STRANGE BUT TRUE- Death cat: Foresighted feline sees grim reaper


Q. Who was the surprising "angel of death" at a certain nursing home, stopping by for a visit whenever a demise grew imminent? –J. Kevorkian

A. An adopted gray-and-white kitten named Oscar roamed the halls of the dementia unit of a Rhode Island facility, generally keeping to himself, says Science News magazine. Oddly, though, whenever a resident was close to death, the feline would hop on the bed and nuzzle the patient and purr, reported The New England Journal of Medicine. The staff took notice whenever Oscar cozied up to someone and would put in a call to the family; according to a staff geriatrician, over the past year, Oscar predicted about 25 deaths and missed just one.

Janis Hammer of the Animal Behavior Institute in Durham, North Carolina reports of another such nursing home cat that lies on the bed of someone dying and won't leave. Quite possibly, says veterinary medicine professor Bonnie Beaver of Texas A & M University, when a person nears death, body odors change, and cats have a much better sense of smell than people. But why Oscar has this special sense and the other cats there don't is "something we'll probably never know."

Q. How are cellphones today "dishing the dirt" on crime suspects? a) GPS-equipped phones make movement of suspects highly traceable b) digital memories stockpile clues, from audio and video recordings to emails to text images c) the user's DNA lingers in loose cheek cells breathed into the microphone or in skin flakes adhering to buttons or the earpiece d) high-quality fingerprints often remain on the phone e) retrievable data can lay out a suspect's entire network of contacts f) all of the above. –D. Cheney

A. It's definitely all of these and more, says Paul Marks in New Scientist magazine, prompting law enforcement officials to talk of crime-connected cellphones as "smoking guns." In fact, so robust is such evidence that even a phone found underwater can still tell tales, as did one recovered from the bottom of a lake a full year later, noted Amanda Goode of Forensic Telecommunications Service of Canada and the UK. As cellphones have become ever more useful, she said, "there is virtually no criminal case that does not involve phone evidence."

Q. How big was the biggest animal ever? And if there can be something this big, why not bigger still? –P. Bunyan

 A. The prize goes to the blue whale at 100 feet long and a mass of 200 tons, the equivalent of 50 elephants and twice the largest dinosaur, say Pierre-Yves and Sally Bely in Do Dolphins Ever Sleep? Its tongue alone weighs as much as an elephant, its heart an automobile. Some of its blood vessels are so roomy a man could swim inside them.

Water buoyancy is the key here, allowing the whale to just float. On land, a skeleton has to support the whole weight of an animal, but not so in a marine environment. Instead of having to work to overcome the force of gravity, the skeleton more functions to hold the organs together and to permit some movement for swimming.

As to size limits, food supply may be one factor. Zooplankton serve as food for small fish and crustaceans, which are eaten by larger fish, and so on, but life is not a perfect machine with 100 percent efficiency. While these difficulties might be overcome, blue whales also face reproductive restraints. Since they migrate every year, feeding in the plankton-rich Arctic waters and giving birth in the safety of the tropics, an Earth-year is probably too short to accommodate the gestation/lactation of a hypothetical super-giant baby blue.

Q. As anyone within shouting distance of Metropolis will tell you, Superman can fly faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall buildings in a bound and see through brick walls. Not a bad resume. But this leaves a few big questions...  No. 1. Exactly how fast is "faster than a speeding bullet"? –J. Leob

A. Over 1,000 mph, says Case Western Reserve University physicist John D. McGervey in The Art and Science of Leaping Tall Buildings. 

Q. No. 2. Must take a lot of food to muster energy to fly at this supersonic clip, right?

A. Even if Superman flew this fast only once, he would have to down 2,000 food calories (for a man of normal weight). Yet he apparently flies this way routinely, and at times attains speeds far greater. Conclusion: In Earthling vernacular, Clark Kent must eat like a pig.

Q. No. 3. How much leaping speed is required to hurdle a skyscraper?

A. Once again, about 1,000 mph. Our hero must accelerate to this velocity while his muscular feet are still pushing off from the ground, which means within about a foot or two. To go from zero to 1,000 mph this quickly requires a force roughly 20,000 times his body weight, or 2,000 tons– which just happens to be about the force required to stop a speeding locomotive in a split second.

Q. No. 4. Finally, how does Superman's X-ray vision allow him to see Lois or Jimmy inside the Daily Planet building and even to read headlines of newspapers in their hands?

A. The Man of Steel's X-ray eyes will penetrate most walls but are thwarted by lead, like real X-rays. But the rest is magic, for his powerful beams should pass right through flesh or paper. Scientifically speaking, he'd see little more than the people's bones!

Q. Is there truth to Johnny Carson's old quip, "For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls kind of taper off"? –E. A. Poe

A. They'll grow only for a couple of hours at most, says University of Arizona professor of surgery Kenneth V. Iserson. The reason for this piece of folklore is that after a person dies, the skin at the scalp and fingertips dries out and retracts, causing hair and nails to protrude as if they had continued growing. On the calls, you can hold the phone, though one guy had an intercom hooked up inside his casket, just in case.

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