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Strange but true: Mnemonic for planets has to ditch the ‘P’

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Question: Astronomy lovers, can you decode the following mnemonic device: "My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas"? Or if not that, then "My Very Early Morning Jam Sandwich Usually Nauseates People"?

Answer: The word "mnemonic" comes from Mnemosyne ("knee-MAS-ah-knee"), the Greek goddess of memory, says Mark Davidson in "Right, Wrong, and Risky."

A third memory crutch answers the above questions: "My Very Easy Method Just Simplifies Us Naming Planets."

In all these examples, the first letter of each word represents a planet in the correct order out from the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The final large body is Pluto, now classified as a dwarf planet or plutoid, prompting one disenchanted sky-watching mnemonist to quip: "Since scientists demoted Pluto, I suppose we'll have to use 'My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Us Nothing.'"

Question: Why did University of New South Wales researchers cut off the head of a great white shark killed accidentally in a commercial fishing net and then scan it using computerized tomography?

Answer: They used the information to construct a virtual shark eight feet long and weighing 5,300 pounds, says Nicholas Bakalar in Discover magazine.

From this model of the animal's jaw musculature, the scientists then scaled things up to a shark 21 feet long and 7,300 pounds, akin to the largest living white sharks. They determined that such an animal opening its jaws to a 35-degree angle could squeeze with almost 4,000 pounds of force, perhaps the most powerful bite ever on Earth.

"We weren't trying to prove that such a bite could kill, which is obvious," said biomechanist Stephen Rowe. "We were instead modeling medical and surgical techniques, everything from facial fracture, to prosthetics, to ergonomics. Moreover, the models are also useful in the design of shark-proof equipment."

Question: A plane drops a bomb and continues flying straight ahead. The path followed by the bomb after its release would be (a) a straight line down from the point of release to the ground, (b) the bomb drops backward along a curved path, (c) the bomb drops forward along an arc all the way to the ground.

Answer: This one is a classic bar bet, with most people answering either (a) or (b), says Joseph Hallinan in "Why We Make Mistakes."

Most people think the bomb drops straight down or even moves backward from the plane and most people are wrong. The correct path is the forward arc, because the bomb can't suddenly lose its straight-ahead component of momentum given by the plane. This error is so common (even among physics students) that it has been given a name: "the straight-down effect."

It crops up in all sorts of everyday contexts, such as the situation seen on TV every weekend during football season when a running man drops a ball.

Which way does the ball fall? It takes the same path as the bomb. But when the same question was asked of sixth-grade students in Boston schools, only 3 percent got the answer right.

That is, they "bombed" on the quiz.

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