STRANGE BUT TRUE- Baby talk: 'Mama' and 'da-da' not always first


Q. Parents eagerly looking forward to baby's first word are often surprised by what they hear. Why? –J. L. Spears 

A. Though they confidently expect it to be "mummy" or "daddy," they are as likely to get "teddy" or "drink" or "peep-bo" or "ooh," says David Crystal in Words, Words, Words. They shouldn't get upset. "Babies, like adults, tend not to talk about the obvious but to comment on what is novel or dramatic. It isn't just teenagers who think that there are more interesting things in life than parents."

First words typically come around 12 months of age but can be as early as eight or nine months. Some babies may skip the single-word stage and launch directly into simple sentences. By 18 months, most children produce around 50 words, by age 2 200 words, by 3 3,000-5,000 words. One study recorded a child of 3 1/2 for a whole day and counted 37,000 words, over 4,000 different ones. "The totals seem remarkable until you actually spend time with an articulate four-year-old and find yourself wishing they would shut up so you can get a word in!"

Q. How does a cockroach manage to survive without its head? –M. Antoinette

 A. The bodiless head too lives on, waving its antennae about for several hours, says Charles Choi in Scientific American magazine. To understand how a roach and many other insects can survive decapitation, it's instructive to understand why we humans can't. First off, the blood loss and drop in blood pressure would stop the flow of oxygen and vital nutrients, and we'd bleed to death. Plus, brainless, we couldn't breathe; mouthless, we couldn't eat.

The roach neck, in comparison, would seal off by clotting, so there'd be no uncontrolled bleeding. And little holes, or spiracles, pipe air in directly to each body segment. Too, a cold-blooded roach can survive for weeks after just one meal. From cockroach decapitation, scientists can learn about glands and maturation, metamorphosis and reproduction in insects generally. As entomologist Christopher Tipping remarks, a headless roach that can still stand, react to touch, and move has much to teach a human about how insect neurons operate.

Q. How much can you tell from your dog's bark? Better still, can you identify your dog from its bark alone? –J. Hong

A. Most of us can't unless we utilize our computers and software developed at Eotvos Lorand University in

Budapest, which can distinguish the key features of barks, reports Animal Cognition. Thus equipped, we can not only identify our own dog from its bark but also determine if it was barking at a stranger or a ball or possibly something else.

Q. The furor over performance-enhancing drugs in sports continues unabated. What's one of the thorniest new issues to be tackled by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Montreal? –M. Jones 

A. The "sporting placebo boost," where athletes just think they took drugs, answers New Scientist magazine. How placebos work has always posed a mystery. Recently researchers at the University of Turin, Italy, timed how long young men could operate an exercise device when blood flow in their arm was painfully restricted. Some were given pain-killing morphine injections, enabling them to exercise longer, and then a week later they were given a fake injection (placebo). They were still able to exercise longer, seemingly oblivious to the pain. (The Journal of Neuroscience)

"Should we consider morphine conditioning in the training phase ethical and legal?" asks one researcher. According to WADA rules, athletes can take opiate painkillers (such as morphine) during training, but not on the day of competition. Yet the whole affair is tricky, tricky, tricky, concedes WADA's medical director.

Q. In the days of da Vinci and Michelangelo, good anatomy books weren't available. What'd these great artists do to bone up on the human body? –V. Frankenstein

A. They observed medical school autopsies and did their own covert dissections, reports American Artist

magazine. To obtain fresh cadavers, they hung out around gallows and cut down the bodies of executed criminals.

A few art colleges today have students view autopsies as a way of supplementing anatomy classes, though the experience can be traumatic for some. Absent a corpse, an anatomical mannequin might do, available in either male or female and with flexible joints for bending into just about any desired position for observation and study.

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