The Wild File

Outside magazine, March 1999

The Wild File
Your urgent inquiries about the world, answered
By Hampton Sides

As Earth spins, what kinds of matter leak out into the universe?
— Frank Menzies, Las Vegas, Nevada

You'd be surprised how much stuff we leave behind, whether accidentally, incidentally, or on purpose. For starters, gases such as helium, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are constantly defying gravity and escaping from our upper ionosphere, swept away by solar winds. Then, of course, there are light waves — infrared light, reflected sunlight, and the luminance of major metropolises — which are flung into space at a fleet 186,000 miles per second. As for more tangible castoffs, the U.S. and Russian space programs have sent a total of 65 probes to other planets and beyond — including the Voyager 1 spacecraft that's currently hurtling out of our solar system carrying a disc of greetings in 55 languages, plus recordings of humpback whale calls, hyena laughs, Mozart sonatas, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." (Tune in at Arguably our most indelible imprints on the universe, however, are the millions of hours of FM radio and television transmissions that have been inadvertently seeping heavenward for the better part of the last century. "The first TV broadcasts are approximately 240 trillion miles away from us now," says California-based astronomer Seth Shostak. "They have washed over some 2,000 stars, any of which could theoretically have a planet with intelligent life. Right now there are worlds out there that may be tuning into episodes of Mister Ed — and really wondering."

I should know this, but what's the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?
— Ed Miller, Putney, Vermont

At the risk of descending into gratuitous prurience, a fruit is any soft, swollen plant flesh — or "ovary" — embedded with seeds. Fruits are bright, sweet-tasting, or otherwise enticing products of pollinated flowers that grow on trees, bushes, and perennial vines. Their alter egos, however, are a murkier breed: In most cases, a vegetable plant is an annual growth that yields edible food (excluding grains). Unfortunately, some so-called veggies — namely peppers, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, and pumpkins — are fleshy, seed-stuffed products of pollinated flowers that bear edible fruit. In other words, they're fruits, even though we mulishly persist in calling them otherwise. This brings us to the tomato, arguably the most misunderstood foodstuff of all. By every definition, it's a fruit, though not according to an 1893 Supreme Court decision that declared it a vegetable. (There was a trade war going on, and imported veggies were subject to tariff.) Now, more than a century later, the confusion still lingers — and is bound to deepen, as geneticists concoct a futuristic crop of "Frankenfoods" and further blur an already blurry line.

How does frost form, and why does it only seem to collect in the early morning?
— David Arnold, Huntly, Virginia

To understand frost — as well as its warm-weather sibling, dew — you first have to grasp this universal meteorological truth: The chillier the air, the less water vapor it can hold. As the mercury inches downward, every swath of air will eventually reach a point at which it can no longer retain moisture in a vaporous state and must unload its watery ballast onto the ground. Your local weather forecaster calls this the "dew point," and it occurs in a localized pocket of air just above the ground during the coolest part of the day — usually just before dawn. The final ingredient is prolonged stillness, as the slightest breeze can disrupt the formation of this terrain-hugging microclimate. Hence the giant fans that Florida citrus growers install in their groves to forestall ruinous frosts.

I've heard that baby snakes are more poisonous than adults. Is this possible?
— Marilyn Jenkins, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Like Athena, a venomous snake springs from its mother's egg fully formed and ready for business — in this case, with an ample supply of toxins that, yes, are often more poisonous than that of their parents. Reptile experts haven't proved conclusively why this is, but they do offer up several hypotheses. One speculates that because newborns haven't used their venom yet, and thus haven't been forced to regenerate it, the poison is more potent. Another suggests that infant venom contains a higher percentage of water, which may speed its absorption into the victim's blood. The upside? Though the toxicity may be greater, the yield is always smaller, since tiny snake babies have proportionately tiny venom sacs. What's more, they're not very skilled at hurling themselves at prey or projecting their poison. Still, should a western diamondback not much bigger than a night crawler sink its miniature fangs into you, it won't be pretty. "You can expect necrosis of the tissue to set in," says Bill Haast, a venomologist at the Miami Serpentarium. "Your flesh will dissolve, your skin will slough off, and there may be permanent scarring."

Send your questions for The Wild File to Outside, 400 Market St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, or submit them via Outside Online.

More Culture