Ever wonder the real purpose of having eyebrows? Or how fabric softener manages to reduce static electricity? Does wearing black really make you look thinner? These important scientific questions and many others were asked by readers of New Scientist magazine and are part of a new book called “Does Anything Eat Wasps?.” Ivan Semeniuk of New Scientist visited “Today” to discuss the book. Here's an excerpt:
IntroductionWhen, in 1994, New Scientist began publishing “The Last Word,” the magazine’s weekly column of everyday science questions and answers provided by readers, one of the editors asked how long we expected the column to run. Estimates ranged from 12 months to five years. “If,” suggested one, “we reach 10 years, I’d be amazed. That would be more than 500 weeks of questions — there simply aren’t that many out there.”
Twelve years later you are reading Does Anything Eat Wasps?, a witty and sometimes esoteric compilation of questions and answers from a column that shows no sign of running out of steam. In the last five years alone, readers have told us how fat you have to be to become bulletproof, why dark alcoholic drinks cause heavier hangovers than light ones, how to judge the amount of rain in a cloud, and why eating green potatoes can be downright dangerous. And “The Last Word” has even spawned a research project and scientific paper in the journal Physica A. So taken were a group of researchers in Spain and the United States by our question asking why Tia Maria and cream interact so dramatically that they set about finding the answer. You can read what they discovered on p. 103.
So why has the column thrived against all expectations? Well, as colleagues often tell me, I have the easiest job on the magazine. “The Last Word” is driven entirely by the enthusiasm of New Scientist’s readers. Without their enduring input there would be no “Last Word,” and you would not be reading this book. Every week our e-mail system is inundated with readers’ new questions, and almost as rapidly, those questions are answered by their peers. This book is a result of their efforts.
And, if you enjoy reading it, you can join them by buying the weekly magazine or logging on to http:/www. newscientist.com/lastword.ns, where you can pose your own question or answer another. But remember: “The Last Word” is devoted to the small questions in life. We can’t solve the mystery behind the meaning of human existence, but we can tell you why your tea changes color when you add lemon juice. We don’t know whether there is life in another galaxy, but we do know how to make bubbles in your chocolate bar. We are devoted to the trivial.
Back in 1994 that same skeptical editor promised to throw a party if “The Last Word” was still in existence in 2004. As well as waiting vainly for the column to show signs of flagging, I am still waiting for the party to which I should invite all those who have made “The Last Word” the success it is.Mick O’Hare
A Sting in the Mouth
In a recent conversation about food chains, a colleague wondered if anything ate wasps. Someone suggested “very stupid birds.” Does anyone know any more about this?
The lowly wasp certainly has its place in the food chain. Indeed, the question should possibly be, “What doesn’t feed, in one way or another, on this lowly and potentially dangerous insect?”
Here are a few creatures that do, the first list being invertebrates: several species of dragonflies (Odonata); robber and hoverflies (Diptera); wasps (Hymenoptera), usually the larger species feeding on smaller species, such as social paper wasps (Vespula maculata) eating V. utahensis; beetles (Coleoptera); and moths (Lepidoptera).
The following are vertebrates that feed on wasps: numerous species of birds, skunks, bears, badgers, bats, weasels, wolverines, rats, mice, and last, but certainly not least, humans and probably some of our closest ancestors. I have eaten the larvae of several wasp species fried in butter, and found them quite tasty.Orvis Tilby
The definitive source on European birds, Birds of the Western Palearctic, lists a remarkable 133 species that at least occasionally consume wasps. The list includes some very unexpected species, such as willow warblers, pied flycatchers, and Alpine swifts, but two groups of birds are well known for being avid vespivores. Bee-eaters (Meropidae) routinely devour wasps, destinging them by wiping the insect vigorously against a twig or wire. And honey buzzards raid hives for food. They are especially partial to bee larvae, but in the United Kingdom, wasps, again mostly larvae, also form a major part of their diet.Simon Woolley
I have a photograph taken in my garden, showing a mason wasp having its internal juices removed via the proboscis of a large insect.Tim Hart
In July 1972 I was snorkeling off the Californian island of Catalina. I returned to the east cliff of the island as sunlight was leaving the shore. In a crevice at the base of the cliff I saw a crab holding a wasp, which was still moving.
I took a photograph which shows the right pincer holding part of the wasp while the left pincer carries the wasp’s abdomen to the crab’s mouth.
The crab did not show any sign that it was startled by the taste of its meal.Garry Tee
Badgers will dig out a wasps’ nest and eat the larvae and their food base. During the summer of 2003 I saw an underground nest being demolished by badgers.Tony Jean
I was once idly observing a wasp crawling around the edge of a water lily leaf in my pond when it paused to drink. There was a sudden flurry of activity when a frog leaped from its hiding place and swallowed the wasp.
The frog did not appear to suffer any ill effects, so I captured another wasp, tossed the hapless creature into the pond, and waited. The frog was slow on the uptake, but there was another disturbance in the water and this time a goldfish snapped up the wasp. The fish, too, seemed undisturbed. My curiosity now thoroughly aroused, I wondered whether the fish could be induced to consume further wasps.
For the next hour or so I continued to hunt down luckless wasps and throw them into the pond. Some got away, some were eaten by the fish, and a few were swallowed by the frogs.John Croft
Returning home late one night I heard the persistent buzzing of a wasp in the kitchen window. It appeared to be struggling around at the bottom of the window, unable to fly properly. A tiny red spider was attached to the underside of its abdomen. The spider must have been some 20 times smaller than the wasp and was positioned where the wasp was unable to mount a counterattack.
The next morning revealed an empty, transparent wasp exoskeleton.John Walter Haworth
Curious CuppaWhen you add a few drops of lemon juice to a cup of black tea, the color of the tea lightens considerably and very quickly. Why?
The simple answer to this question is that adding lemon juice alters the acidity of the tea and the color change is an indication of this, in the same way that litmus paper changes color.
A similar effect can be observed by substituting the tea with some cooked red cabbage juice.Aron
Tea leaves are rich in a group of chemicals known as polyphenols that amazingly account for almost one-third of the weight of the dried leaf. Both the color of the tea and much of its taste are due to these compounds.
One group of polyphenols, the thearubigins, are the redbrown pigments found in black tea and constitute between 7 percent and 20 percent of the weight of dried black tea.
The color of black tea is also influenced by the concentration of hydrogen ions in the water. Thearubigins in tea are weakly ionizing acids and the anions (negatively charged ions) they produce are highly colored. If the water used to brew tea is alkaline, the color of the tea will be deeper due to greater ionization of the thearubigins.
If lemon juice, which is an acid, is added to the tea, the hydrogen ions suppress the ionization of thearubigins, and that makes the tea lighter.
Interestingly, the theaflavins — the yellow-colored polyphenols in black tea — are not involved in the change in color that is associated with a change in acidity.Johan Uys
From “Does Anything Eat Wasps?” by New Scientist. Copyright (c) 2005 by New Scientist. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.