Are Roadrunners Really Real?

As a father, I believe it is my duty to see to my son’s education. So I’ve been exposing him to the classics. Specifically, Looney Tunes cartoons. I was flabbergasted when one of his friends stated he didn’t know who Bugs Bunny was. I mean, what is this world coming to?

So we’re sitting on the couch, eating popcorn and watching the Coyote blow himself up, and flatten himself, and fall off things in his endless quest to catch the Roadrunner. Dynamite and shotguns and anvils to the face. Good, clean family fun. Right? Right. And while we’re watching, my son asks the question. “Are roadrunners really real?”

“Well, yeah,” I tell him. “They live in the southwest.”

On the screen, the Roadrunner beep-beeps, and sticks his tongue out, and leaves the Coyote eating his dust.

“Are they that fast?” my son asks.

“I doubt it,” I reply. “But, let’s find out.”


He doesn’t think roadrunners are real?

It’s a sensible position, if you think about it. We weren’t watching Wild Kratts or Dinosaur Train or some other sort of educational program. We’re watching cartoons about coyotes getting 100,000 pound weights dropped on them. He’s seen coyotes on TV and at the zoo, so he can trust they’re real. But beeping birds that can outrun trucks? Yeah, he’s got a right to be skeptical.

Point taken. So tell us about roadrunners.

Sure. This is a roadrunner:

Specifically, that is Geococcyx californianus, also known as the Greater Roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family (or, technically, a member of the Cuculidae family which includes roadrunners, cuckoos, and some other birds). As you can see, they don’t look much like the Roadrunner from the cartoons. They’re also a whole lot smaller than a coyote – coyotes in the American desert southwest range 15 to 25 pounds and get about 4 feet long, while the Greater Roadrunner gets up to 2 feet long and weighs up to 1 1/2 pounds. They’re also not blue and purple. They’re a mottled brown and white that blends in with the scrubland and desert they (mostly) inhabit – they can be found as far east as the Mississippi River, but you mostly find them in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Also, unlike the cartoon Roadrunner, they don’t beep. Instead, they make a sound that’d I’d describe as sounding like “wut-wut-wut-wut“.

The cartoons show the Roadrunner stopping to eat piles of birdseed, as part of the Coyote’s traps. If Wiley E. Coyote was hunting a real Greater Roadrunner, he’d be better off with a heap of bugs. Roadunners are primarily carnivorous, eating insects, spiders, scorpions, mice, other birds, lizards, and snakes (even rattlesnakes). They hunt by running up to their prey, grabbing it in their beak, and slamming it repeatedly against the ground until it stops refusing to be eaten. His trap might work on the Lesser Roadrunner (Geococcyx velox), though – they eat seeds. They als also roadkill, so they’d be attracted to the results of the Coyote’s inevitable failure (which could explain why it seems as if the Roadrunner keeps coming back to gloat…).

How fast is a roadrunner?

Fast. They’re fast.

Roadrunners can fly, keep this in mind. They’re just not much good at it. They’ll fly to get up to their nests, when sprinting downhill, and to escape from predators, but they can’t maintain altitude for more than about a minute. They’re much better adapted to running, and can hit speeds in excess of 20 miles per hour – an impressive feat for a tiny bird – fast enough to catch dragonflies and hummingbirds on the wing. They’re even fast enough to prey on rattlesnakes, one of the few animals that can.

That’s pretty fast. Could the Coyote catch one?

The answer to that is a solid “maybe”, because it turns out that coyotes are fast. They’ve been seen to sprint at up to 45 miles per hour, and can run at up to 20 mph over distances of a mile or two. That speed drops to about 10 mph if they’re running over longer distances. I couldn’t find any details on how long a roadrunner can maintain its 20+ mph running speed, but the videos I’ve watched don’t show them slowing down for much of anything. So, like so many things in nature, it comes down to circumstances. In a flat-out race, Coyote would finally be dining on Roadrunner. But the roadrunner would be bobbing and weaving and trying to dodge until the exhausted coyote couldn’t keep sprinting, and then (assuming it isn’t lodged in the coyote’s jaws) keep running.

Huh. Anything else?

