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Carnegie librarians continue to keep readers in the know

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2003

Loud noises don't trigger avalanches. Underinflated automobile tires waste as much as 5 percent more gasoline. Some people snore almost as loud as the noise made by a pneumatic drill.

Sure, if you spent enough time in a library — or ran a pneumatic drill next to your favorite snorer — you'd know all that.

But for those who haven't got the time, the 11 librarians in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Science and Technology department have created a shortcut to answering common and not-so-common science questions with the third edition of "The Handy Science Answer Book."

The first edition since 1997 marks the 100th anniversary of the department, which was the first to be established in an urban public library.

"These are actual questions that were asked by our customers," says James Bobick, head of the department.

The librarians categorized library patrons' various queries, dividing them into "difficult," "frequently asked," "interesting" and "unusual," says Naomi Balaban, who managed the project. They culled the answers from books, magazines, Web sites and government documents.

Some answers in the book are useful for everyday living:

  • Regular contact with pets can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and levels of stress.

  • A dishwasher is more efficient than washing dishes by hand.

    Others might not do more than elicit an admiring "huh" from party guests. At the very least, it's entertainment.

  • Have you ever wondered about, say, documented episodes of frogs and toads raining from the sky• Tornadoes, whirlwinds and waterspouts are the conventional explanation. Literally, a good twister could cause the sky to rain cats and dogs, but birds, fish and the aforementioned amphibians are more likely precipitation.

  • Perhaps you've asked yourself, "How good, really, is that Punxsutawney groundhog at accurately predicting the onset of spring?" Groundhogs are correct 28 percent of the time. Perhaps that's because the Germans who brought the tradition to Pennsylvania couldn't find their preferred forecasters, badgers. Al Roker, your job is secure just yet.

    "The Handy Science Answer Book" addresses those burning questions and 1,762 more.

    "It was definitely a big project," Balaban says. "I know I spent hours and hours poring over each answer, making sure it was accurate, reading it over (to make sure) it could make sense to the lay person."

    The first edition, published in 1993, was Bobick's brainchild. It was published by the Gale Group as "Science and Technology Desk Reference" and tailored for librarians and students. The publisher spun off a version of the book for the casual reader on its former imprint, Visible Ink Press, calling it "The Handy Science Answer Book."

    It led to a series of 12 other Handy Answer Books by other authors, covering politics, religion, sports and other subjects.

    Bobick and his wife, Sandi, a professor of Biology at Community College of Allegheny County, might eventually tackle a "Handy Genetics Answer Book."

    Royalties from sales of "The Handy Science Answer Book" help to pay for upkeep and improvement of the Science and Technology department.

    The answer is ...

    Answers to science-related questions you might or might not have asked:

  • Yuma, Ariz., gets the most sunshine in the United States. Sunny days make up 90 percent of the year.

  • One way to help identify a genuine diamond is to pick it up with a moistened fingertip. Most stones can't be picked up in this way.

  • Between August and December, more than 15,000 migrating birds pass by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the first sanctuary in the world to offer protection to migrating hawks and eagles. It was founded in 1934 in Kempton, Pa., outside Harrisburg.

  • The Indonesian volcano Mt. Tambora caused the deaths of 92,000 people on April 5, 1815, making it the most destructive volcano in history.

  • Mexican jumping beans move because of the bean moth, which lays its eggs in the seed pods of the spurge, a bush known as Euphorbia sebastiana. The egg hatches, producing a caterpillar, which shifts its weight about in the pod, especially reacting to warmth.

  • Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and most of Indiana are exempt from observing Daylight Savings Time.

    Source: "The Handy Science Answer Book," Centennial edition

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