The Wild File

Q: How do you officially name a mountain? Can I name a peak near my house "Bob"?

—Oliver Slesar, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A: Call the peak (or creek or prairie) anything you'd like, but if you want to see the name on a government-issued map, be prepared to scale the Everest-like flanks of the federal bureaucracy. "You know, a name is a lasting thing," says Roger L. Payne, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, "so the process is lengthy by design." First, visit the board's Web site at, and fill out—surprise—a long, involved form. Provide a description of the hill, its longitude and latitude, your reason for wanting to name it, the meaning of the name, evidence that the peak isn't already named, and the name you propose. (Bear in mind, they won't name a natural feature after a living person: "You never know what a person might do in the future. He or she might disgrace him- or herself," adds Payne.) The Board, after pestering you with questions, will render its decision three to six months later, accepting approximately 90 percent of the proposals. The secret of success? Make sure locals like the name. Says Payne, "We're not going to anger a whole county just so we can name something 'Bob.'" Of course, even then there's no guarantee your name will be popular. Many people still call Alaska's highest peak Denali, despite its official name, Mount McKinley.

Q: Why don't we get thunder and lightning during winter storms?

—Greg Steinacker, Augusta, Wisconsin

A: For lightning to occur in winter—as in summer—relatively warm air must clash with cold air, and the lighter, warmer air must rise 30,000 to 45,000 feet into the upper troposphere. Ripe conditions might occur on a cool afternoon in February when an extremely cold low-pressure system moves in, lifting the cool air heavenward. On the way up, those warm water molecules rub elbows with cold molecules in a cloud, causing all the molecules to shed electrons, which collect at the bottom of the cloud. When enough electrons are buzzing around the base, they're attracted to the ground (which temporarily has an opposite charge). Then kaboom! Lightning streaks to the earth, breaking the sound barrier and creating thunder. In the U.S., winter lightning happens most often in the Southeast when extremely cold low-pressure systems move through and collide with the warmer air ahead. It also happens on the coasts, when an inland cold front butts up against warmer sea breezes. "I suppose any cold front is a potential lightning producer," says UCLA staff meteorologist James Murakami. "But to really get cooking, you got to have heat."

Q: When you throw chum into the ocean to attract sharks, how fast does the "scent" travel through the water?
—Gary Jenkins, Aurora, Colorado

A: The answer, compliments of Jeff Graham, executive director of the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, sounds like a Chinese proverb: "The scent chemicals reach the shark when the current delivers them there." So charting the chum's spread is about as easy as measuring the speed and direction of the current. Dropped into a three-knot current off the coast of South Africa, for example, the blood and tiny fish particles that a shark "smells" travel just around that fast. "The chum is what we call a point source," Graham says, "like a smokestack at a factory. If you're downwind of it, you'll be in the cone-shaped 'corridor' where the scent particles are. If not, then you won't even know it's there." A shark can follow this bloody trail for a mile or more, thanks to its olfactory groove, a U-shaped slit inside its mouth. This hypersensitive nose of sorts can sniff out one part blood in 1.5 million parts seawater (that's one tiny molecule per 25 gallons of water). The shark then tracks the "scent" to its source—or anything delectable, human or otherwise, that happens to be floating in its path.

Q: How much horsepower can a human generate?
—Dimity McDowell, Santa Fe, New Mexico

A: British engineer James Watt coined the term horsepower in 1809 for the amount of power a pony puts out when hauling a bucket of coal from the ground. It remains the official imperial unit of power, and it's defined as the work required to raise 550 pounds a distance of one foot in one second. Determining how much horsepower a human can generate while skiing or hiking or cycling is complex—considerably more complex than, say, measuring the horsepower of a car engine by hooking it up to a dynamometer. But there are devices, like the computer on a rowing machine, that keep track of this sort of thing. According to one biomechanist's findings, elite sprinters typically generate just over one horsepower when accelerating off the blocks, and Russian Andrei Chemerkin, possibly the world's strongest man, generated 5.84 horsepower when clean-and-jerking 556.5 pounds in 1999. Scientists can also determine the amount of horsepower a human generates by working backward, converting horsepower into more easily measured units such as BTUs or even dietary calories. They've found the heart is neither lean nor mean; it's a 0.008-horsepower machine. And the human brain, site of millions of electrochemical explosions per second, is only slightly more potent, at 0.02 horsepower—about the same as a low-wattage lightbulb.

More Culture

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Pinterest Icon