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The Straight Dope



Is it true that Isaac Newton was a virgin? --Hoping there are other ways to assure scientific greatness, Douglas Leonard, Department of Astronomy, UC Berkeley

Of course he was a virgin. Once upon a time so was Madonna. What's tragic is that he may have died a virgin. Not that this is so unusual. You met many electrical engineers? But mathematicians are probably the worst. How the math gene perpetuates itself is one of the mysteries of our age.

Admittedly, this is an area where it's unwise to make blanket statements. (Sorry.) It's not like they had the guy under constant surveillance. As one of my high school classmates unwisely asked at the lunch table one day, "What, technically, is the definition of a virgin?"

Still, having thus fenced the boundaries of the knowable, we can say that, with the possible exception of one teenage friendship (there's no sign that it became physical), Isaac Newton apparently formed no romantic attachments during his 84 years of life. Furthermore, he was so straitlaced it seems unlikely he availed himself of, how shall I say, commercial outlets.

The penalty of genius, you're thinking. Not necessarily. Richard Feynman, one of the legendary minds of our time, was quite the bon vivant, and . . . well, I dare not even speak of myself.

Newton, in contrast, was walking proof that one path to immortality is to obsess. Ninety percent of what he obsessed about--alchemy, biblical prophecy, other idiosyncratic religious pursuits--was rubbish. The other 10 percent--the stuff he did for laughs, you might say--took 6,000 years of disjointed fumbling and made it into a science. One and a half sciences, actually: physics with a side order of math.

Too bad Newton didn't have the benefit of modern management consultants. "Ike," they'd say, "if you chucked the alchemy and prophecy thing you could produce all the scientific achievements that will earn you glory and still leave most of the day for wine, women, and song." Didn't happen. But have some respect. One bio credits him with "discovering gravitation," and where would we be without that?

If the "black boxes" used on aircraft to record voice and flight data are so indestructible, why can't they make the whole plane out of the same stuff? --Terry Surowy, Racine, Wisconsin

They must get this question all the time at the National Transportation Safety Board. The guy I talked to didn't miss a beat with the answer: because the interstates aren't wide enough. His point, in case you're new to sarcasm, was that a plane built to black-box standards would be so heavy you'd have to drive rather than fly it.

Unlike the rest of the aircraft, which is made mostly of light materials such as aluminum and plastic, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder are encased in stainless steel boxes roughly ten inches by ten inches by five. The steel is maybe a quarter inch thick, making the boxes so heavy the designers don't even bother enclosing the accompanying electronics. The boxes are lined with a liquid-filled foam bladder encased in plastic that's supposed to protect against the heat of a postcrash fire.

Over the years these precautions have proved pretty effective. Investigators got useful data from one recorder that had been immersed in the ocean for seven years. But in another crash in Thailand the recorder landed in a pool of flaming fuel and basically got cooked.

One thing the NTSB learned from experience: be careful where you put these things. Recorders used to be located near the point where the wings joined the fuselage, the theory being that this was the most heavily constructed part of the plane. Problem was, being heavily constructed, the pieces of plane falling on the recorders often crushed them. Now the recorders are put in the tail section so that, assuming your typical crashing plane goes in nose first, the forward part of the airframe absorbs most of the impact.

Sitting back there won't help you though. When a big jet slams into the ground at a couple hundred miles per, the only safe place for humans to be is somewhere else.


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

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