By Patrick Clinton
I've heard that eagles mate in midair and sometimes die when they fall to the ground during the act. Is this true?
--Ronak Harshad Shah, San Luis Obispo, California
It is true that eagles will occasionally lock talons and plummet earthward, and some books on the subject have described this as part of their courtship dance. But fact is, love's got nothing to do with it. "When one eagle swoops from a thousand feet, grabs another's talons, and then they try to knock each other out of the sky," says Montana State University eagle authority Al Harmata, "that's not courting. It's fighting."
In fact, eagles can't mate on the wing, because the male, like the male of most bird species, doesn't have a penis. Instead both male and female eagles have cloacae, which makes avian mating more like a carefully aligned kiss. It's tough enough for impassioned eagles to get all their ducts in a row without lift, yaw, and air turbulence.
Still, if you're going to meditate on aquiline whoopie, now is the time to do it, with Valentine's Day coming up. We celebrate romance this time of year partly because medieval philosophers believed that birds choose their mates on February 14. This year, if you venture into the broad and cloudless sky of true love, take a lesson from all this: Falling's cool, but let's keep it metaphorical.
How come I'm in more pain two or three days after instead of immediately following an athletic effort?
--Matt Stuecken, Washington, D.C.
Well, it's never the party, it's the cleaning up.
Any time you put a muscle through a negative contraction it's not accustomed to, you tear muscle fibers and sometimes the muscle membrane, the sarcolemma. The tear itself doesn't hurt. What stimulates the nerves that communicate pain is a combination of swelling and chemical activity at the injury site. Remember, a lot is going on there, and these things take time: The damaged muscle is leaking enzymes and assorted chemicals. White blood cells are cleaning up dying tissue and releasing irritants such as prostaglandins. While exactly what pushes your pain button is up for debate, one camp blames these prostaglandins alone, while another suspects the mingling of chemical-soup components. It's even possible that one component stimulates a pain receptor while another one amplifies for maximum agony. After all, pain is nature's way of keeping you from making the same mistake again too soon.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness is a big research topic now. So if you'll be performing major contractions anytime soon without a proper warm-up, do us a favor: Donate yourself to science and ease our pain.
Where does the white go when the snow melts?
--Joe Schmitz, St. Paul, Minnesota
Not to get too zen on you, Joe-dude, but there isn't any white, so it doesn't go anywhere.
To understand why snow looks white, consider an ice cube: You look at it from some angles, and it's transparent. From other angles it shines, which means it's reflecting light. Now, snow consists of zillions of minuscule ice crystals, and each one of them acts like the cube, sometimes bouncing the light, sometimes letting it through. But there are so many crystals, and they're so small and randomly heaped together, that ultimately almost all the light that hits the snow is scattered and reflected back. That's pretty much the definition of whiteness.
All this, of course, applies to the country kind of snow. For urban slush, the question is where the gray goes, and the answer is simple: It's on my car, and you can come see for yourself anytime you like.
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