STRANGE BUT TRUE- Blowback: Docs' sneezes not a problem



Q. It's a problem faced by baseball catchers, welders, surgeons: How do you sneeze with a mask covering your face? –T. Gampper


A. Catchers and welders only have to deal with the unpleasant bounce-back, but surgeons have to worry about spraying multitudinous microbes directly into the gaping hole they've carved in a patient, says Steve Mirsky in Scientific American magazine. 

How do you avoid an uh-oh following an achoo? 

As reported in the British Medical Journal, the accepted wisdom has been to sneeze while facing the sensitive area so the mask will redirect the ejecta backward and out the sides, i.e., away from the open wound. But when two plastic surgeons from a British hospital scoured the literature, they could find no actual evidence for this advice. So they set out to test it, using high-speed photography and some finely ground pepper sniffed by masked volunteers.  

Upshot: Very little of the blast goes sideways, though a bit sneaks out the bottom onto the surgeon's upper chest. Most of it apparently stays safely with the doctor, leaving the patient pristine. At this point, advised the Journal, "It's best for surgeons to follow their instincts when sneezing during operations."

Q. What on earth are scientists thinking creating robot cockroaches when there are already too many real ones to contend with? -G. Samsa

A. The tiny robo-roaches lack legs, wings, or antennae, but nonetheless the wheeled machines pass muster with their real "peers," at least once the bots are scented with roach pheromones, says Elizabeth Pennisi in Science magazine. In fact, they're so well accepted they become part of the insects' collective decision-making process. And by tricking the roaches into making bad decisions, the robo- roaches are helping humans win the Battle of the Bugs.

The key is that the robots are autonomous, able to interact on their own. At first they were programmed to hang out in the darker places cockroaches prefer but then to switch to lighter areas in hopes the real ones would follow suit, hiding in more vulnerable locations. So instead of the robots "rounding up the cockroaches like sheepdogs," they work via social attraction. This is a powerful idea with many applications beyond pest control, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology robotocist Daniela Rus, possibly including the mechanical herding of livestock.

Q. How long before English language standards fall by the wayside and speakers start saying things like she "haved" a headache yesterday and he "holded" the book at arm's length as he "readed" it? –J. Brinkley

A. This is not a standards issue but the normal tendency for irregular verbs to be replaced by regular verbs over time, says Stephen Ornes in Discover magazine. In English, the past tense of a regular verb ends in "ed," like "helped," but the past tense of an irregular verb follows no easy rule, such as "have" and "hold" becoming "had" and "held."  

Now a surprising fact from Harvard mathematicisn Erez Lieberman: Irregular verbs have a "half life" predicting how long before they become regularized. After studying 177 Old English verbs, he devised a formula to show that regularization occurs faster when verbs are infrequently used. "Have," for example, is used 100 times more often than "hold," so "held" will likely become "holded" in about 5,400 years but it may take 38,800 years for "had" to become "haved." 

The next irregular verbs likely to fall include infrequently used ones like "slink," says Ornes. And in a few thousand years, it might be normal to say, "That was an interesting story I just readed."


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