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

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - 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 [email protected]­puserve.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.

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