The Readers Ask

How do you become a Texas Ranger?Are the world's frogs disappearing? How does a prince sign his name? Why do flight attendants 'disarm' the doors after landing? How long can you leave tires on your car before they are a risk? How good is rookie shortstop Nomar Garciaparra? Who invented matches?

Match Inventor: China or Europe?

Q Where were matches invented? - Josh Caldwell, Dolores, Colo.

A Matches apparently originated in 6th-century China. The story goes that a court of Chinese women, trapped without kindling during a military attack, fashioned the first matches out of pine twigs and sulfur. Matches finally showed up in Europe in the 16th century when inventors combined phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium chlorate to make matches that lit when struck.

Q I've seen the CBS-TV show "Walker, Texas Ranger" [Chuck Norris plays Walker, photo above]. How many Texas Rangers are there, do they wear uniforms, and how does someone become a ranger?

A The Texas Rangers have a colorful history that has been portrayed in books, movies, and on TV. The Rangers were founded on Aug. 5, 1823, by Stephen Austin, the "father of Texas." Ten men were selected to "range" the area around Austin's fledgling colony to protect it from Indians. The name "Texas Rangers" did not become official until legislation was passed in 1874. Modern-day rangers, like those shown in the TV show "Walker, Texas Ranger" don't wear uniforms. Instead, they sport western garb and wear a signature silver star over their left breast. Rangers remain an elite unit. Today there are only 106 rangers, of whom two are women. To become a ranger, officers must have eight years of experience, including four with the Texas Department of Public Safety. They must also pass rigorous examinations and oral interviews. Rangers celebrate their 175th anniversary next year.

Q Why do pilots instruct flight attendants on commercial aircraft to "disarm" rather than "unlock" doors before passengers deplane? - C.B., Tokyo

A As planes leave the gate, flight attendants are told to "prepare the doors for departure and crosscheck." At that time, attendants "arm" the doors - that is, prepare the doors for an emergency evacuation, if necessary. An American Airlines spokesman says this is done by fastening a bar at the bottom of the door. This engages the emergency evacuation slides packed inside each main door. If a door is opened, the bar triggers a device that deploys an emergency slide. "Disarming" the doors refers to disengaging the triggering device.

Q What are the origins of "The Gingerbread Boy" cookie? - Phyllis Mordas, Medford Lakes, N.J.

A "The Gingerbread Boy" is an American version of similar European folk tales, according to folklore expert Stith Thompson. Americans first read "The Gingerbread Boy" in 1875 in St. Nicholas Magazine. It's the story of a gingerbread boy who springs to life and runs away from the old woman who baked him. "I ran away from an old woman, and I can run away from you, I can," he shouts to forest animals who try to feast on him. In European lore, similar pastry tales appear under such titles as "The Fleeing Pancake," "The Scottish Bannock," and "The Russian Bun."

Q The original tires on my 1989 Honda Accord still have plenty of tread at 36,000 miles, but the sidewalls are beginning to have tiny cracks. How many years can tires be driven before age and decay make them unsafe? - Alberta Raffaelli, DeLand, Fla.

A Standard all-season tires can usually weather about five years before the rubber begins to oxidize and crack. Decay is caused by acid rain, ozone, extreme heat, snow, and road chemicals. Tire dressings applied to make tires look shiny can speed up damage by drawing out natural oils. Steve Cramer, consumer relations director at Cooper Tire Co. in Findlay, Ohio, says the critical factor is whether cracks in sidewalls expose the underlying tire fabric. If fabric is exposed, get rid of the tires. Superficial surface cracks, however, are not considered hazardous. To protect tires, garage your car and avoid chemical sprays.

Q Why is the sky blue? - Ginny Tonkin (age 8), Bridgeport, Conn.

A The sky's color comes from the sun's rays that are scattered by the atmosphere. Blue light waves are the shortest and most readily scattered of the light we can see, and they give the sky its color. But at sunset (or sunrise), the sun's rays have farther to travel through the atmosphere. As the sun sinks in the west, most light is widely scattered and cannot be seen. Only the longer red rays penetrate the atmosphere sufficiently to be seen.