Yeah. There’s one cartoon in which, in an effort to catch the Roadrunner, the Coyote dons a “female roadrunner costume”. The Roadrunner is unimpressed, running up with a sign that reads “No thanks, I’ve already got a date,” before beeping and sprinting off. This, it turns out, is actually fairly accurate. Well, except for the crosdressing coyote. See, roadrunners are monogamous. The mated couple breeds in the sring, lays anywhere from 2 to 12 eggs, and take turns incubating the eggs. It’s not all happy domesticity, though. The fledglings will crowd out any late-hatching runts, which are then generally eaten by the parents.

Also, along with pooping and peeing all at once, roadrunners have an extra adaptation to help conserve water. They excrete waste salt through their tear ducts, as a way of conserving water. As a result, they almost never need to drink – all of the fluids they need come from their prey.


Why Is The Middle Finger Bad?

They don’t stay young and innocent forever, do they?

Since he was three, my son has had this habit of pointing at things with his middle finger instead of his index finger. Seriously, he’ll say “look at the bunny!” and point with his middle finger. For what are most likely obvious reasons, my wife and I have worked hard on trying to break him of that habit. And, for the most part, we’ve succeeded.

But he’s been putting two and two together.

Recently, he was telling me about how he saw a giant middle finger in… Roblox, I think. Or, maybe, in Minecraft. He said it wasn’t nice, and he and his friend went somewhere else in the game. But then, after a pause, he looked at me. “Why is the middle finger bad?”

Hoo boy. “It’s not bad,” I tell him. “But some people use it as a sign language way of saying a bad word.” I was quite proud of that, honestly. He knows about “bad words”, and he knows what sign language is, and I could see that it made sense to him.

He fell silent, thinking. Then, hesitantly, he holds up his hand so his fingers are all pointing up. “Then,” he asks, “why is this all right? My middle finger’s up!”


Well. I assume there’s going to be some tap dancing around vocabulary?

Almost, but not quite, this.

Sort of. I’m trying to keep this blog as family-friendly as possible, so I’m not going to just type out what the middle finger means. If you’re reading this, you probably already know. If you don’t, then it’s a rude hand gesture representing a rude four-letter word. The first time I remember seeing it, I was in second grade and I saw a middle schooler make the gesture. So I asked my mom what it meant to put your middle finger up, and she said it was a way to tell someone else to go have sex.

That made no sense to me, at the time. And honestly, as far as crude insults go, it’s still pretty nonsensical if you think about it. But still, we’re not here to pass judgement on slang and profanity. We’re here to talk about flashing someone “the finger” is considered profanity.

Sure. So. Why is considered profanity?

Well, to be blunt, because it’s symbolic of an erect penis.

No kidding.

No, no, more so than you think! Mental Floss, the BBC, and Wikipedia all agree on this one. It represents an erect penis, it’s insulting, and it’s a long, long way from being a new thing. The oldest known reference to “giving someone the finger” is from Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, written around 423 BCE:

SOCRATES: First they will help you to be pleasant in company, then to know what is meant by enhoplian rhythm and what by the dactylic.

STREPSIADES: Of the dactyl? I know that quite well.

SOCRATES: What is it then, other than this finger here?

STREPSIADES: [He sticks out his middle finger.) Formerly, when a child, I used this one.

SOCRATES: You are as low-minded as you are stupid.

That’s not clear from the English translation, but the footnotes of The Clouds: An Annotated Translation make it pretty clear that this is a masturbation joke. Here’s the relevant footnotes:

62. Measures, words and rhythms have a different meaning for Strepsiades and Socrates. To the ordinary citizen, measures are associated with capacity and not with poetic measure. Words are distinguished gramatically by genders, but Strepsiades does not know the correct usage of grammar. Finally, Socrates refers to musical rhythms of qualitative measures.
63. Socrates means the iambic trimeter (the meter of the dialogue in tragedy and comedy) and trochaic tetrameter (used mostly in comedy but also at times in tragedy).
64. In Greek dactylos means both “finger” and “dactyl=metrical foot.”

So, yeah. Aristophanes wrote a scene specifically to give Socrates the bird and make him talk about masturbation. I suspect that he didn’t care for the philosopher much. But it’s even clearer than that, because the Greeks called the gesture katapygon, from kata- “downwards’ and puge-, “rump, buttocks”- with the meaning of “a male who submits to anal penetration”. (Women weren’t spared, either. The feminine form of the word is katapygaina and pretty much means the same thing.)

