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The Straight Dope

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Have you ever gotten your fingers stuck to a metal ice cube tray in the freezer? They won't come loose until you run warm water over them. Similarly, I've heard you're in big trouble if you put your tongue on a cold flagpole in the winter. Yet you can eat a totally frozen Popsicle without injury. What makes human flesh stick to some frozen stuff and not others? --Mike Jones, Chicago

Tonguing flagpoles is definitely asking for it, Michael, especially if the daddy flagpole finds out. Stick to stuff that's breathing. The reason your fingers stick to the ice-cube tray is that the moisture on your skin freezes on contact, bonding it to the metal. Your tongue doesn't stick to a Popsicle (for long, anyway) because the Popsicle warms up too fast. Metal is an efficient conductor of heat and can easily disperse the warmth from your fingertips, but ice isn't and can't. The surface of the Popsicle melts almost instantly when you lick it, whereas you have to warm up half the damn ice-cube tray before the surface under your fingertips rises above freezing. That's one reason plastic trays have become such a popular substitute.

Why do stars twinkle? --Ben Schwalb, Laurel, Maryland

Ben, you amateur, stars don't "twinkle." They exhibit "stellar scintillation." The Pentagon ain't gonna fund a damn twinkle study. Whatever you call it, it's caused by turbulence in the atmosphere, which in turn is caused by convection--clumps of warm air rising through colder stuff. Air will refract (bend) light a varying amount depending on its temperature. You can see this in exaggerated form in the waves, or striae, that ripple above a radiator, a sun-baked highway, or some other heated surface. Because of the bending, sometimes you see more starlight, sometimes less, and it looks like the star is, you know, twinkling. The planets and the moon don't scintillate (as much, anyway) because their apparent size is so much larger that a little atmospheric refraction doesn't greatly alter the amount of light that reaches the eye.

A VOICE FROM THE GRANDSTAND

You are way out in left field regarding the origin of "southpaw" [January 12]. If you consult Paul Dickson's Dictionary of Baseball, in which he gives me credit for many of the entries, you will find that the term is cited before any ballgrounds were constructed according to the direction of the sun. The story that the pitcher's left arm was on the south side of the slab is fanciful. No extra charge for the straight dope I'm giving you. --David Shulman, New York

Hmm. Cecil is not ready to admit he was wrong--Cecil would sooner have his thumbs pulled out by pliers--but he'll concede the situation is more complex than he first let on. I said "southpaw" originated in the fact that professional baseball is usually played with home plate oriented toward the west to keep the afternoon sun out of the batter's eyes. In this setup the pitcher's left arm is always on the south side of the mound, hence southpaw. This story has been widely circulated; one authority, in fact, says the term was invented around 1887 by the humorist Finley Peter Dunne, who began his career as a sportswriter.

Unfortunately, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of southpaw was in 1848--describing a boxer's left-handed punch. This is long before the start of professional baseball and only a few years after baseball was supposedly invented in 1839. (Actually, of course, the game's origins go back much earlier.)

Fatal though this might seem to your ordinary argument, Cecil is no ordinary guy. Obviously there were no professional-baseball stadiums in 1848. But it is reasonable to suppose that any game involving pitching and batting usually would have the batter's spot oriented toward the west, even for sandlot games, for the reasons indicated above. Historians agree such games have been played for centuries, long before the establishment of modern baseball. It seems to your humble columnist that this is ample time for the term southpaw to have gotten anchored in the sporting lexicon. So there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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