Today, we revive "The Readers Ask," a Monitor feature last seen on Jan. 31, 1967. You are invited to send questions to: The Readers Ask, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115. To get things rolling, these first questions were supplied by staff members, who of course are also readers.
Q Which animal group has the greatest total mass, by weight - reptiles, mammals, fish, or insects?
A Insects, by far. To illustrate: for every human being on Earth, there are 1,500 pounds of termites.
Q Is cigar smoking on the rise? Cigars seem to be Hollywood's hot fashion.
A Cigar-smoking hit a modern-day low of 2.1 billion stogies in 1993. But by 1996, cigar use had risen almost 40 percent. Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not required to display health warnings. Yet smokers may spend up to a hour smoking a single cigar that can contain as much nicotine as a package of cigarettes. Once attractive primarily to older men, cigars are now popular with young adults, both male and female.
Q Between 1990 and Aug. 1, 1997, auto air bags killed 77 people - 31 drivers, 43 children, and three adult passengers in the United States. When will auto companies begin making safer air bags that deploy at speeds slower than 200 miles per hour?
A Automakers already build cars with air bags that deploy at less than 200 m.p.h., but the issue is not just speed, it's power. Cars of various designs require air bags that deploy at various speeds. All new 1998 US cars and most '98 imports will have bags that are 20 to 35 percent less powerful than previous models. Government officials emphasize that it is crucial to wear seat belts when in a car with air bags, even the lower-powered ones. Most of the 77 people who were killed by bags were not wearing belts. New cars with the depowered bags will be equipped with window decals to inform buyers.
Q Prince Charles of England played a key role in the Hong Kong handover only July 1. He wore a military uniform part of the day, and later a civilian suit. Is he an officer in the military?
A The Prince of Wales's first service appointment came in 1969 as colonel-in-chief of the Royal Regiment of Wales. He became colonel of the Welsh Guards in 1975 and now holds a number of service appointments. In 1971, he spent six months at the Royal Air Force College, where he earned his RAF wings. That autumn, he entered the Royal Navy. After service on a guided-missile destroyer and two frigates, he qualified as a helicopter pilot in 1974. Later he joined the 845 Naval Air Squadron on commando flying duties from the aircraft-carrier HMS Bronington. He left the Navy in 1976. The prince currently holds the rank of captain, Royal Navy, and group captain, Royal Air Force.
Q Where did Western culture get the tradition of wearing neckties?
A Ties were worn by Croatian horsemen during the Thirty Years War in Europe (1616-1648). The horsemen gained visibility during the war and ultimately inculcated Western society with the "tie culture."
Q Do fast-food outlets really throw out burgers after just five or 10 minutes?
A Often they do. Hardees says that an average restaurant in its chain may toss between 5 and 10 percent of its burgers a day. Once a burger is boxed, maximum holding time is about 10 minutes. A McDonald's official says that after a few minutes of waiting time, prepared burgers "no longer meet our quality standards."
Q Where did 7up and Dr. Pepper get their names?
A 7up, originally known as "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," was introduced two weeks before the great stock market crash of 1929. In 1936, the name became 7up. There are various stories told about the name's origin. One has it that the drink's inventor saw a cattle brand that resembled 7up. A popular card game at the time was also called 7up. Dr. Pepper is one of the oldest soft drink brands in America. It was created in 1885 in Waco, Texas. Among well-known brands, only Vernors (a ginger ale begun during the Civil War) and Hires Root Beer are older. According to Dr. Pepper lore, the drink originated in the pharmacy of W. B. Morrison. At one time, Mr. Morrison had been in love with the daughter of an employer, Mr. Pepper. It was common in those days to precede a product's name with "Dr." to make it sound healthier.
Q Can you tell me what Big Bird's costume is made of?
A Children's Television Workshop reports that Big Bird's costume is made of dyed turkey feathers.
Q Where are Harley Davidson motorcycles made, and are they America's bike of choice?
A 115,401 Harleys were produced last year, and 80,781 went to the domestic market. Harley is the only US-based motorcycle maker. It has two plants in Wisconsin (the headquarters is in Milwaukee) and one in Pennsylvania. Net sales were $1.53 billion in 1996, up 13.4 percent. Honda holds the largest share of the US motorcycle market (29 percent) with Harley close behind at 23 percent. Yamaha has 15 percent. The Boston Globe reports that Harleys are in such demand that some customers await delivery for over a year.
Q Why do compact discs reflect the spectrum of the rainbow?
A Music encoded onto CDs is set to different frequencies. The different frequencies bend light at different angles, thereby refracting the different colors of light, much as colors are bent by water drops to make a rainbow.
Q How much weight has the typical Miss America lost since the 1950s?
A Calculations indicate that the typical Miss America in the 1950s weighed about 127 pounds. That dropped steadily, and by the 1980s a typical winner weighed about 117 pounds. During those four decades, height increased about one inch to 5 feet, 8 inches. Similar trends are seen in fashion circles. Models were 8 percent lighter than the typical American woman 25 years ago. Today, they weigh 25 percent less.
Q How many native Americans today can speak their tribe's language?
A There are about 2 million native Americans in the US. Of those, 281,990 who are five years old or older live in households where a tribal language is spoken. The survey by the US Bureau of the Census did not include Eskimo and Aleut languages. In 1492, there were more than 300 native languages spoken in North America. Today, 155 of these are still spoken in the US. Of these 155, only 12 or 13 percent are fully vital - that is, spoken by people of all ages.
Q Why is Burma now known as Myanmar and why did it change its name?
A According to the information desk at Myanmar's Washington embassy, the people of Myanmar have referred to themselves as such since the 11th century. The name changed to Burma when the British colonial government took over in 1885. Burmese people are a large ethnic group in Myanmar but an embassy official says this name does not represent the entire country. Myanmar gained its independence in 1948, but the country continued to be known in the international community as Burma until 1989.
Q Why do I never see J.B. Hunt trucks speed as so many do?
A J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., adjusts the engines of its trucks so they are unable to exceed 59 miles per hour. Many J.B. Hunt drivers are also paid a bonus for saving fuel. Speed-related accidents for Hunt have fallen 32 percent since August 1996, when the 59 m.p.h. limit was implemented. Because drivers are paid by the mile, they were awarded a 33 percent raise to as much as 41 cents a mile. A company spokesman says experienced drivers now can make about $50,000 a year. In addition, more than 300 J.B. Hunt drivers were awarded $5,000 each last year for driving 1 million accident-free miles. Seven drivers with 2 million accident-free miles got $10,000 each. J.B. Hunt is the nation's largest publicly held trucking firm.
Olympic Flame - Then and Now
Q What are the origins of the Olympic flame?
A No one is certain when the Olympic Games began, but there are records that go back to 776 BC. During the ancient games in Olympia, a sacred flame, a herald of peace, burned continuously on the altar of Zeus. The modern Olympics began in 1896 in Athens. The Olympic torch relay was run for the first time during the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics, hosted by Germany's Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Staff members of the Monitor who prepared answers and did research for this page include staff writer Eric Evarts and interns Byron Davis, Laura Lipscomb, and Noel Paul.