HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA CANADA — Ah, the joys of the minor mysteries of life. While some people pursue questions dealing with such weighty subjects as the birth of the universe (and what was here before the birth of the universe), most of us are operating more on the level of Why do men have nipples? Where does a whale get a nice drink of water? and Why does a clock move, well, clockwise? If you occasionally find yourself looking for the answers to life's little questions, "New Scientist" magazine offers a few hundred such questions and even more answers at The Last Word.
Named for the print edition's final page (and original home for the feature), The Last Word is a collection of seven years' worth of readers' queries. While some pages address questions that almost everyone has pondered from time to time (Why does a boomerang come back? Why do we close our eyes when we sneeze?), others may never have crossed most minds (What time is it at the North Pole?), and a few may have the readers wondering more about the writers than the questions themselves. For example;
"If my cat were suddenly to grow to the size of a tiger, would he see me as potential food?"
"If I fire a gun at one of the buttons on my TV remote control, will the remote have enough time to send a signal to change channel before it is destroyed?" (While there is no mention of the country of origin for these questions, I have a pretty strong hunch about this last one.)
Visitors to the site are first presented with the column's most recent mystery, with further content available through a Top 20 page and categorized listing of the entire collection. Questions are linked to at least one, and usually several, answers. Occasionally, there may be some small element of debate between the answers provided (as in the boomerang page, where one reply states: "Most boomerangs don't come back and were never intended to do so."
Some replies introduce an element of the subjective, such as where one sage states that the humming sound a television makes when turned on is in fact, "the sound of all the higher-level mental faculties in your brain closing down at once."
You are also invited to submit your own questions, and, if you are feeling particularly knowledgable, Last Word also has about 100 problems waiting for a source of expertise. So, if you know whether birds have regional accents, why smoke rings are so stable, or what the value of the human body as a fertilizer might be, here's your chance to shine.
With a simple design and few graphics, the site's pages are refreshingly quick to download. Unfortunately, there is no search function, so relocating a favorite answer can be a bit of a challenge. Still, the requirement for a manual search means that while trying to discover why yawning is contagious, you might also trip across the reason why Martians have green skin. And haven't you always wanted to know why Martians have green skin?
The Last Word, can be found at http://www.newscientist.com/lastword/.