The Readers Ask

How did Oreo cookies get their name?

What's the biggest alligator? Do CDs wear out? Why do laser pens worry the police? What are the

10 smartest animals? What's the most likely place to look for E.T.?

Why are the oceans a beautiful clear blue-green in some places and a turgid gray in others?

Q Most US states are called "states," but some are "commonwealths." Is there a difference? - Edward H. Tonkin, Bridgeport, Conn.

A The four commonwealths are Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts (whose capitol is pictured above). Other than in name, they are treated no differently than states by the federal government. The philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, along with English reformer Oliver Cromwell, are associated with using the term regarding politically organized communities or governments with common goals.

Q Do CDs wear out from playing them too much? We play ours all the time and wonder if we need backups for our favorites. - Jane C. de Almeida, Landing, N.J.

A Play those favorites as often as you want. CDs don't wear out. A spokeswoman for Sony Music says that since the songs are accessed by an extremely fine laser beam, there is no mechanical contact or friction on the disk that would cause wear. However, CDs can be damaged if they are scratched or if fingerprints or dust get on the shiny side where the music is encoded.

Q Where did Hydrox and Oreo cookies get their names?

A Back in 1908, company founders were looking for a name that went well with Sunshine. Water came to mind because water and sunshine both implied purity. The elements of water are hydrogen and oxygen, thus "Hydrox." Oreo's history isn't so well documented, say the folks at Nabisco. The company's oral history includes three stories about Oreos. One relates that Oreo comes from French for gold - "l'or" - the color of early package designs. Another story suggests the name may come from the Greek word for mountain, since the cookie's first test shape looked like a hill. Finally, some reports say the name appealed because it sounded melodic - Oh-ree-oh.

Q Besides Earth, in what place in the solar system are prospects best for some sort of extraterrestrial lifeform?

A Thomas B. McCord, a planetary scientist at the University of Hawaii, says three ingredients are essential: energy, liquid water, and organic molecules. These ingredients probably once existed on Mars, and some natural scientists say the controversial Martian rock that fell to Earth contains fossilized microbe remains. NASA scientists speculate that there were once organic molecules streaming through our solar system. Life-forming elements have been recently detected on two of Jupiter's moons, Collisto and Ganymede, and researchers believe the ingredients may also exist on the Jovian moons Io and Europa. But so far there is no conclusive evidence that organic life ever existed anywhere but Earth, McCord says. (Two images of ice-covered Europa, shown below, include one in its natural colors on the left, and color enhanced on the right to emphasized ice-covered areas.)

Q Last year Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman trophy as quarterback of the national champion Florida Gators. Where is he now, and how is he doing?

A The Gators, whipped badly last Saturday by their arch rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs, could use Wuerffel back. Instead he is now playing backup quarterback for the hapless New Orleans Saints, behind Heath Shuler. Wuerffel, despite his Heisman, was chosen third in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft. In Wuerffel's initial game as a rookie, the Saints (2-7 this year) were shut out for the first time in 263 games. It's gotten no better since. So far, Wuerffel has been intercepted eight times, been sacked 18 times, and has generated zero points. He has completed 40 of 87 passes for 500 yards.

Q Why are the oceans beautiful blue-green in some parts of the world and turgid and dark in other places?

A Clear blue water in places like the Florida Keys results from the absence of sediment and small organisms that cloud water in many other areas of the world, says Kevin Harrison, a Boston College professor. The sun's short blue light waves are readily scattered by water in the tropics. Green waters combine the sun's blue light and yellow pigment from phytoplankton. The photo at left shows Mehgan Heaney-Grier plunging to a depth of 155 feet in the blue-green waters of the Florida Keys. The Oct. 21, 1996, dive set a US women's record for diving on a single breath.

Q Do new cars still need breaking in the way they did years ago?

A Not to the same degree. Years ago, new car owners were urged to use brakes gently, not exceed 45 or 50 miles an hour, and not drive steady speeds for prolonged periods. Today's cars are built with computerized machining, use better oils, and are made to finer tolerances, so break ins are not as essential. Even so, Toyota recommends avoiding speeds over 55 m.p.h., hard stops, and driving for long periods at a single speed for the first 1,000 miles so parts can wear in "gently and smoothly." GM suggest gentleness for the first 500 miles, including no trailer-towing. Mercedes says its engines are "bench-tested," so their parts are already smoothed out. But Mercedes still suggests drivers avoid red-lining the engine (high r.p.m.'s) for the first 1,000 miles.

Q What are the 10 most intelligent animals?

A It's difficult to gauge intelligence because of all the factors involved. While monkeys and apes exhibit the most humanlike intelligence, studies of ravens and parrots reveal an aptitude for problem solving and octopuses show an amazing capacity for memorization. Biologists suggest that overall, mammals are the smartest. Apes and monkeys are followed in intelligence by large aquatic mammals like dolphins and whales that are capable of learning symbolic communication. Cats and dogs match or surpass all animals except for apes, some monkeys, and large aquatic mammals.

Q Recently a 14-foot-long alligator was pulled out of Lake Monroe near Orlando. Some said it was the largest Florida gator ever, but others say there have been bigger ones in the past. Who is right?

A The 14-foot, 5/8-inch Lake Monroe gator does hold Florida's official record. However, University of Florida biologist and gator enthusiast Kent Vliet says the record is bunk. "Although the Monroe gator holds the record, there have been many gators captured that were several feet longer," he says. "For example, there was a 17.5-foot gator caught in Apopka in 1956 that remains unofficial." Alligators continue to grow until they die, and Vliet estimates the Monroe reptile may have been have been more than 70 years old. While alligators were once considered endangered, they have made a rapid comeback, and there are currently estimated to be about 1 million adult gators in Florida. The Encyclopdia Britannica says the type of alligator found in Florida and elsewhere in the Southeastern US can grow a long as 19 feet.

Q What is the origin of Great Britain's anthem "God Save the King/Queen"? - Mrs. C.J. Wilkins Stebbing, Barrington, Ill.

A Nothing points to a specific composer or time of origin. Rather, the anthem's words and melody evolved and were combined over time. The song was described as the anthem in 1825, though the phrase "God save the king" appears in the Old Testament. The song's words were found etched on a Jacobite drinking glass dated around 1725. There was also evidence of the song in a 1744 volume by John Simpson. The first known performances were in 1745 in two London theaters. Today it is the world's oldest anthem, though it has yet to gain "official" approval.

Q I've read recently that police are getting jumpy because of laser pens. What are laser pens and how are they used?

A Police across the US are increasingly harassed by the beams of laser pens. The red dots created by the pens are similar to deadly gun-sighting devices on some modern rifles. Laser pens shoot a thin red beam as far as 500 yards and are made for business people to point to things on walls or in exhibits during low-light presentations. Laser gun sights shoot a similar red beam that allows a gunman to pinpoint the spot where the bullet will hit. Use of laser pens by pranksters pulling stunts against police could be dangerous. Miami Police Sgt. Robert Rambo recently told The Miami Herald: "If I can't see what it is, my knowledge of the red dot indicates to me that it's a scope on a gun and that my life is in danger. If you put me in that situation, I'm going to draw my gun and shoot."

Let Us Hear From You

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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