The Romans, who were obsessed with penises (to the point that grabbing your penis was a way to prevent the Evil Eye from affecting you), called the middle finger the digitus impudicus (indecent digit) and the digitus infamis (infamous digit). It’s claimed that the Emperor Caligula went as far as to make his political enemies kiss his digitus infamis, right up until he was stabbed. By a bunch of people. Because, although that particular story may be fictional, Caligula was a bad, bad man and nobody liked him.

So there you are. If you flip someone the bird, you’re participating in a ritual that is at least two and a half milennia old. But antiquity has not put a gloss of respectability on this particular survivor of the Classical past. However, keeping up tradition, you might get stabbed over it.

Who Was The President When You Were Little?

Politics, it seems, is a thing we just can’t quite avoid. My son’s old enough to start noticing when the news is on, or when my wife and I and our friends talk about politics, and he’s aware of who the President is. He’s almost seven, after all. Which is something I have to keep reminding myself. But one day, while we’re sitting on the couch, he looks at me. “Dad? Do you remember who was President when you were little?”

“Yes,” I told him. “The first President I remember was a man named Jimmy Carter. He was a farmer, and then a governer, and then the President. And now he helps people who don’t have houses, by helping them build their own house.”

He thought about that. “Was he nice?”

“I think so,” I answer. “He seemed nice.”

This’ll be different.

Yeah. But the name of the blog is “Things My Son Asks”. Not “Science Things My Son Asks.” So, here we go.

Who were the Presidents when you were little?

Let’s see… I was born in 1971. Richard Nixon was President from 1969 to 1974, so I was born during the Nixon Administration. Which, I’ll be honest here, is not something I recall. Really, the first President I remember is Jimmy Carter. But here is the list of Presidents from my lifetime:

  • Richard Nixon (1969 – 1974)
  • Gerald Ford (1974 – 1977)
  • Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981)
  • Ronald Reagan (1981 – 1989)
  • George H. W. Bush (1989 – 1993)
  • Bill Clinton (1993 – 2001)
  • George W. Bush (2001 – 2009)
  • Barack Obama (2009 – 2017)
  • Donald Trump (2017 – )

Now, “little” is an ambiguous sort of statement. But, honestly, we can probably assume it means single-digit ages. I’ve never really heard a 10 year old get described as a “little boy”, after all. So, based on this reasoning, Nixon, Ford, and Carter were the Presidents when I was “little”. Let’s learn a little more about them.

Must we?

Yes, we must. Reciting a list of names isn’t the same thing as knowing who the Presidents were, after all. And fortunately, the White House web site has a short biography of each of the Presidents.  There are all kinds of other sources as well.

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was born in California in 1913, making him the third President of the United States to be born in the 20th century (his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was born in 1908, and John F. Kennedy was born in 1917). He was a “birthright Quaker” (meaning that his parents were Quakers and so he automatically became one), but still served in the Second World War as a Naval officer – ultimately rising to the rank of Commander. He was elected to Congress in 1946 (where he was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee) and then to the Senate in 1950, and then served as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice-President from 1953 to 1961. He ran for President in 1960 and lost to John F. Kennedy, then ran again and won in 1968.

His Presidency produced the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union, an end to American involvement in Vietnam, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The most famous event in his administration, however, was Watergate – which ended up forcing him to resign to avoid impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.

Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford was born in Nebraska in 1913, as Leslie Lynch King Jr. His mother left his biological father 16 days after he was born, because the senior Leslie King was abusive, and moved to Illinois. He was renamed Gerald Rudolff Ford Jr in 1916, after his mother married his adoptive father (Gerald Rudolff Ford). He served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1945, leaving service as a Lieutenant Commander, then settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1949, and remained in the House until he was appointed Vice President by Richard Nixon in 1973, to fill the gap created by the resigning Spirow Agnew. Then, when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 he became President.

As President, he is most famous for ardoning Richard Nixon. He also created a conditional amnesty program for Vietnam War draft dodgers and military deserters,allowing them to avoid criminal charges and a change in discharge status (if appropriate) if they completed a two year term of public service. He also has the shortest term in office of any President who didn’t die in office.

Although he wasn’t elected to the office, Gerald Ford ran for reelecton (election?). He defeated Ronald Reagan for the Repbulican Party nomination, but lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election.

