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See Inside September 2005

Go Fourth

News items closely, or distantly, related to America's birthday party
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
The Fourth of July, only a day ago as I write, features interesting science. For example, fireworks and cookouts involve fascinating chemistry and physics. Some of that hard science leads to nearly 7,000 fireworks-related emergency room visits on and around the Fourth, not to mention cookout-related ER visits (burns, bug bites, food poisoning, ad nauseam) each Independence Day.

The charming Long Island village of East Hampton, N.Y., was spared any potential fireworks mishaps this past Fourth when the local display was canceled thanks to the discovery of plover nests on the beach. But pyrotechnics still occurred, in the form of incendiary quotes from East Hampton resident and advertising legend Jerry Della Femina, who was disappointed that the beach--where the plovers, officially a "threatened" species, were sitting ducks--wouldn't be bombed. The New York Times reports that Della Femina asked and answered, "You know why the plovers are endangered? Because everyone hates them." Not so! I think that I have never heard a firework lovely as a bird: I like plovers. Therefore, not everyone hates them, QED, which of course stands for Quintessential Error, Duhhh.

Della Femina owns a local weekly newspaper, in which he groused, "No one wants to hurt the plovers. But has anyone thought that maybe the little bastards have reached the end of the line and they are going to die?" Now, Scientific American's offices happen to be on advertising's Main Street, New York City's Madison Avenue, where I get to absorb the local culture. So it's beyond me why an ad man would go out of his way to insult the 40 million Americans who spend $32 billion annually on bird-watching, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maybe he likes to eat crow.

On to the workings of other birdbrains. The July 1 issue of Science included a study that tracked how birds negotiate areas that have been mostly deforested but still have so-called landscape corridors. These thin strips of original habitat are maintained in the hope that wildlife will take advantage of them during migrations. Working under the theory that what goes in must come out, the researchers sprayed wax myrtle seeds, an enormous hit among eastern bluebirds, with a harmless fluorescent powder. The birds' droppings thus lit up like the Fourth of July, enabling scientists to easily see that birds do indeed use the corridors, QED, which, as everyone knows, stands for Quantify Every Doo.

In other July Fourth food news, Takeru Kobayashi again won the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. That's five years in a row for the diminutive Japanese wiener jammer, who downed 49 dogs in 12 minutes and did not end up in an emergency room, QED, which, as has long been true, stands for Quite Extraordinary Digestion.

At a regional qualifying event before the finals, a spokesperson for the International Federation of Competitive Eating claimed, "They say that competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer waged war for men's souls, ladies and gentlemen. And they are right!" (Well, maybe--neither supernatural being returned my requests for verification.) Actually, really serious competitive eating happens everywhere year-round, if you include predators competing with one another over prey and herbivores competing with one another over herbs, QED, which self-evidently stands for Quit Eating = Die.

Finally, just a few days before the Fourth, researchers reported that fishers in Thailand had caught a catfish that weighed in at--we're gonna need a bigger boat--646 pounds. Known as a Mekong, rather than a King Kong, catfish, the critter was almost nine feet long. The captors were hoping to sell the endangered species member to a consortium of conservation groups, who in turn were going to release it. At which point the fishers no doubt hoped to catch it again, rinse, repeat. Unfortunately, the big beast died in captivity, leading to a giant sushi feast somehow missed by Takeru Kobayashi, QED, which obviously stands for Quiescent Entrails, Doc.

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