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Strange but true: Jokes and other plagues

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Question: What do jokes, gossip, chain letters, AIDs and the flu have in common?

Answer: All can spread like the plague, says Bart K. Holland in "What Are the Chances? Voodoo Deaths, Office Gossip & Other Adventures in Probability." And disease is a fitting metaphor here, for the same math that governs the spread of germs steers the dissemination of the others.

An epidemic will continue if, on average, each infected person meets and infects one healthy person, known as a "susceptible." If you get the flu and pass it along to one other and then he or she passes it along, etc., it will be a bad season. You might even catch it again when it comes back around in mutated fashion. But if the "bug" is not so strong and many non-susceptibles are in the population, so the average falls below one, the disease will taper out.

The same with a joke or gossip at the office. If it's funny or juicy and folks keep passing it along, averaging one susceptible (hasn't heard it yet) per teller, it will spread. Some good jokes may come back around mutated, so as with the flu, you "catch it" (laugh at it) again.

But, says Holland, since populations are not infinite and some people are "immune," spreading is limited. Though this is what prevents people from getting rich using chain- letter schemes, it is also fortunately what kept the bubonic plague from wiping out all of Europe.

Question: Your taste for very rare steaks precipitates a ribbing from your tablemates: "You vampire, you!" To which you might rejoin . . . ?

Answer: Sparing the gross details, there's almost no blood left in the animal after being professionally zonked and drained — except what's trapped in the heart and lungs, and they're unlikely to make it to the menu, says Robert L. Wolke in "What Einstein Didn't Know: Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions." The steak on your plate is muscle tissue, not circulatory-system stuffs.

Blood is red from hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein, muscle from myoglobin, which stores up energy for sudden action bursts. Different meats have varying amounts of myoglobin, more for beef, less for pork (those lazy pigs!), then chicken and fish.

"So there are red meats and there are relatively white meats. Ask your friends to explain THAT in terms of bloodiness."

Question: It was 50 years ago that physiology grad student Eugene Aserinsky hooked up instruments to his 8-year-old son to check the slow rolling eye movements believed to occur during sleep. But shortly after the boy fell asleep, the recording pens went wild, zigzagging on the graph paper. Aserinsky checked the machine to see if it was broken. Later in the night, the machine did it again. Then it hit Aserinsky in a flash — maybe he should rouse the child. . . .

Answer: Upon being awakened, the boy reported having been in a vivid dream, as Aserinsky and colleague Nathaniel Kleitman had suspected. Thus in 1952 came the discovery of REM sleep, for "rapid eye movements," and with it a gateway into the mysterious realm of dreams.

Researchers now know that dreams are universal and normal and occur in several periods every night, that most dreams are not bizarre but quite ordinary, that fetuses show REM sleep, that even dogs and cats and others dream, that dreams don't take place in an instant but unfold in real time, that when dreams begin snoring stops, that dream time may grow longer when people are under stress such as facing a big examination, that there are "lucid" dreamers who in the midst of dreaming become aware it's only a dream.

And it all started with a curious guy carefully observing his sleeping child.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com