Jimmy Carter

James “Jimmy” Carter was born in Georgia in 1924, the son of a relatively prosperous merchant and farmer. Unlike his predecessors he didn’t serve in the second World War, but he did enter the US Naval Academy in 1943, graduated in 1946, and remained in the Navy until his dicharge as a Lieutenant in 1953 after the death of his father. He inherited his father’s farm but no money, and thanks to a drought his first year managing the farm ended up living in subsidized housing while trying to get the farm up and running once more.

He was elected to the Georgia Senate in 1963, winning after he challenged a fradulent vote count which resulted in a special election. He served in the State Senate until 1967, and ran for Governor in 1966 and 1970. He was elected in 1970, and served as Governor of Georgia from 1971 to 1975, then ran for President and was elected in 1976.

President Carter’s administration is probably best remembered for an energy crisis (I remember sitting in long lines with my mom while she waited to fill the tank on our station wagon) and the Iranian hostage crisis (52 American citizens held in the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days). He also gave control of the Panama Canal to Panama, helped negotiate peace between Egypt and Israel, and signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. These days he’s probably better known for his establishment of the Carter Center (which is working to eliminate parasitical diseases like Guinea worm and river blindness) and his work with Habitat for Humanity (which, despite what I thought, he didn’t create).

So, there you go. An extremely short capsule biography of the men who were President when I was little.

Why Do We Have Nightmares?

It’s evening, and my wife and I are tucking my son into bed. As he snuggles down into his pile of stuffed animals – he has a bunch, and all of them share his bed with him – he looks up at us. “why do we have nightmares?”

“Because your brain’s active,” my wife tells him, kissing him goodnight.

“Well, they shouldn’t give us nightmares!” he declares.

Can’t argue with that.

Nope, not really. I mean, I don’t remember my dreams with any frequency. Heck, I’m not positive I do dream most nights, although I have a vague recollection of learning that people go crazy if they don’t. But the nightmares stay with me. Even the ridiculous one where zombies flooded my condo, but they couldn’t find me because I’d climbed up on the back of my couch. Which, now that I think about it, wasn’t a nightmare precisely. I woke up more bemused than anything.

Why do we dream?

I’ve always thought that, if you described it to an alien, “sleeping” and “dreaming” would be two of the most ridiculous things you could possibly imagine. I mean, we spend about a third of our lives immobile and paralyzed, unaware of our surroundings, and hallucinating. It sounds like utter madness. And yet, we do it. Why?

Back in February 2015, Psychology Today said that “dreaming is:

  • A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.
  • An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life.
  • A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.
  • The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
  • A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.
  • A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.

Which of these theories is correct? Well, the answer right now seems to be “most, if not all, of them”. Our brains are complicated things, after all, and we don’t understand how and why they work anywhere as well as we’d like. As the article says, “There is not likely ever to be a simple answer, or a single theory that explains the full role of dreaming to human life. Biological, cognitive, psychological—it’s very likely that dreaming may serve important functions in each of these realms.”

So, why do we have nightmares?

It’s complicated.

All right, all right, I’ll see what I can find.

To start with, there’s The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: Evidence from dreams of traumatized children, a sadly paywalled article that looks like it might give one possible explanation. Here’s what the abstract says:

The threat simulation theory of dreaming (TST) () states that dream consciousness is essentially an ancient biological defence mechanism, evolutionarily selected for its capacity to repeatedly simulate threatening events. Threat simulation during dreaming rehearses the cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and threat avoidance, leading to increased probability of reproductive success during human evolution. One hypothesis drawn from TST is that real threatening events encountered by the individual during wakefulness should lead to an increased activation of the system, a threat simulation response, and therefore, to an increased frequency and severity of threatening events in dreams. Consequently, children who live in an environment in which their physical and psychological well-being is constantly threatened should have a highly activated dream production and threat simulation system, whereas children living in a safe environment that is relatively free of such threat cues should have a weakly activated system. We tested this hypothesis by analysing the content of dream reports from severely traumatized and less traumatized Kurdish children and ordinary, non-traumatized Finnish children. Our results give support for most of the predictions drawn from TST. The severely traumatized children reported a significantly greater number of dreams and their dreams included a higher number of threatening dream events. The dream threats of traumatized children were also more severe in nature than the threats of less traumatized or non-traumatized children.

