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Outside magazine, December 1998

By Hampton Sides

I'm kind of embarrassed to ask but, uh, why do tongues stick to cold metal?
— Paul McDonald, Austin, Texas

Well, Paul, the fact of the matter is, you must be extremely careful where you put your tongue. This is especially true in winter, with its abounding legends of mortified skiers unable to disembark from the chairlift because — oops — their mouths were frozen to the metal safety bar. To be fair, and perhaps more realistic, tongues aren't the only offenders: Any warm, damp piece of flesh will do. A gloveless hand, for example, often has enough moisture in it to bond with a frigid doorknob, and for fingers wet from, say, a snowball, the Krazy Glue effect is virtually unavoidable. "Because metal is such a good conductor, your body heat is immediately transferred to the object," explains University of Alaska geochemist John Kelley. "When that happens, the skin's surface moisture crystallizes and you become, in effect, flash-frozen to the metal." The damage? Contact frostbite, which is best left to rewarm on its own, or ripped flesh, best treated by a physician. Either way, the first order of business is to free the affixed appendage: Dousing it with warm water will melt the ice crystals every time but, sadly, will do little to restore your wounded pride.

How thick does ice have to be to hold your weight safely? Is there some kind of mathematical formula you can use to be sure?
— Meg Larimer, Oxford, England

Unfortunately, like all things governed by random meteorological forces, ice is a slippery, unpredictable element. While there's no such thing as a foolproof formula for staying safe, there are a few good rules of thumb: Ice that looks milky or streaked is full of air bubbles and thus prone to collapsing. Ditto for slushy ice (the result of periodic freezing, thawing, and refreezing), ice that's undercut by currents, and ice burdened by heavy snowfall. In the Arctic, Eskimos have been known to disappear while camping next to ivus, jagged ridges that form when two drifting ice plates bump into each other; as the plates move, the ridges shift and crumple, burying the hapless campers. Of course, if the finer points of ice assessment elude you, an auger — and these straightforward guidelines — may ease your mind: Two inches thick or less, steer clear. Four inches, break out the skates. Anything over eight inches, well, why skate when you can drive?

What exactly was the Star of Bethlehem, and can I still see it today?
— Oliver Hays, New York, New York

This question has long nettled faithful skywatchers unwilling to dismiss the Bible's most famous star as simply a bit of scriptural license or a heaven-sent miracle. Drawing from ancient astronomical records, theorists have speculated that the famed celestial beacon that drew the Magi to that manger in Bethlehem may in fact have been a supernova, Halley's Comet, or even Venus. The most promising hypothesis to date, though, is that the mysterious star was merely an optical illusion formed by the conjunction, or close approach, of Jupiter and Saturn. This occurs every 900 years or so, making it appear as though the two planets have merged into a single luminescent body. Conveniently, one such conjunction is thought to have happened right around the time of the historical Jesus's birth, somewhere between 7 and 5 b.c. Inconveniently, however, computer models show that this long-ago celestial pairing occurred sometime in August or September — which can only mean two things: The "star" of Bethlehem is long gone, and Christmas is now nine months away.

After dominating the planetary drama since late summer, Jupiter shares the stage this month with Saturn. These two giants can be seen together high in the southern sky during the evening hours. Both Mercury and Venus re-emerge from the Sun's glare — Mercury in the southeast just before sunrise and Venus in the southwest after sunset. The Moon is full on the third, and the annual Geminid meteor shower occurs on the 13th. Visible straight overhead all month is the Great Andromeda Galaxy; at 2.4 million light years away, it's the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye. On the 21st, the Sun reaches its southernmost point on the ecliptic. This marks the winter solstice and the longest night of the year.  — Jean Quashnock

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