The Woolwich Observer

# Take the \$1 million, or opt for doing the math of the numbers between 1 and 2?

- 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. Here’s a delightful dilemma: Which would you rather have? 1) a million dollars, or 2) a dollar for every number you can think of between 1 and 2? A. You probably noticed that we didn’t ask you to think of any whole numbers because there aren’t any between the whole numbers 1 and 2. Fractions yes, decimals yes, but no whole numbers. So take the million dollars if you’re looking for the easy way out.

But if you’re looking for megamillio­ns, just put your mind to it: 1 1/2, 1 2/3, 1 3/4, 1 4/5, 1 6/7, 1 8/9... The series goes on and on. To make it a little less challengin­g, switch to decimals: 1.1 and 1.11 and 1.111 and 1.1111...

This series too is endless, meaning it’s INFINITE! So do you want to be a billionair­e? A trillionai­re? Pick any “aire” you want, and you’ll get there before you put a dent in the “pile” of possible numbers between 1 and 2. Q. Poisonous cane toads have been marching westward across Australia for almost 80 years. At first they spread slowly, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) per decade, but they are now spreading at more than three times the original rate. What’s going on here? A. Deliberate­ly introduced into Australia in 1935 in an attempt to control cropeating beetles, cane toads have themselves become a serious pest, poisoning indigenous animals which eat them, reports Sarah Zielinski in “Science” magazine.

Aussie herpetolog­ist Rick Shine, who studies the toads in hopes of limiting their numbers, thinks he understand­s their everaccele­rating pace: Over the decades, faster toads -- those with longer and stronger legs and a propensity for hopping in straight lines -- have outpaced their slower brethren. The speedsters, now distant from the dawdlers, breed with other speedsters, producing even faster toads. And this process simply keeps repeating, leading to what Shine calls “evolution by spatial sorting.”

Quips Zielinski: “In other words, it’s survival of the fastest, not the fittest, when it comes to cane toads.” Q. The story of plastic began in the 1850s with creation of Parkesine, by British inventor Alexander Parkes, and then 50 years later came Bakelite, by American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland, whose “Material of a Thousand Uses” was molded into telephones, home appliances, cam- eras, and, oh, 997 other shapes. How has this story played out in our society today? A. The world’s 7.2 billion people use some 600 billion pounds of plastics annually, with the market still growing by about 5% per year, says Rebecca Coffey in “Discover” magazine.

Plastics are made from lo-n-g chain polymeric molecules, like strings of beads that can fold and curl, the most common being polyethyle­ne in grocery bags and bottles. In one recent year, grocery bags alone numbered more than 100 billion in the U.S., enough if strung together to circle the Earth nearly 800 times.

As it turns out, bacteria and fungi are unable to digest most of the huge plastic molecules, “which is why the 31 million tons of plastic waste loaded into American landfills each year retains its Barbie doll and pink flamingo shapes pretty much forever,” Coffey adds. And although they don’t easily biodegrade, some plastics do “photodegra­de” as sunlight turns them brittle and causes breakage into small pieces that get swept into storm drains and out to sea.