Now, I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist, but “threatening dream event” sounds like a technical term for “nightmare”. So, speculating entirely from the abstract and wishing I could read (and try to make sense of) the article, it seems entirely reasonable that nightmares are – among other things – a threat response rehearsal. And I’d be curious to know if the “threatening dream events” of the traumatized children strongly related to the events that caused the trauma.

Both Psychology Today and LiveScience seem to agree, at least in broad strokes. “Most nightmares are a normal reaction to stress, and some clinicians believe they help people work through traumatic events,” reports Psychology Today, while LiveScience quotes Doctor Deirdre Barrett as saying that “Nightmares probably evolved to help make us anxious about potential dangers. Even post-traumatic nightmares, which just re-traumatize us, may have been useful in ancestral times when a wild animal that had attacked you, or a rival tribe that had invaded might well be likely to come back.”

So why am I dreaming about zombies?

Clearly, zombies aren’t a genuine potential danger, no matter how scary George Romero made them seem. Doctor Barrett, however, gave us some more information to consider: “However, some nightmares may be calling to your attention something you might do well to worry about or something that, once you are more conscious of the concern, you can convince your unconscious to stop wasting time on.”

So, I’m going to speculate here. Clearly, zombies aren’t real. Heck, for most of us, being eaten by a lion isn’t a real threat either. But your brain isn’t going to to generate a block of text in your dreams, telling you to be concerned about your spending habits and the amount of debt you’re carrying. No, it’s going to respond to your current stress in the office by trying to stage a dry run threat response drill. By making you practice running from popsicle-men wielding pinking shears for three virtual days. Because, your brain assumes, you’re obviously needing to run from something.

Do we go crazy if we don’t dream?

Well, the (fictional) Russian Sleep Experiment notwithstanding, the answer is pretty much “no”. At least, according to Harvard University. Mostly, when you don’t sleep, you get tired. Obvious, right? Well, that lack of sleep causes you to make poor decisions. Increased accidents are common, as are lack of focus and higher-level cognitive functioning – that’s concentration, memory, and the ability to do math and even reason logically.

But that’s sleeping. What about dreaming? Well, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica online, animal experimentation has revealed heightened levels of sexuality and aggressiveness after REM-sleep deprivation. Beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot of impact. In fact, there appears to be some value to REM sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression. So, no. You won’t go crazy. Just horny and aggressive and too tired to act on it.

Why Don’t We All Get A Balloon, And Then We Can Fly Into The Sky?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a birthday party for one of my son’s friends. It was a great day, at a little park a half hour drive north and east of where I live, situated on a tributary of the Ohio River. The kids all had squirt guns and the like, and got each other soaked down while the adults sat back and watched and took pictures and were grateful that they brought extra clothes and towels. There were balloons as well, because there were kids.

One child was super excited about the balloons. They were your ordinary latex kind, that you blow up with your own lungs, but he was bouncing them around and laughing. “Why don’t we all get a balloon?” he asked excitedly. “And then we can fly into the sky!”

So, yeah. It wasn’t my son that asked it. But it’s the kind of question he could have asked, so I’ll answer it.

How does a balloon float?

The same way a boat does.

Care to elaborate?

Of course.

It’s tempting to say that things float because they’re light, but that’s not quite accurate. For example, an oil tanker floats but it is not light – they can carry anywhere from 1,500 to 550,000 deadweight tons, depending on size. No. Floating has everything to do with the mass of the object, and the fluid that surrounds it. See, all objects placed into a fluid displace some of the fluid (put a rock in a cup of water to see for yourself). If the mass of the fluid you displace is greater than your mass, you float. And air, for these purposes, can be considered a fluid.

But let’s look at some math, since the University of Chicago was kind enough to put together a document (Lighter Than Air: Why Do Balloons Float?) that explains all of this in some detail. There are two forces in play, the downward force (which is the pull of gravity) and the upward force (which is how much the fluid resists the downward force). The downward force (Fg) is the mass of the object (M) x gravitational strength (g), which is also how you calculate “weight” in physics. Weight, after all, is mass times gravity (which is why you weigh less on the moon, even though you retain the same mass). Upward force (Fb) is the mass of the fluid displaced (m) x gravitational strength (g).

