Q) When does a hill become a mountain?
Hit or Myth?
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the pigpen, a reader asks us to settle the score on a classic brainteaser: DO PIGS REALLY KILL MORE PEOPLE THAN SHARKS DO? Could be, says Ricky Langley, of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Without even addressing quagmires like disease and pollution, Langley says that, in a typical year, the barnyard hog is probably responsible for slightly more fatalities. The numbers reveal that swine cause about 0.96 deaths per year through "direct animal events" (like knocking their keepers down and trampling them), beating out the overrated shark, at 0.73, and demonstrating that the wild places aren't as scary as your average farm. Cattle, for instance, fatally gore and crush 24 people a year, and about 88 people are ...
Tony Soika, Neenah, Wisconsin
A) You'll be happy to know that, if you're a taxpaying citizen, it's largely up to you. According to Lou Yost, chief of the Geographic Names Project at the U.S. Geological Survey, there's no official cutoff point. While the British have at times set firm standards for what constitutes a mountain, the American public can propose a name for any land feature by submitting it to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. That body decides whether to accept the moniker based on two criteria: Is it in keeping with what the locals call it, and is it consistent with similar features in the area? For instance, if most of the protuberances around the hypothetical Mount J. Lo are called mountains, score a vote for "Mount." And vice versa. "Obviously," says Yost, "what people on the East Coast call a mountain might seem to someone in the West to be just a hill." In the end, it's usage that wins out. The highest spot in Ohio, 1,549-foot Campbell Hill, is taller than Mad River Mountain, a ski resort right next door.
Q) I've heard it's sometimes possible to see stars during the middle of the day. True?
Gabriel Browne, Santa Fe, New Mexico
A) The trick here is knowing exactly where to look. On a very clear day, a skilled stargazer can view the brightest stars with a telescope or even binoculars trained on just the right spot. When it comes to doing it with the naked eye, many seasoned astronomers say it's absurd, but some grant that it's conceivable. U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer Jeff Chester, for one, says he's done it. Chester claims that on a day of "great transparency," at the telescope village on the top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea, he once viewed Arcturus, the fourth-brightest star (not counting our sun). "The sky was a deep, deep blue in the middle of the afternoon," he says, and at his 13,760-foot perch he was above 90 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere. "It was right where it was supposed to beI'm sure it was Arcturus." But don't scorch your retinas scanning the skies. "They were very special conditions," Chester says. "I guarantee you're not going to see Arcturus from downtown Washington, D.C."
Q) What would happen if the locks on the Panama Canal were destroyed?
Miguel Salazar, Iowa Park, Texas
A) Toward the end of World War II, the Japanese devised a plan to do just that, using bombers catapulted from enormous submarines. The war ended before the raid could be launched, but they had the right idea. The goal was to destroy the gates on either side of 166-square-mile Gatún Lakethe highest point of the canal, at 85 feet above sea level. According to Leo Cain, project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the canal in 1914, such an event would literally open the floodgates, sending 1.6 trillion gallons of water pouring out and overflowing the six 110-by-1,000-foot concrete locks. Any boats in the area would likely be demolished, and the lake's level would drop 50 feet. And because Gatún Lake is fed by the Chagres River watershed, the deluge would keep flowing, turning the Panama Canal into Panama Falls and making it impassable to anything but the wiliest misdirected salmon.