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In outer space, the tail can wag the dog

SHARE In outer space, the tail can wag the dog

Q. Does the tail ever wag the dog?

A. In outer space or zero-gravity it can. A weightless dog floating in a space capsule would find that each wag "west" pushes her body slightly "east," and vice versa. Sir Isaac Newton talked of "equal and opposite reactions"; canine physicists prefer "wag and counterwag."Q. Fifty years ago, prefrontal lobotomies were hailed as "revolutionary," a way of "surgically removing psychoses." For developing it, Portuguese physician Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Then what happened?

A. Soon afterward, Moniz was shot by a disgruntled patient and confined to a wheelchair. The procedure didn't fare so well either: Designed to calm uncontrollable patients by disconnecting the frontal lobes from the emotion centers of the brain, lobotomies did far more than that to many, who suffered severe memory disorders, loss of facial expression, blunted emotions, or fell into a "vegetative state." Some even died.

Initially, lobotomies were viewed as a last-resort measure, but over time some practitioners became more casual about doing them. They were easy and cheap, taking only about 10 minutes: An icepicklike instrument was inserted through each eye socket into the brain, then wiggled to sever certain connective nerves.

By the early 1950s, some 40,000 such operations had been done in the U.S.

alone, reports James W. Kalat in "Biological Psychology." A large number were performed by Walter Freeman, a medical doctor never trained in surgery. He did many right in his office or on other non-hospital sites, carrying his equipment around in his "lobotomobile."

Amid growing controversy and with the advent of calming drugs in the mid-1950s, lobotomies fell into virtual disuse.

Q. It weighs as much as 1500 midsize cars, stands 100 feet taller than Niagara Falls, and was already 2,000 years old when Columbus set sail. It is still alive and growing. What is it?

A. A particular sequoia tree called the "General Sherman," located in the Giant Grove in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. A seedling around the time of the Roman Empire, it is now the largest plant on Earth, report Neil A. Campbell, et al, in "Biology: Concepts and Connections."

Sequoias were cut down mostly last century during the heyday of lumbering, with a single tree yielding prime boards sufficient for 50 four- or five-room houses.

Q. It's 11 p.m., somebody's pounding at the door. Turns out to be a rich old gent in a Rolls Royce, involved in a scavenger hunt against his ex-wife, and he says he'll pay you $10,000 for a piece of wood about 3 feet by 7 feet. "Can you help?"

A. You rack your brain trying to think where the nearest lumber yard is, you're not really sure, and it wouldn't be open at this hour anyway, of course. You don't keep wood on hand, and you don't know anybody nearby who does. "I'm really sorry," you have to say, then watch your $10,000 opportunity drive away.

An hour later as you turn fretfully in bed the realization hits you, "A door. I could have given him a door. Why in the world didn't I think of that?"

You didn't think of it, says Ellen Langer in her book "Mindfulness," because all of us think using rigid categories and have trouble seeing things in new ways. An hour before, your door was not a piece of wood.

"The 7-by-3-foot piece of wood was hidden from you, stuck in the category of 'door."'