Someone sent me a postcard picture of the earth. On the back it said, “Wish you were here.” – Steven Wright

It’s time once again for “Ask Professor Science”, your go-to science person for all your science related questions n at. Yeah, I know you’d rather talk about how great the Steelers were, or the Pirates who did pretty well on that West Coast trip, or maybe Pitt and Penn State. Well the Buccos lost 3 out of 4 at home to their nearest challenger, the Cubs, so you don’t want to get your hopes too high just yet. And all the aforementioned football teams have a loss, so why don’t we wait and see there too.

Uranus 01

Also, you never know when non-idler types, in-laws and the like, might drop in. Because even though they may already be convinced you’re a goofball, you might want to be conversant on topics other than pizza and point spreads. You see, science-y stuff can be off-putting for a lot of people, so when you come on with some techno-babble, maybe it’ll get them moving along before the second half kickoff. Anyway, fellow nerds, let’s get started with the following queries, all of which are based on actual scientific studies:

Q. Mark Dingemanse of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, has discovered that the word “huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language. So what is it in Pittsburghese?

A. Say what now? Ha-ha, just kidding. Researchers have discovered a great deal of variation in local usage, ranging from “Eh?” and “How’s that?” all the way to “Come again?” We should be careful to distinguish the incipient-deafness “huh?” from the acknowledge-my-coolness “huh?” The latter can be illustrated by the following exchange:

“So how do you like my new car?”

“It’s nice”


“I said it’s nice”


“It’s a really, really nice car!”

Q. What’s the best way to tell if someone has appendicitis?

A. Diallah Karim, of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, UK, and colleagues, have determined that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

Q. Wouldn’t you get the same result for kidney stones and hemorrhoids?

A. Hey, who’s the professor here?

Q. You’ll often hear smart-aleck types say stuff like, “You can’t un-ring the bell” or “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” Why not?

A. Look, I’d like to help you, Sparky, but you’re getting into some strange philosophical areas here. How bout this one: Callum Ormonde, a researcher at the University of Western Australia, and colleagues, have invented a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg. Reaction from the international scientific community has ranged from, “Get out!” to “What were they smoking?” Of course we must realize that not only are they upside down in Australia but they celebrate Christmas in the middle of Summer. Now we also know that they seem to have a lot of time on their hands.

Q. Speaking of having too much time on your hands, what’s the deal with the Pioneer-10 spacecraft?

A. This probe was launched March 23, 1972 and spent the next few years traversing the asteroid belt and then sending back pictures of Jupiter. It escaped the solar system in 2003. (Other planets in the outer solar system were photographed by later spacecraft with Voyager-2, for example conducting a flyby of Uranus in the mid 80’s.)

Recently controversy arose over the 43 year old placard on Pioneer-10 which depicts a naked man and woman with the former having an arm upraised in greeting. According to Dr. Jill Stuart, an expert in the “politics of space” (I know, right?), this message is both sexist and racist because the figures appear to be white and the male figure is acting “manly.” Professor Science agrees that a new placard should be sent, but for different reasons. The figures on the placard appear to be in great shape, unlike nearly every scientist you’re likely to encounter. And once you have faithfully rendered authentic scientists, most of whom are gargoyles, you’re going to want to put some clothes on them. Why would we want aliens to think we’re young, lithe and naked when in reality we’re old, dumpy and tackily dressed? What if it’s an alien civilization consisting entirely of lawyers? Call it the Edgar Snyderian Empire (motto: “There’s never a fee unless we get escape velocity for you”). They’d sue the pants off us for false interstellar advertising, then they’d make us put them right back on.

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