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We’ve long used the wheel, but it’s no natural development

Q.  In August, 2013, a young Colorado woman named Kyra encountered a cougar (aka mountain lion) on one of her many hikes.  She had cellphone reception but help was more than a half-hour away.  How did singing some opera possibly save her life until rescuers arrived?

A.  Kyra was familiar with the five tips posted by the “Mountain Lion Foundation”:  make yourself seem as large as possible, make a lot of noise, act defiant, slowly create distance between you and the animal, and fight back if necessary, recounts Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  When Kyra heard a twig snap behind her, she turned to see a cougar no more than 15 feet away, but as she slowly walked in the opposite direction, it followed her for the next 20 minutes, “often pouncing in front of her.”

As “Outdoor Life” explains, when it comes to cougars, stalking is a sign of impending danger.  Typically ambush predators, cougars may leap on the back of their prey and deliver a suffocating neck bite.  So, next she brandished a stick and tried to make herself appear larger, but to no avail.  “Instincts kicked in” and Kyra started singing opera really loud.  As she later described the cat, “It kind of put its ears down and kept on looking at me, and it sort of backed away.  Then it came around the bushes and came toward me again and crouched about 10 feet away.”

“Ultimately,” Lewis says, “the animal wandered off, perhaps in search of a quieter meal.”

Q.  Though we don’t recommend it, if you’re going to hurl insults, draw on William Shakespeare, who knew how to hurl with the best (worst?) of them: “scullion,” “dotard,” “knotty-pated” and “sodden-witted.”  Do you know them?

A.  A “scullion” is not just a servant who does menial kitchen work, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  It’s also a lowly, contemptible person, as used in “Henry IV, Part 2,” where Falstaff flings these insults: “Away, you scullion!  You rampallion! You fustilarian!  And from Middle English “doten” (to be foolish) comes “dotard,” “one whose mental faculties have deteriorated, especially due to age.”  Shakespeare employed it in “Much Ado About Nothing” in the lines: “I speak not like a dotard nor a fool, /As, under privilege of age, to brag/What I have done being young, or what would do/Were I not old.”

And in “Henry IV, Part 1,” Prince Hal delivers the “knotty-pated” insult, from Old English “pate” (head), meaning “blockheaded” or “thickheaded.”  Finally, credit Shakespeare for originating “sodden-witted” (from Middle English “sodden,” or “boiled”), hence “dull,” used in “Troilus and Cressida”: “Ay, do, do, thou sodden-witted lord! thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.”

Q.  When did humans get wheels for locomotion?  And why don’t animals have wheels?

A.  The earliest physical remains of wheels and complete carts have been found on the steppes of what is now Ukraine, in 5,000-year-old graves, according to New Scientist’s “The Origin of (almost) Everything,” by Graham Lawton.  “By about 4,500 years ago, light and nippy two-wheeled chariots made their first appearance and were soon being used in warfare.”  In fact, they were the fastest thing on wheels for millennia. 

Fast forward, and by the mid-seventeenth century, the stagecoach was traveling from London to Liverpool in 10 days, and by around 1800, the early steam locomotive was in operation.  The Model T Ford went on sale in 1908, with a top speed of about 70 kilometers per hour (43 mph); almost 40 years later, the first Formula 1 race was won by an Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta, top speed 310 kmh (193 mph).

As to why animals don’t have wheels, Lawton explains: “Evolution has come up with all kinds of elegant solutions to the problem of locomotion:  birds fly, squid have jet propulsion, geckos scale walls and fleas have spring-loaded legs.”  But evolution works incrementally and “there is no incremental step towards a wheel that is useful in itself.  Not to mention no way to create an appendage that can rotate freely while still being supplied with blood vessels and nerves.”

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