing nature, making it a valuable healing agent. It also lent its name to that old European custom of newlyweds consuming a daily cup of fermented mead for a month. So enamored of the product are its industrious creators that upon discovering a mother lode of its ingredients, they do a "dance" to alert their co-workers, a circle dance to say the source is close by, a waggle dance to say they'll need to fly farther out from home. Then they get wings a-whirring and make a beeline at 15 mph or more. So what's this buzz all about? –W. T. Pooh

A. The honey of honeybees and how sweet it is, quite fitting for the word "honeymoon" with its original drink of choice being fermented honey (mead), as described by Liza Lentini in Discover magazine.

Q. Crime history buffs, can you recount a few of the "fractured" forensics behind the still unsolved Jack the Ripper serial killer case of 1888? –C. Stuart

A. Start with the utterly botched investigation. The five mutilated victims, found within a half-mile radius,

were all "ladies of the night," and lack of funding and training for support staff led to evidence being treated unscientifically, says E.J. Wagner in The Science of Sherlock Holmes.

For example, the corpse of Mary Ann Nichols– usually considered the first victim– was only superficially examined by a physician before mortuary workers (actually inmates from a workhouse) stripped the body. They had made no notes, labeled no evidence, and had only vague recollections afterward. Said the coroner, "It appears the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable." 

Then there were the highly touted bloodhounds brought to London to be put on the killer's trail. At one point, the Times of London reported that somehow the dogs had disappeared. Oddly, while the public believed them to be roaming free, the Ripper murders stopped, and only after it was announced the dogs were back in their kennel did the murders resume. 

And what about "Jack"? Not far from the murder scene and some 20 years earlier, a young Constance Kent– whose mother had a history of mental illness– had confessed to the brutal stabbing death of her half-brother. Released from prison at age 41, she possessed some medical skill as a midwife and was sporadically attracted to religion. There are no available facts as to where she went or how she lived, says Wagner. Still, "as it was just three years before the Ripper murders, and the Ripper was believed to be a knife wielder with some medical knowledge, it is tempting to speculate about a connection...."  

Q. A head for numbers is one thing, but if you're in Papua, New Guinea and speaking the endangered language of Kobon, what's the significance of this sequence of body parts: little finger, ring finger, middle finger, forefinger, thumb, wrist, forearm, inside elbow, bicep, shoulder? –M. Steffanina

A. Words for numbers in Kobon have to do with the human anatomy, so listed above are the numbers 1 to 10, says linguist K. David Harrison in "When Languages Die" in New Scientist magazine. To count higher than 10, they count the collarbone and the hollow at the base of the throat and then right down the other side all the way to 23. Kobon speakers can count to 46 by counting back the other way, and even higher by starting over and doing it all again, making 61 "hand turn around second time go back biceps other side."

Q. Is there a swearing pecking order in society? –M. Flaherty

A. Da** straight! says Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts psychologist Timothy Jay, author of Why We Curse. And not only with regard to profanity. The powerful also feel freer to talk more in formal groups, to interrupt others, and to stare listeners in the eye.

 "Strong language" is strong because it carries with it the prerogatives of status. This is true of anger displays in general, as any parent knows scolding a child or boss berating an underling.

Yet swearing can also be an intimate act, a bond among coequals– friends swear most among friends, guys with other guys, women with women, kids with kids. "Men swear about three times as often around other men as around women, and a similar ratio holds for women," Jay says.

In mixed groups, men outswear women by a margin which used to be 10-to-1 but is much closer to 2-to-1 nowadays, though if you go by the movies, those barometers of social change: some 80 percent of the "action" still lies with the guys.

Q. I saw on the Internet about foods with 'negative calories,' i.e., the chewing and digestion consume enough energy that diet-wise, they're actual pound-shedders. Wow! Sure beats working out! Can it be true? –J. Fonda

A. Better hang on to those barbells, because you could masticate that sugarless gum all afternoon and burn off negligible calories (11kcal/hr by one small study), says Purdue nutritionist Richard Mattes. Or you could try eating tonnages of celery, also with likely small benefit. 

Moreover, since few foods (if you consider gum a food) fit into this category, their appeal would nosedive fast, and so would your compliance. Any weight loss coming out of this would be trivial. Worse, if you did somehow manage to consume these foods in such large quantities, you'd likely suffer nutrient imbalances entailing health risks. Bottom line: "Adding a drop of water to a swimming pool daily would technically lead to a full pool too, but the likelihood of this amounting to anything is about zero."

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