The Readers Ask: Why is New York called 'The Big Apple'?

What's the biggest ocean wave? How accurate is 'Titanic'? Do the Everglades really have crocodiles? In the rain, do I walk or run to stay dry? Why are school buses yellow?

Q Why is New York City referred to as "The Big Apple"?

A There are a number of different theories. Most likely, the nickname evolved from the jazz culture in Harlem earlier this century. Many musicians compared traveling jazz tours to a tree. When playing away from home, musicians were out in the branches; when they were performing in New York City, they were in "The Big Apple." Stephen Longstreet in the 1920s is credited with being the first to call New York City the big apple. Prof. Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, used the term to depict Harlem as the "precious fruit in the Garden of Eden, an oasis for the literary, musical, and painting talents of oppressed black American intellectuals." Oral historians of Harlem claim that Fletcher Henderson popularized the phrase, however, in the 1930s or 1940s. He often tried to entice musicians from the South to join him in "The Big Apple." Around this time Harlem became the mecca for jazz and a nationally popular dance was called "The Big Apple."

Q I just watched the movie "Titanic." How historically accurate is it?

A Although the young lovers Rose and Jack (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) are fictional, historians are impressed by the accurate depiction of the ship. Director James Cameron constructed a nonfunctioning replica that was 90 percent the size of the original ocean liner, in Popotla, Mexico [see photo, top left]. He even had carpets made from original patterns. However, there were some flaws. The movie has smoke pouring from all four stacks, yet the rear funnel was merely an outlet for the kitchen. Also, Cameron chose the song "Nearer My God to Thee" as the last piece played by the brave four-man orchestra during the ship's final hours. It is believed the final tune was actually the up-beat waltz "Songe d'Automne."

Q In "Titanic," dolphins swim at the bow of the ship as it crosses the Atlantic at 21 knots. How fast can dolphins go?

A That's about the cruising speed of the bottle-nosed dolphin - 21 knots, or about 24 miles per hour. Bottle-nosed dolphins, which are sometimes called porpoises, have been clocked as high as 30 m.p.h.

Q I'm a big collector of video movies, but this move toward digital TV broadcasts worries me. What will happen to my video collection when digital TV begins? Will I need a special VCR to play my tapes, or will my tapes play at all on a digital television? - Reader in Rockport, Mass.

A Your question essentially raises two broad issues. (1) What happens to your video tape collection? A spokesman for Matsushita Electric Corporation of America says your tapes will still work (at least, for awhile) with the new digital TV sets. In the beginning, digital TVs will come equipped with an added feature that will convert old-style TV signals for display on a digital screen. Without that converter, you could not show your videos on a digital TV set. So your videos will be good as long as the converters are available. (2) What happens to your current VCR and TV? Once all broadcasts are digital (currently scheduled to happen in 2006), you will need a digital encoder box to display broadcasts on your old TV or to record them with your old VCR. By that time, the encoder boxes are expected to be mass-produced and economical, industry officials say.

Q Is the House of Representatives limited to 435 members? - Edward H. Tonkin, Bridgeport, Conn.

A Congress capped House membership at 435 in 1929. However, House size grew briefly to 437 in 1960 when Alaska and Hawaii became states. The Constitution provides that each state must have at least one representative, and one member must represent at least 30,000 people. The first House had 59 members. Today, California alone has 52. Efforts are sometimes made to expand the number of members to make the House even more representative.

Q Can you fill us in on information about Jesus' life between the ages of 12 and 30? - George Klaus, Sun Lakes, Ariz.

A Authorities tell us there is little reliable information about these years in Jesus' life. There are many theories, none of which has substantial evidence to support it. For example, one theory suggests he spent time in Qumran among the Essenes. Perhaps that story and others may eventually find support through archaeological research, but there is none so far.

Q Will I get wetter if I run rather than walk through the rain?

A You're better off running if you want to stay dry, says Louis Bloomfield, a physics professor at the University of Virginia. Mr. Bloomfield, in an experiment, dressed two people in sweatsuits and had them travel the same distance through a rain storm - one walked and the other ran. The suits were weighed before and after. When they were finished, the walker's suit was heavier, proving it soaked up more water. Here's why: No matter how fast you go, the same amount of rain hits the front of your body. It's the rain that hits your top that counts. This increases in direct proportion to how long you are in the rain. So the faster you travel, the less rain you'll collect.

Q In a recent series, the Monitor reported that there are crocodiles in the Everglades. Surely you jest. Don't you mean alligators? - Reader in Virginia.

A Several readers contacted us with this question. Yes, we meant crocodiles. The American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, is native to the state. Florida lies at the northern edge of the crocodiles' natural range that extends all the way down to South America, according to a specialist at the University of Florida. While there are currently more than 1 million adult alligators in Florida, there are only a few hundred crocodiles in the state. They are commonly found along Florida Bay and near the top of the Florida Keys. The caiman, another crocodilian, recently got established in south Florida. Caimans, which grow as much as 15 feet long, were imported as pets, but escaped into the wild. While caimans and alligators are similar, caimans have unique bony scales on their bellies.

Q What is the largest wave ever seen at sea, and in theory how large could the largest wave be?

A In "The Perfect Storm," his bestselling book, Sebastian Junger writes that the biggest wave on record was encountered by the US Navy tanker Ramapo in the Pacific Ocean in 1933. During a gale, the officer on watch spotted a rogue wave estimated at 112 feet - the same height as the ship's crow's nest. Junger explains that the height of waves is a factor of wind speed, duration, and the size of the body of water. Maximum wave height on Lake Michigan, for example, would be about 35 feet. But in the Atlantic, the same winds could churn up waves of 100 feet. North Sea oil rigs are built to take 111-foot waves. In theory, Junger says the largest possible ocean wave could reach about 190 feet, but none that large has ever been recorded.

Q Why are school buses painted yellow?

A It's done for safety. Also, black lettering on a yellow background is easy to see during the semidarkness of the early morning and late afternoon. Yellow became the standard for all school buses in 1939 thanks to Frank W. Cyr, "Father of the Yellow School Bus." According to Columbia University records, Mr. Cyr organized a conference to establish school-bus construction standards. The yellow color is officially called "National School Bus Chrome." Cyr, however, always thought the color was more orange than yellow.

Q What's the smallest country in the world?

A The State of Vatican City (or Holy See) is the smallest independent country in the world. It's about the size of an average city park (109 acres), and is located within the city of Rome. The population is about 1,000. The Vatican serves as the spiritual and governmental center of the Roman Catholic Church. The second-smallest country is Monaco (368 acres, or a little more than half a square mile). It lies on the southern border of France along the Mediterranean Sea. Monaco's population is about 27,000.

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, John Hoyle, and Kerry Flatley, Monitor staff interns. Questions without a source were submitted by members of the Monitor staff.

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