Once you have Fg and Fb, you can calculate life=t. All that is is Fb – Fg. If the result is positive (meaning Fb is larger than Fg), you are sinking. If the result is negative (meaning Fb is larger than Fg), you are rising. And if the result is 0 (meaning the two forces are equal), you are floating immobile in midfluid.

Uhm. Okay.

Let’s do an actual example, shall we?

Yeah. Lets.

After consulting Google, I found an estimate that the average-sized party balloon masses 1.7 grams, and several notes that they can weigh more depending on the actual size, thickness, etc, etc. This will be important, momentarily.

Now, the density of air at sea level is about 0.0012 grams per cubic centimeter. So, if you inflate your hypothetical average-sized party balloon to a diameter of 1 foot (0.3048 meters, which means 30.48 centimeters), you get a sphere (for the sake of not making me crazy) containing 14,826.7 cubic centimeters of air. The inflated balloon weighs a total of (14,826.7 x 0.0012) + 1.7 = roughly 19.5 grams, and displaces 17.8 grams of air. So, it sinks. If you inflate the balloon to 2 feet in diameter (60.96 centimeters), you get a balloon containing 116,613 cubic centimeters of air. It weighs 141.6 grams, and displaces 139.9 grams of air.

Clearly, both balloons sink. And, in a vacuum, both would sink at the same rate because they have the same lift (-1.7).

But they don’t fall at the same speed. Not the ones I’ve played with, anyway.

Nope. Because we live in an atmosphere. And atmospheres create air resistance. I won’t go into the math there, because it made my head hurt a little, but it works like this: an object produces drag (a resistance to acceleration) based on the cross-section of the object perpendicular to the direction of movement. As the cross-section gets larger, the power needed to overcome the drag increases. How much? Well, it’s based on the cube of the cross-section. If you double it, you need 8 times as much power. If you triple it, you need 27 times as much power. And so on.

For the balloon, acceleration is down towards the ground and the cross-section is the diameter of the balloon. Doubling the diameter of the balloon means you would need 8 times the power to make it fall at the same speed as the smaller balloon. Since gravity (roughly) stays the same, that means you would expect to see it fall 8 times as slowly.

So, getting back to the wish to “fly into the sky”…

Sure. See, to make a balloon fly, you need something less dense than room-temperature air. That’s why hydrogen and helium are so popular. They’re gaseous at “room temperature”, and they weigh far, far less. Hydrogen weighs 0.000089 grams per cubic centimeter, and helium weighs 0.00018 grams per cubic centimeter. So, looking at the two balloons from the earlier example, we get the following information:

  • The 1 foot balloon weighs 3 grams if you fill it with hydrogen, and 4.4 grams if you fill it with helium. It displaces 17.8 grams of air.
  • The 2 foot balloon weighs 12 grams if you fill it with hydrogen, and 23 grams if you fill it with helium. It displaces 139.9 grams of air.

Regardless of which gas you fill the balloon with, it weighs less than the gas it displaces. So it has positive lift and it goes up. In fact, it could even lift additional weight – the 2 foot balloon filled with hydrogen would have neutral buoyancy with a 127.9 gram weight attached to it, so you could attach two Hershey’s chocolate bars (1.55 oz, or 44 grams each) to the balloon and still watch it go skyward.

Heating the air will also work, as gasses become less dense with heat. Sadly, I don’t have a good equation (that I understand) to show how much you’d have to heat the air to make it lift.

How many balloons would I need to fly to the sky, then?

Well, that’s more or less easy. How much do you weigh, and what gas are you using? I’ll illustrate with my son. He weighs around 60 pounds right now. That’s 27.2155 kilograms, or 27,215.5 grams. Looking at the two foot balloons, the lift for the hydrogen balloon is 127.9 grams per balloon and the lift for the helium balloon is 116.9 grams. So, it would take 27,215.5/127.9 = 213 2 foot hydrogen balloons to give him neutral buoyancy. 233 2 foot helium balloons would be required to achieve the same effect. You’d need another 18 hydrogen (20 helium) balloons to offset the weight of his clothes (maybe more if he’s planning on flying high). And I have no idea how many balloons would be required to offset the weight of the lines he’s holding on to or the harnesses to keep the balloons attached to him. And, of course, he’d need more to actually go up.

