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Strange but true: Moving frames of reference might help QB

Question: Did this guy need to go back to quarterback school, or what? He threw the football well but on rollout passes would always lead the receiver too much, the ball dropping beyond outstretched arms. What was going wrong?

Answer: It was back in the days of Ohio State's Woody Hayes, and a scientist friend of the great coach had an idea: Maybe the QB's problem had to do with his failure to understand what physicists call "moving frames of reference," said Case Western Reserve University's John D. McGervey.

When you're riding in a car and toss a ball to another passenger, you just throw it directly at the person, because you're both in the "same moving frame of reference." But try to toss the ball to someone out on the sidewalk, and that's a different matter.

The point was that maybe the QB didn't understand that with rollout passes where he and the receiver are running stride for stride, he should throw the ball right at the receiver, as if the two of them were stationary. Leading the receiver is necessary only when he is moving and the QB is stationary. Right on target! Problem solved. Quarterback school dismissed.

Question: From a reader in Cape Town, South Africa: "I've been baffled by this for years: I have brown eyes with a touch of green. They appear dark brown in the daytime but in the evening or in dim light, they appear very green, almost grey. Why is this?"

Answer: The answer lies in our eyes' sensitivity to the different parts of the spectrum at different light levels, says Berkeley optometrist and vision scientist Dr. Gunilla Haegerstrom-Portnoy. By day we are most sensitive to yellow, the brightest region of the spectrum; you can think of "brown" as dark yellow, therefore a day-sensitive hue. So during the day the reader's eyes have both apparent yellow and green in them.

At night or in dim light, our eyes are more sensitive to the green component, and so the apparent color shifts to green. In very low light, we lose all ability to detect color and everything appears as shades of grey, because we switch from seeing with our retinal cones to retinal rods alone.

"This shift of apparent brightness of colors is called the Purkinje shift, described in the early 1800s by Hungarian physiologist Johannes Evangelista Purkinje (eye color unknown)."

Hence the answer to the reader's mystery lies less in her chameleon eyes than in the skies and the changes in the ambient light emanating therefrom throughout the day.

Question: For the Human Genome Project (1990-2003), whose genome was chosen as scientific exemplar of Homo sapiens, with our 20,000-25,000 genes?

a) an illustrious dignitary

b) a random "nobody" pulled off the street

c) a child

d) Mr./Ms. Average

e) an anonymous clone of cells from a tissue culture lab

Answer: It certainly makes a difference, since some of us have brown eyes while others have blue, some of us can't curl our tongue into a tube whereas it's 50-50 that you can, and so on, says Richard Dawkins in "The Ancestor's Tale."

Yes, we can trace "our ancestors" back through time, "but WHOSE ancestors are we talking about: yours or mine, a Bambuti Pygmy's or a Torres Strait Islander's?"

In the "official" project, for the very small fraction of genes that vary from person to person, the canonical genome is the majority "vote" among a couple of hundred people chosen to represent racial diversity. So the answer above is d), though a bit more abstract and statistical than just some Mr. or Ms. Average — rather, scores of them combined.

Bear in mind, says Dawkins, that we don't need to trace very far back along the human "tree" to find that "all your ancestors are mine, whoever you are, and all mine are yours . . . everybody's ancestors are shared."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at