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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

By Patrick Clinton

What do tornadoes have against trailer parks?
Crowley Tucker, Lepanto, Arkansas

There's a lot of conventional wisdom about where tornadoes will and will not go, and virtually all of it is false. You'll hear that they do not cross rivers. You'll hear that they avoid cities and refuse to climb hills. The reality? Twisters have crossed the Mississippi and the Ohio, to name just two rivers. They've struck in Denver, St. Louis, Lubbock, Topeka, and Kalamazoo, among other cities. One resolute funnel in 1989 climbed the continental divide into Grand Teton National Park, devastating a forest along a 60-mile path. It's hard to predict where they'll go.

As for trailer parks: While it's tempting to think of God as an architectural snob keen on ridding the countryside of unsightly fiberglass, tornadoes don't seem to hit trailer parks any more than they hit anything else. But when they do, the death toll is nearly always high. Last year, 40 percent of all Americans killed by tornadoes lived in mobile homes, though mobile homes account for only 6 percent of U.S. housing.

So, Crowley, here's your answer: Tornadoes don't hate trailer parks...but they sure are cruel to people who live in them.

I hear Tom Cruise has a star named after him. How do I get mine?
Amanda Dabney, Bozeman, Montana

Mr. Cruise's star is called Forever Tom, and it resides in the constellation Hercules. You can see it by pointing your telescope at right ascension 16 hours, 55 minutes, 45 seconds; declination 47 degrees, 39 minutes. The name was duly purchased by Cruise's wife, Nicole Kidman, from the International Star Registry, the world's largest such outfit, with nearly 500,000 points of light claimed to date.

For $45, you can christen your own star ("Our inventory is limitless," the company claims) and you'll receive a handsome astral deed. But the name will have no currency among astronomers. No one will ever say, "Captain, we have detected enemy vessels approaching from the Amanda Dabney supernova." And there is always the risk that someone will go to a competing registry and claim your star for himself.

The fact is, the International Astronomers Union in Paris doesn't bother naming stars--it merely numbers them. Yet this needn't dash your hopes for cosmic immortality. If you can get in the good graces of an astronomer who's on the brink of a discovery, it's still possible to get your name on, say, an asteroid or a lunar crater. You must exercise restraint, however: In 1985, astronomer James Gibson created such a stir by designating an asteroid Mr. Spock, after his cat, that the IAU passed a resolution "discouraging" the naming of celestial bodies after pets.

Do crocodiles really cry?
Newton Stevens, Los Angeles, California

The image of the crocodile manufacturing tears before dining on its prey has been a handy metaphor for insincerity since medieval times. "If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water," wrote Bartholomaeus Anglicus in his 1250 encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum, "he weepeth upon him, and swalloweth him at last."

Is there anything to it? Yes and no. Crocodiles do apparently have lachrymal glands. Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife scientist who's worked with crocs for 17 years, has spotted what appear to be excreted droplets around their eyes. Other saltwater reptiles, such as sea turtles, are known to "cry" as a way of purging sodium, and Mazzotti believes something similar may be going on with crocodiles. But you can't truly say this ancient reptile "weepeth," for according to experts it has little capacity for emotion, feigned or otherwise. (Herpetologist Ken Vliet once compared its mental state to "a dial tone.") So all that insincerity business is just a croc.

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