By contrast, I weight 316 pounds. So I’d need 1,121 hydrogen balloons or 1,227 helium balloons to achieve the same effect. That’s 37,553.5 cubic feet of hydrogen balloons, or a sphere roughly 42 feet in diameter. Oh, and it could explode.

Don’t do this at home.

No kidding.

You’d think so, but at least one person did.  Larry Waters used 45 8-foot weather balloons filled with helium to lift himself, his lawn chair, his parachute, his pellet gun (so he could pop balloons and descend), his CB radio, his camera, and sandwiches and beer to a height of 16,000 feet.  He flew for 45 minutes, and got fined $1,500 by the FAA after an appeal.  But, because he was a trained pilot and lucky, he didn’t die.

What Are Cataracts?

This question came up because my son’s babysitter is fostering a blind dog – an adorable little black poodle with milky white eyes named Rosie.

Seriously. How cute is that?

My son and his babysitter’s two children love her and spoil her and carry her around, and they describe her as having “moon eyes” because they sort of look like full moons. The Peppermint Pig Animal Rescue was going to get her eyes operated on to remove the cataracts, but it turns out she also has detached retinas. So the surgery wouldn’t really change anything for her.

We were talking about the dog, and the news, and my son asked “what are cataracts?” Because we’d used the word and he didn’t know it.

“It’s what makes Rosie’s eyes white,” my wife replied.

“But what are they?” he replied.

“It’s…” My wife thought for a second. ‘It’s like a film on her eyes, that she can’t see through.”

“But why are they called that?” my son persisted.

So. What are cataracts?

This. This is a cataract.

I’ll be honest, here. I don’t actually know. My wife’s explanation seemed as good as any, and I think I always sort of assumed that they were something like scar tissue. But, like with so many other things, I’ve never really stopped to ask what they were or what causes them. So, since my son asked, it’s time to change that.


Merriam-Webster, my go to for dictionaries thanks to a handy app, gives two definitions for “cataract“:

  1. [Middle English, from Medieval French or Medieval Latin; Medieval French catharacte, from Medieval Latin cataracta, from Latin, portcullis] : a clouding of the lens of the eye or of its surrounding transparent membrane that obstructs the passage of light
  2. a obsolete : waterspout
    b : waterfall; especially : a large one over a precipice
    c : steep rapids in a river the cataracts of the Nile
    d : downpour, flood cataracts of rain cataracts of information

I’m guessing that the medical term is used explicitly because of the “portcullis” meaning in Latin, since cataracts more or less block light from entering the eye. The Online Etymology Dictionary seems to agree, so that makes me feel better.

The medical condition

Multiple online sources (the Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Ophthalmology to name just two) agree with the Merriam-Webster definition. Cataracts are a clouding of the lens of the eye. This can result in blurry vision, seeing double, light sensitivity, having trouble seeing well at night, needing more light when reading, seeing “halos” around lights, and seeing bright colors as faded or yellowed. They are the most common form of vision loss in people over the age of 40, and the single most common cause of blindness in the world (in the US alone, more than 22 million people have cataracts).

Aging is the most common cause of cataracts, because the proteins in the lens of your eye will denature over time. This is not a good thing, because your lens is made of living cells and denatured proteins disrupt the cells and can even kill them. Diabetes and high blood pressure can accelerate the process, as can ultraviolet light (UVB, specifically) and other radiation and blunt trauma to the eye. There is a genetic component to the development of cataracts as well, particularly if someone develops them in childhood or as young adults. These aren’t the only causes, of course. Just the most common.

The most common forms of cataracts are subcapsular, nuclear, and cortical. Subcapsular cataracts start at the back of the lens, and are most common in diabetics and people taking medical steroids. Nuclear cataracts start in the center of the lens, and are most commonly associated with aging. Cortical cataracts start at the edge of the lens and work inwards ina “spoke-like fashion”. There are also congenital cataracts, which you are born with or develop during childhood – usually due to your genes or some form of infection or trauma.


Ultimately, the only treatment for cataracts is to remove the existing lens and replace it with an artificial lens called an intraocular lens that matches the prescription (if any) that you need for your glasses. The intraocular lenses come in a wide variety of different types, and if you need one you should consult with your ophthalmologist to see which ones make the most sense for you.