Q How does Prince William sign his name when turning in an exam at school?

A Windsor is the royal family name. Queen Elizabeth II declared in 1952 that her children and their descendants would carry the name Windsor rather than her husband's name, Mountbatten. But in 1960, the decision was altered to include only those with the title prince, princess, or royal highness. All other descendants would adopt the name Mountbatten-Windsor. According to the British Consulate in Boston, Prince William would presumably sign "William Windsor" on his exams.

Q Is the world's population of frogs really decreasing? - Edward Tonkin, Bridgeport, Conn.

A Yes, dramatically. Several species of frogs are now extinct, although the blue poison-dart frog pictured on this page is doing well. A number of causes may be hurting frog populations: habitat destruction, agricultural chemicals and pesticides, acid rain, increased ultraviolet-B radiation due to thinning of the ozone layer, and introduction of nonnative species. Biologists say frogs' delicate, permeable skin makes them vulnerable to environmental and chemical changes. Yet even relatively unsullied areas like Yosemite National Park have experienced declines in frog populations, so unknown factors also may be involved.

Q Is Nomar Garciaparra, the rookie shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, really as wonderful as some of his fans say?

A He may be. Former Red Sox great Johnny Pesky says that while no one can be compared to another fabulous Red Sox player, Ted Williams, Garciaparra "is as good a player as I've ever seen." In fact, just before the season ended, Garciaparra broke Pesky's team-rookie record of 205 hits - a mark Pesky set in 1942. Garciaparra finished this season with more hits (209) than anyone else in the American League. He also led the league in triples (11) and was second only to Seattle's Griffey in runs scored (122) and total bases (393). He was the Sox No. 1 base stealer (22). As a rookie, Garciaparra did it all for a base salary of $150,000. That's just 2.3 percent as much as the $6,350,000 paid to the top Sox earner, first baseman Mo Vaughn. Garciaparra, a Californian, was an All American for three years while playing at Georgia Tech. Now, when his ego gets a little too big, he says he phones home to say: "Mom, I need to come home and take out the trash."

Q What happens to Air Force planes after they are retired from service?

A Thousands of older military aircraft are sent to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. The planes are often salvaged for parts or simply sold as scrap. Sometimes foreign governments buy retired aircraft, overhaul them, and return them to service. Old supersonic fighters occasionally find action as targets in aerial dogfight training. Civilians also find uses for old military aircraft. Trade schools use them to train mechanics. Other planes are turned into civilian transports. Enthusiasts occasionally buy old planes and rebuild them. But if you're a civilian, the government won't sell you a retired fighter plane. The Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, preserves samples of obsolete aircraft. The museum's collection currently numbers 250 planes.

Dear Editor:

We are writing to correct an answer that appeared in "The Readers Ask" [August 27, 1997]. The question was why compact discs reflect the spectrum of the rainbow....

A more accurate answer would be: Information is stored on CDs in concentric rings called tracks and there are a lot of tracks, 630 per millimeter. At this density, the track spacing is only 3 to 5 times larger than wavelengths in visible light. All of the colors of light reflect at the same angle from a mirror, but a series of closely spaced tracks like those on a CD reflects different colors of light at different angles. The phenomenon is due to the interference of light reflecting from adjacent tracks and is called diffraction. When you look at an ordinary white light bulb reflected in a CD, each color reflects at a different angle and hence appears to reflect from a different place on the CD giving the appearance of a rainbow of color....

LP records ... do the same thing, but it is harder to see the rainbow. That's because the groove spacings on LPs are much larger than on CDs so you have to look close to edge on.

Brian J. Anderson, senior staff physicist, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Laurel, Md.

Stuart M. Anderson, professor of physics, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minn.

About This Page

Readers are invited to submit questions to: The Readers Ask, TCSM, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115. Or e-mail queries to: Research for this page was provided by Kristina Lanier and John Hoyle, Monitor staff interns. Questions not identified by name were submitted by Monitor staffers.

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