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Heymatt:
When I watch all my crime shows on TV, I’ve always wondered about lineups. There’s a bunch of five or six guys in a row and one of them is the suspect, and the victim has to pick out the bad guy. I know where they get the suspect, but where do the other four or five guys come from? Who are they?
— Jake, via email

Despite what you see on TV, live lineups are sort of old school these days. Photo lineups are more the trend. But every once in a while they’ll need to gather up a small crowd and parade them in front of a victim or witness. When that happens, they have no problem coming up with a few look-alikes. Police and sheriff’s deputies have a built-in resource. Jail. The non-perps in a live lineup are themselves perps, just in different crimes. For a treat, school kids get to take field trips to the park and the zoo. I assume it’s an equal treat for somebody who’s been in lockup for a while to be called out for a field trip to the lineup room.

To Get the Answer I Want:
I took my first air flight September 24, 2007, at age 81 to Syracuse, NY, by Delta Airlines from San Diego. I always had a fear of flying so fast but mentally encouraged myself and did it. It was easy and pleasant. Except one thing. The flight didn’t offer a meal on the plane.… On the trip back, my daughter provided me with a packed lunch for on-board food. But a mishap — the food was sent through X-ray with all belongings and shoes. Was it safe to eat? Two weeks after I got back, my hair started falling out by handfuls every time I combed it or shampooed it. Then after two weeks that stopped. I didn’t go bald. I have a lot of heavy hair. I asked a nurse and she didn’t know.
— Mary Charles, San Diego

Well, Mary, you’re never too old to have a big adventure. The first time the elves flew in a plane, they all ended up sitting in the same seat and clutching each other for safety. Grandma tried to get a ticket refund on the unused seats, but no luck. Anyway, it seems that you had two adventures. I’m not sure there’s a connection between them, though. If x-rayed foods made our hair fall out, we’d be a nation of chrome domes.

Packaged food is frequently x-rayed in the manufacturing plant. They check batches for foreign objects, for fill levels — just part of the general quality-control process. The strongest dosage used in airport scanners is about the same as you would get in a CAT scan in a hospital. At the levels you find in an airport X-ray machine or one in a packaging plant, there’s no adverse effect on the food itself, just as a CAT scan doesn’t scramble your insides. Anyway, we are exposed to repeated low levels of x-radiation every time we go out of the house. X-rays are part of the background environment we live in.

Irradiated food is a slightly different fish, though. Stronger doses of X-rays are used on some food products (fruit, spices, and meat, frequently) to kill bacteria. The FDA has studied the effects of these rays on the food, but results aren’t scientifically solid. Food irradiation experimentation started back in the ’50s, as a “peaceful” use of nuclear power. The first irradiated foods were packaged meats sent to troops in Vietnam. NASA also irradiates its spacecraft before they’re used in unmanned landings, like Mars, so they don’t transfer Earth bugs to a new planet. The FDA claims there are more chemical changes to food when we barbecue it than when they irradiate it. Not everyone believes them, though there haven’t been any proven bad results.

As for your falling hair, it’s probably a natural process, just a little heavier than usual. Throughout our lives, hair grows, rests, then falls out in repeated time cycles. And not all follicles are on the same timetable, so while some are growing, others are falling. A new medicine might have made the hair drop heavier. But a trip to Syracuse shouldn’t do it. Just coincidence, Mary. It’s safe to fly and eat food that’s been x-rayed with other people’s shoes.

Hey, Matt:
The other day a co-worker showed us his slide show from his trip to Quito, Ecuador, and the Galapagos. In one slide it showed the plaza in Quito where the equator runs. It got me thinking. If one flushed a toilet that was sitting directly on the equator, would the water go clockwise or counterclockwise, or would it all go straight to Washington, D.C.?
— Paul, San Diego

Bzzzzz Old wives’ tale alert. The Coriolis force, which causes large things like winds and ocean currents to move clockwise in one hemisphere and counterclockwise in the other, does not affect small waters like bathtubs and toilets. They circle down the pipes according to the configuration of the plumbing. Sorry. Flush a toilet in Quito, and the water swirls any way it likes.

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