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Matthew Alice:

In school we were talking about how the earth spins around like a top. The teacher said that is what makes days and nights when we can’t see the sun anymore. But my dad showed me that when things spin around they shoot off. Anything on the spinning thing will fly away. I don’t feel like I’m going to fly off the earth. How can the earth really spin if we don’t feel like we are going to fly off?

— Ben H., via e-mail

Whoa! You’ve got a lot of input there. But you’re doing some good thinking. Why don’t we feel like we’re going to spin into space? When you go outside, why doesn’t your hat fly off? You’d think it would, considering how fast we’re moving. To make a full spin once a day, Earth, at the equator, moves about 1000 miles an hour. Because San Diego is not on the equator, we are traveling a little slower. I submitted the problem to the Matthew Alice Pocket Calculator and Gummi Bear Research team, and they came up with the figure of 841.36 miles per hour. That’s still pretty speedy. If Dad was driving down the freeway that fast, and Spot stuck his doggie mug out the window to smell whatever the heck it is that mutts smell, he’d get a pretty big surprise. The difference between being on Earth and being in a car is — gravity. The car has overcome gravity and is moving forward. Hanging around on the globe, we’re feeling the pull of gravity much more strongly than we are the rotation of the planet. And Earth has a capsule of air around it called the atmosphere. It gets dragged along with the planet and moves at nearly the same speed we’re going, so you don’t get blown off your feet when you go outside.

Hey, Matt:

I’ve been questioning if is it possible for someone to be born with or surgically become genderless. I’m not sure if this will make sense, but is there a possibility that someone can have no reproductive organs, yet still have a way to clear themselves out through their digestive system? I understand the concept of androgyny (someone who hides their biological sex, known as “floating genders”), but this has just been bugging me for the longest time.

— Gender Confused, via email

Very complicated subject. First of all, good luck finding a legitimate surgeon to make you “genderless.” So we’re talking birth defects, mainly. One baby in about every 4500 births develops with “intersexuality” or “ambiguous genitalia.” Some genetic researchers estimate that as many as one in ten babies may have some mild urogenital abnormality that has no noticeable effect on a child’s development. But babies born without any external genitalia are rare. One such condition is called sirenomelia, in which the baby’s legs are fused. (“Siren,” as in “mermaid.”) Ordinarily this is accompanied by so many internal organ problems that life expectancy is only days or weeks. Which brings us to how these things happen.

A baby’s sex is determined at conception from the father’s X chromosome. But up to about two months’ gestation, boy and girl fetuses look alike. But at that point, if everything’s ticking along as it should, the sex chromosome controls the gender signal sent to the gonads. Again, if things are copasetic, the gonads secrete hormones that direct genital cells to differentiate into male or female. If the tissue responds correctly, then it’s easy to know what kind of cigar to buy: “It’s a girl,” “It’s a boy.” Any glitches in this chain of events will result in a malformation of some kind.

Treatment for conditions of abnormal genitalia include possible surgery, hormone therapy (especially at puberty), and psychotherapy. It’s a tricky business. Abnormalities of hormone secretions affect gender identity perhaps more than external genitalia (which can be surgically corrected). So your real question about gender confusion involves much more than what things look like on the outside.

So let’s rewind back to the point at which prenatal gender is determined by dad’s X chromosome and its genes. Researchers at UCLA have been poking and probing mice to see exactly what happens at the genetic rather than hormonal level of unborn baby-mouse development. Lo and behold, mice have more than 50 genes that contribute to gender identity at the brain level (as judged by behavior), while hormones affect physical development. They suggest that it is possible that a so-called psychological gender identity might be “hard wired” into our brains months before our prenatal genitalia and organs develop. And there’s not necessarily a logical connection between the genes and the hormones. If this discrepancy causes psychological distress for the developing child, he or she may have gender-identity dysphoria. The situation, in the most extreme cases, can lead to elective transgender surgery and hormone therapy to bring the two images into phase.

You’re hardly alone in your gender confusion. There are many organizations that help people in your kind of pickle. Perhaps start with a urologist or endocrinologist to get more information and a referral. Good luck.

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