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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1998

By Hampton Sides

What's the oldest-living organism on earth?
— Anna Lane, Edinburgh, Scotland

The jury's still out on this one, as crack teams of gerontologists comb the planet in search of superlatives, but there are a few leading candidates. The Galßpagos turtle, a perennial favorite, logs an estimated average life span of 90 years — impressive, but still a runner-up to the South Pacific's famously unfishy-tasting fish known as the orange roughy, which has been shown to live as long as 150 years. (It has a tiny bone in its ear that accumulates growth rings.) Not surprisingly plants, with their decidedly less complex physiology, win the age game hands down, thanks to several particularly decrepit individuals. Witness the Rhizocarpon geographicum, a 12,000-year-old lichen growing in Alaska's Brooks Range; a creosote plant in California that's been dated to 11,700 years old; and — drumroll, please — the king's holly, a 40,000-year-old shrub recently discovered in a desolate gully in southwestern Tasmania. If you hear of anything older, please contact Willard Scott.

If a laptop computer or any electrical item were to fall into a large body of water, how far would the electric current travel?
— M. Mroczkowski, Sacramento, California

Behind this somewhat far-fetched scenario is some pretty cool science, so we'll indulge your curiosity. For starters, if said laptop is battery-operated, don't expect much electrical fanfare: The waterlogged item would short-circuit itself immediately, long before unleashing any sparks. If, on the other hand, it happens to be plugged into a handy seaside wall outlet, you could have some roaming voltage to contend with. But because the sole mission of an electric current is to find the shortest and easiest route to the ground — be it a wooden pier, a nearby wader, or a submerged aluminum pipe — it will travel only as far as it has to, which in water is usually no more than 50 feet. Whether the current would actually leave its wire circuit and enter the water, however, depends in part on how conductive its surroundings are. Saltwater, rife with voltage-carrying ions, holds a charge better than freshwater. Carbon dioxide, too, boosts conductivity — thus making a mud-bottom pond filled with rotting stumps and other carbon-rich detritus more attractive to a live wire than, say, a granite quarry. Fascinating, maybe, but why lose sleep over the particulars? "If your time to go comes up," says California-based electrical engineer Kent Potter, "it won't do you any good to know that it was a freak accident."

I've heard the warnings, but now I want the truth: Is it dangerous to hold in a sneeze?
— J. Weidner, Toronto, Canada

When you sneeze, you're expelling aerosol particles at a speed of more than 100 feet per second, a force akin to a fire hose that clears out any pollen or dirt lodged in your nasal tract. It's such an effective mechanism that thousands of creatures, from parrots to iguanas to ferrets, have developed their own version of the sneeze. (For what it's worth, birds do it to rid their insides of preening-induced dander, lizards to purge excess salt from salt glands in their nostrils, and ferrets because, like us, they catch colds.) Hold in a sneeze, though, and you run the risk of fractures in the nasal cartilage, heavy nosebleeds, burst eardrums, detached retinas, temporary swelling called facial emphysema, even fatal strokes. And, if you've got an early winter cold, the act of sneezus interruptus can drive millions of tiny pathogenic particles deep into the sinus tissues, causing serious infection. Gruesome outcomes all, and compelling proof that the only safe sneeze is an explosive one.

November's celestial drama is the annual Leonid meteor shower in the predawn hours of the 17th and 18th, occurring when Earth intersects a stream of space debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The grain-size particles vaporize upon entering Earth's atmosphere and leave trails of light, or meteors, that appear to radiate from the constellation Leo. This year, several meteors per minute may be visible in the dark, moonless sky. Jupiter continues to dominate the heavens in November, visible high above the southeastern horizon after sunset. The Moon is full on the third and at its closest point to Earth — 221,590 miles away — resulting in higher-than-normal tides and the largest full Moon of 1998
— Jean Quashnock

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