Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2004 / 13 Tishrei, 5765
Why can't we stop a hurricane before it gets started?; How long is 'in the blink of an eye'?; Is a mule male or female?
Q: With all we can do scientifically these days, why can't we stop a hurricane before it gets started? Couldn't we fly planes into a gathering storm and cool it by seeding it with dry ice or something before it gets too powerful? - Mel Helms, Charlotte, N.C.
A: The brightest minds in meteorology tried.
For a while they thought - maybe, just maybe - they could lasso twisters, like heroes in a folktale.
It began in the era of the space race, when hopes were sky high. Nobel Prize winners and the National Academy of Sciences were involved in weather modification. Young lions of the profession dared to dream they could tame killer storms and summon cooling rains to drought-parched regions.
"It was exciting," recalls Hugh Willoughby, the former director of hurricane research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The challenge is what lured him into meteorology.
From 1962 to 1983, the U.S. government carried out Project Stormfury, an experimental program of hurricane modification.
Silver iodide - which helps ice form - was dropped into the bands of rain around gathering hurricanes. The idea was to pull heat from the powerful center. This could help create a competing "eye wall" of wind and rain. The resulting storm would bring more thunderstorms around the outside, but a less furious center.
The scientists watched in wonder as several of the hurricanes seeded with silver iodide did lose energy from their centers.
Then they realized this process was happening naturally. Storms lose energy from their centers all the time - and it only weakens them temporarily.
More discouragement followed. There was not enough of the right kind of precipitation in hurricanes - super-cooled water - for the icing effect to make much difference.
Finally, there was a political and public safety risk no president would ever take: It would cost a fortune to seed a hurricane effectively. And after that there was still the terrifying chance the storm could actually feed off the effects. And get worse.
Project Stormfury failed. The dragons of the Atlantic would not be slain.
"It was a good idea tried extensively by very smart people," says Willoughby, now a professor at Florida International University.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Q: Often we refer to something happening "in the blink of an eye." How long does it take to blink? - Susan Saunders, Charlotte, N.C.
A: Susan, experts say we blink in one decisecond, or a tenth of a second.
But experts also say it takes two to four nanoseconds (each one is one-billionth of a second) for a computer to execute one software instruction.
Obviously they're not talking about MY computer here in the elegant and highly efficient Observer offices.
It's still hung up Googling the wild rumor that "Friends" might go off the air.
s it "Cheers"?
Q: A mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. I know that the offspring is sterile. What I don't know is whether the resulting offspring (mule) is a male or a female. - Dot Bellingham, Massachusetts
A: I sure get asked questions about donkeys and mules a lot.
It used to be why doesn't Donald Duck wear pants, which I answered. Then it was why are public toilet seats horseshoe-shaped, which I answered. Now it's donkeys and mules.
Well, let's go poke around the barnyard.
You are right that a mule is sterile, and that it is is the product of friskiness between a donkey and horse. Mules come in both male and female. (Male mules are gelded because, although sterile, they're annoyingly active, sexually.)
Ever wonder whether a critter is a mule or donkey? You can tell by the tail. A donkey has a tail like a lion (long, with a tassel). A mule has a tail like a horse (long hair).
Thanks to the The American Donkey and Mule Society of Lewisville, Texas, for the information. I asked them if they ever get asked about mules and donkeys and just how all that works. The person on the phone sighed. "You're the third one today," she said.
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Jeff Elder is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. Comment or try to stump him by clicking here. If you send him a great question, he'll send you a Glad You Asked T-shirt.
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