Lit­er­ally rolling the dice wasn’t al­ways the game of chance it is to­day

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - WEIRD NOTES ABOUT THE AU­THORS Bill is a jour­nal­ist, Rich holds a doc­tor­ate in physics. To­gether the brothers bring you “Strange But True.” Send your ques­tions to strangetrue@com­puserve.com.

Q. Dice afi­ciona­dos, how much do you know about your favourite game? For ex­am­ple, how far back do dice date? How did their shape and con­fig­u­ra­tion change over time? A. The ear­li­est Ro­man­era dice, some 2,000 years old, are largely asym­met­ri­cal and wouldn’t roll ran­domly, says Colin Bar­ras in “New Sci­en­tist” mag­a­zine. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists Jelmer Eerkens and Alex de Voogt, in ex­am­in­ing 110 dice from the Nether­lands, dis­cov­ered that “only from about AD 1450 were most dice more or less sym­met­ri­cal,” per­haps re­flect­ing an in­creas­ing aware­ness of the im­por­tance of chance.

Also, the num­ber con­fig­u­ra­tions on dice changed from “primes” (1 op­po­site 2, 3 op­po­site 4, 5 op­po­site 6) to the mod­ern ar­range­ment of “sevens” (1 op­po­site 6, 2 op­po­site 5, and 3 op­po­site 4). It may be that primes were viewed as “un­bal­anced” (1 + 2 = 3, 5 + 6 = 11), while sevens al­ways add up to the num­ber 7, mak­ing them seem more likely to roll fairly. Says Bar­ras, “This hints that me­dieval Euro­peans — par­tic­u­larly gam­blers — were think­ing about fac­tors gov­ern­ing the out­come of rolls long be­fore math­e­ma­ti­cians like Blaise Pas­cal grasped how prob­a­bil­ity works.” Q. They can take the shape of a tiny mar­ble, a ham­burger, even a para­chute, though the for­ma­tion is in con­stant flux. What is be­ing de­scribed here? Clue: They are not teardrop-shaped, as is of­ten de­picted. A. Did you guess rain­drops? High in the at­mos­phere, rain­drops form when water clings to tiny par­ti­cles of dust, tak­ing on the shape of a sphere since it has the small­est sur­face area, re­ports “Amaz­ing Science.” Sur­face ten­sion causes water mol­e­cules to cling to­gether, and as the drops fall, they encounter air pres­sure that flat­tens out the bot­tom edge, cre­at­ing the ham­burger shape. The largest rain­drops, un­able to hold them­selves to­gether, start to dis­tort into the shape of a para­chute. Rain­drops larger than 4 mil­lime­ters (0.16 inch) break up as they fall, with the small­est droplets re­main­ing spher­i­cal in the fi­nal de­scent. Q. “Earth­worms, dogs, mon­keys and hu­mans. We are all cousins in the great jour­ney of evo­lu­tion,” writes Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” web­site. And the English lan­guage re­flects this close re­la­tion­ship, with words like “black dog,” “gob­e­mouche,” “moon­calf” and “rail­bird.” Do you know their mean­ings? A. Metaphor­i­cally, “black dog” re­ferred to a coun­ter­feit coin, per­haps be­cause it was made with base me­tals that turn black over time, Garg ex­plains. It even­tu­ally came to mean “de­pres­sion,” and both 18th-cen­tury lex­i­cog­ra­pher Sa­muel John­son and 20th-cen­tury states­man Win­ston Churchill used the term to de­scribe their own de­pres­sion. “Gob­e­mouche” (GOB-moosh), comes from the French for “fly­catcher” or “sucker”, from “gober” (to suck or swal­low) + “mouche” (fly) and de­scribes a gullible or cred­u­lous per­son.

Then con­sider “moon­calf,” based on an early be­lief that a mis­shapen birth stemmed from the ef­fects of the moon. Hence, the word can mean “a day­dreamer,” “a fool” or “a con­gen­i­tally de­formed per­son.” Fi­nally, “rail­bird” has its ori­gin in a bird be­ing slang for “a per­son with a spe­cific char­ac­ter” or “a pe­cu­liar per­son” and refers to “some­one who watches horse-racing from the rail­ing along the track.” More gen­er­ally, it can mean “a horse-racing en­thu­si­ast,” “a spec­ta­tor at a con­test” or “an ob­server who of­fers un­wanted ad­vice or crit­i­cism.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.