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QUESTION: Why do so many pro basketball games come down to the last shot?

ANSWER: No one could accuse radical rationalists like us of being paranoid, but we do think it a touch peculiar, even suspicious, the way pro basketball has such narrow margins of victory. You think of that classic Chicago Bulls victory over Cleveland in the playoffs when Chicago went up by a point with six seconds left on a Michael Jordan jumper, fell behind three seconds later when Cleveland made a quick layup but then won the game anyway with a dream-come-true shot at the buzzer. Great drama. Almost too great. SOMEONE MUSTA GOT PAID. True, there are last-second victories in baseball and football as well, but only in basketball can you be pretty confident of a tight game late in the fourth quarter. Which raises the obvious question: Why not just start the game halfway through the fourth quarter? Save some time!Now for facts. Guy named Harvey Pollack is the statistician and historian for the Philadelphia 76ers and the recognized national authority on basketball statistics. Pollack's research shows that, prior to the 1988-89 season, there had been 24,120 professional basketball games. The most common margin of victory: 2 points. About one-fifth of all games were decided by three points or less. That doesn't include games that were tied at the end of regulation, went into overtime and ended up with larger margins of victory.

The winning team in an average NBA game gets only 52 percent of the total points scored. Why not more?

From talking to people at NBA headquarters and from our own observations we have come up with several answers:

(1) Scoring is easy. Unlike football and baseball, basketball has virtually outlawed defense. The "hand check" was abolished decades ago, as was zone defense. Now, you can block a shot or stand motionlessly in front of the opponent, but you can't hack him or take him down at the knees, which is the only way Michael Jordan, the Extraterrestrial, could possibly be stopped. What this means is that a team can stay competitive just by having a handful of guys who can run downcourt and shoot a jump shot. Which leads to:

(2) There's plenty of talent to go around, and so the teams reach parity. Rosters are only 12 deep, meaning the 25-team league is made up of the top 300 basketball players in the country. Almost all were stars in high school and college. Hence a first-year expansion team filled with rookies, the Miami Heat, is able to win 15 games and narrowly lose many others.

(3) Basketball is physically exhausting, and players must play both offense and defense. In a long season with frequent games, coaches must be careful to conserve the energies and bodies of their top players. So if a team gets up by 20 points, the stars will head to the bench. The score will likely then contract.

QUESTION: Why are we so sure that atoms exist when we can't see them?

ANSWER: The Greeks, specifically two characters named Leucippus and Democritus (first names: Bob and Dave), first floated the idea that matter might be made up of discrete indestructible units, building blocks for everything else. The Greek word "atomos" means uncut or indivisible. The opposing view, which remained dominant for two millenia, held that matter could be infinitely divided - that it's just a lot of mush. The debate shifted dramatically in favor of the existence of atoms in the early 1800s when a British scientist named John Dalton came up with the first modern atomic theory. He showed that when you mix elements in different proportions to make different chemical compounds, the ratio of the weights of those elements can always be expressed in small whole numbers. Huh? OK, try this: If you add nitrogen to oxygen, you get a certain kind of gas. If you double the amount of nitrogen, you get a different kind of gas. There are five kinds of gas, total, that you can get from mixing nitrogen and oxygen. In each, the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen can be written in nice, neat whole numbers, i.e., 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, etc. The implication is that these elements are made up of discrete units.

New "field emission microscopes" can directly observe large atoms such as tungsten or uranium. What is seen are the electron clouds, the network of electrons whizzing around the nucleus. The nucleus itself, which is a million times smaller than the atom as a whole, cannot be seen. It is now widely accepted that "atoms" are not really atomos after all, that their largest components - neutrons and protons - may be composed of still smaller "quarks." Another theory posits that the fundamental units of matter are tiny loops, called "superstrings," so small that one decillion of them laid end-to-end stretch to only 1 centimeter.

And what are the strings made of? We have our own theory: Mush.

QUESTION: Why is it that when we touch something, like a table, our finger atoms don't get mixed up with the table atoms? Why doesn't our finger just fuse instantly? Why, during the course of a day, don't we gradually become diffuse with our surrounding environment - and dissipate into nothingness?

ANSWER: Stay calm. Your physical integrity is safe. Although it is true that you are made up of atoms, they are fixed fairly rigidly into place, forming the internal girding of your molecules, which are in turn solidly woven into your tissues. There are no loose parts. The binding is due to things like electron-sharing, covalent bonds, electronegativity - stuff you don't need to know and we don't have the energy to explain anyway.

Our fingers don't mix with the table for the same reason that oil doesn't mix with water. At the molecular level, there is no force, no energy, no nefarious agent provoking the finger (or oil) molecule to rip itself from its brethren and infiltrate the table (or water) molecules.