Surgery is generally considered a last resort, though. As long as the cataract symptoms aren’t bothering you, and the problems with your vision can be corrected with glasses, there generally no need to undergo surgery. Cataract surgery is considered pretty routine, but the only really risk-free surgery is one that you don’t have.

Hang on, hang on. This is all about people. Didn’t this start with a dog?

Yep. But cataracts aren’t limited to humans. It’s a condition caused by disruption and damage to the lens of the eye, so any animal with an eye with lenses can develop cataracts. There’s a lot of information on the internet about dog cataracts, and mentions of cats. One veterinarian stated that they are “the most common cause of blindness in dogs, and can also affect people or any species of animal”. Like humans, animal cataracts can develop from age, diabetes, trauma, genetics, or something called Progressive Retinal Atrophy – the name for a cluster of generic disorders that cause the retina to degenerate. Animal cataracts can be treated in the same way as human cataracts. Progressive Retinal Atrophy has no treatment, though.

Impaired vision and even blindness aren’t a death sentence for a house pet, though. Rosie gets around just fine, as long as you don’t move her food and water dishes and rearrange the furniture a whole lot. So if you live in the Cincinnati area and want to adopt an adorable little blind dog (or another animal), contact the Peppermint Pig Animal Rescue. They’ve got a lot of animals looking for a loving new home.

How Long Did It Take To Build That?

Over the weekend, we took my son and my 16-year-old (almost 17 years old, now) to visit the Hall of Justice.

All right, all right, I’m kidding.  Slightly. That building up there (which really was the inspiration for the Hall of Justice) is the Cincinnati Museum Center. It’s not quite as impressive as usual, because there’s a whole lot of internal and external renovations going on, but it’s still pretty cool.

“How long did it take to build that?” my niece asked.

“Two years!” my son declared.

“I don’t know,” I confess.

“Maybe forty years,” my niece suggests.

How long did it take?

Well, according to the Museum Center web site, construction started in August 1929 and was completed on March 31, 1933. So, about 3 and 1/2 years.

Well. That was short.

The construction time? Or the article?


Yeah, well, the building was built in the 20th century. As I pointed out to my niece when she guessed – half tongue-in-cheek – that it took 40 years, the building was originally designed to be a rail hub. They had ways to haul supplies and materials in, and things like cranes and bulldozers and the like. It wasn’t all teams of oxen dragging granite blocks and the like.

Rail hub?

The building that is now the Cincinnati Museum Center started out as Cincinnati Union Terminal. See, as Ohio History Central explains, Cincinnati was linked to “a number of other major cities through its rail lines, but the original system had not been well-coordinated. Trains ran through several different railroad stations around the city. In the early 1900s, railroad companies began developing plans for a single railroad terminal that would provide service for all passenger and freight lines entering the city. It was not until the late 1920s that construction actually began on the project, which became known as Union Terminal.”

The Union Terminal complex, at its height, took up 287 square miles acres and had 94 miles of track – some of which you can still see if you visit today. It was designed to handle a lot of traffic. See the way that the building rises up in a hemisphere in the center? That facade covers a half-dome that, when it was built, was the largest half-dome in the world (and is still the largest in the western hemisphere). The terminal could handle 108 arriving and 108 departing trains a day, and was designed to accommodate as many as 17,000 people (although it hit over 20,000 during World War II, when soldiers passed through on the way to their posts).

Union Terminal operated from 1931 to 1972, when it finally closed for business. The city of Cincinnati purchased the site in 1974. In 1979, the Joseph Skilken Organization converted it into a mall, which opened with 40 tenants on August 4, 1980. The mall failed and closed officially in 1984, although a single store (Loehmann’s) continued in operation there until 1985 and a weekend flea market operated on the site for several years.

In 1986, a Hamilton County bond levy was passed to fund renovation of the site and to convert it into a museum. Four years later, in November 1990, the terminal reopened as the Cincinnati Musuem Center. The next year, it also began serving as Union Terminal once more. Amtrak began thrice-weekly passenger train runs on July 29, 1991.

So, how long did it take?

It depends, ultimately, on what you’re looking at. It took three and a half years to build the original Union Terminal facility. Turning it into a mall took 23 months, and turning it into the Cincinnati Museum Center took four and a half years.