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Strange but true: Some wags tell tales of humans with tails

Question: Are humans ever born with tails?

Answer: More than 100 such cases have been in the medical literature, likened at times to pigs' tails, with their owners sometimes able to wag or curl them, says Jan Bondeson, Ph.D, in "A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities."

In 1901, a Johns Hopkins anatomist studied a boy, otherwise healthy, born with a 1.5-inch tail that grew to 3 inches by the time he was 6 months, which he could "contract" when he was irritated, or coughed or sneezed. Covered with normal skin, it had a core of connective tissue and fat, a normal supply of nerves and blood vessels, and strong muscle strands through it, explaining its mobility.

Many tailed infants have had true vestigial tails, where the outer part of the "caudal filament" persists. But dissimilar malformations exist, including the 19th-century case of a man who, when asked why he had been rejected from the cavalry, said, "Because I have a tail, Sir!" The surgeon examined him and confirmed that the broad, unyielding elongation of his coccyx would have made his career as a cavalryman an extremely painful one.

"It is an open question," concludes Bondeson, "how long a tail can get if allowed to grow indefinitely, for nowadays tails are usually amputated at an early age to spare the child and its parents anxiety and unwelcome attention."

Question: Wouldn't you just guess there'd be more Fridays the 13th than Saturdays the 13th or any other day?

Answer: You'd be right, says Alfred Posamentier in "Math Charmers: Tantalizing Tidbits for the Mind." This fact was first pointed out by B.H. Brown in "American Mathematical Monthly." Figuring, the number of days in one four-year Gregorian calendar cycle is 3 x 365 + 366 = 1461. So in 400 years there are 100 x 1461 - 3 = 146,097 days. "Note that the century year, unless divisible by 400, is not a leap year; hence the deduction of 3."

This number is exactly divisible by seven for the weeks. There are 4,800 months in the 400-year cycle, so the 13th comes up 4,800 times. As it works out, each cycle has 684 Saturdays the 13th, 687 Sundays, 685 Mondays and Tuesdays, 687 Wednesdays, 684 Thursdays and — lo and behold — 688 FRIDAYS. As (un)luck would have it.

Question: Baseball has plenty of switch-hitters, batting usually left-handed for advantage against right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. But why have there been so few switch-pitchers, such as Greg Harris some years ago with the Montreal Expos?

Answer: Handedness is strongest for ballistic movements such as kicking, clubbing, hammering, and especially accurate throwing, making ambidextrous pitching tough, says University of Washington neurobiologist William H. Calvin, author of "A Brain for All Seasons." For batting, both sides of the body are pretty equally involved, and switching around is more a matter of practice.

But in pitching, one arm executes a very complicated plan constructed during "get set" and must release the ball within a very tight "launch window" to hit the desired place in the strike zone. The batter can keep correcting his swing as the ball approaches, but the pitcher is launching an unguided missile. The brain usually does that job best with a preferred hand.

Footnote on Greg Harris: It proved so upsetting to batters to have one pitch coming at them from the right, next from the left, that Baseball soon ruled a pitcher couldn't switch pitching hands during the same at-bat.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at