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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1998

By Hampton Sides

Why do we christen boats with bottles of champagne?
— E. McQuillen, Tucson, Arizona

According to maritime historians, the custom dates back more than a thousand years to the Vikings, who are thought to have practiced a gruesome ship-launching ritual called roller reddening. To propitiate the sea gods, boatwrights would strap a sacrificial maiden onto rollers used to maneuver ships into the water; the splattering blood ensured a safe voyage. Then someone decided that the gods might enjoy red wine just as much, and maidens everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't until the late 17th century, when a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre P‰rignon produced the first bottle of sparkling wine, that champagne came into vogue as a christening libation. The tradition got a big boost in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, whose owners apparently tempted fate by neglecting to smash her with the ceremonial magnum — or, for that matter, blood or wine. Bottoms up!

How do ducks float?
— Louis Hall, Shawnee, Kansas

Waterfowl have all sorts of nifty adaptations that keep them bobbing. Their bones are hollow, they have buoyancy sacs inside their bodies, and their thick down traps pockets of air all around them. But the real secret lies in uropygial glands, miniature grease factories on their tails, which produce an oily substance of wax and fat. A duck that's preening is actually waterproofing its plumage with a bill full of the gunk. But not just any oil will do. Petroleum, for example, is just about the worst thing a duck can run into. "It's too heavy and viscous," explains Ducks Unlimited biologist Scott Stephens. "It mats the feathers together so they can't hold air." And when that happens, the oil-slicked bird sinks like a stone.

I've heard about a weird phenomenon that creates huge mirages in the Arctic. What's the deal?
— T. Eagle, McLean, Virginia

Ah, you're referring to the fabled fata morgana, a bizzare optical illusion that has been known to propagate whole cities, armadas, and mountain ranges where none exist. Fata morganas generally occur over vast expanses of ice or water — most commonly, in the Arctic — and are formed when light bounces off faraway objects and is refracted through thermal layers in the atmosphere. Such light-play can dramatically distort and magnify the original image, so that an iceberg looks like a skyscraper or a hill assumes Himalayan proportions. Take the case of Crockerland, a nonexistent alpine region near the Arctic Circle that explorer Robert Peary claimed to have discovered in 1906. Seven years later, an expedition dispatched to Peary's promised land found nothing but sheet ice — and, strangely, the same tantalizing mirage.

Why do athletes sometimes feel nauseous after exertion?
— Jon Godin, Acton, Massachusetts

To risk stating the obvious, the desire to barf after a 100-yard dash is the body's way of telling us that we've overdone it — yet sports physiologists can't seem to agree on how it happens. It may be related to blood-glucose depletion or a temporary imbalance in the nervous system. Another theory: During intense anaerobic activity, muscles in the gut can clamp down and constrict the flow of blood, throwing one's metabolism out of whack. "It's like standing on a hose," explains Craig Horswill of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. "Take your foot off, and you have an initial blast of water before the pressure returns to normal." Scientists also believe there's a psychological dimension to post-exertion nausea — a result of the nervous energy that builds up before a big race. "Athletes vomit most when the stakes are high," notes Horswill. "It's the equivalent of stage fright." Only messier.

September's first big celestial event — the harvest Moon, the full Moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox — occurs on the sixth. This year's harvest Moon will pass through the outer shadow of the Earth, creating a penumbral lunar eclipse that will peak for Pacific time zone viewers just after 4 a.m. (Elsewhere in North America, the Moon will set before maximum shadowing.) The equinox arrives two weeks later, on the 23d. September is prime time for viewing the so-called summer triangle, formed by the three stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb, and visible overhead in the evening sky. Also making a prominent appearance this month is Jupiter, which rises at sunset in the east-southeast and remains bright all night long.
— Jean Quashnock

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