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Dear Matthew Alice:

What would happen if lightning hit railroad tracks? Would everybody on the train be electrocuted if lightning hit the cars?

— William, via email

Where do you people get these questions? We have hardly any lightning, hardly any railroad tracks. Where were you when this question filtered into your bean? Well, you ask ’em, I just answer ’em. But sometimes I just have to wonder... So, when was the last time you read screaming headlines about a trainload of passengers being fried by lightning? That should tell you something. Train people have pretty much taken care of their lightning problems. Tracks are grounded with lightning arrestors, but they’re mostly to protect the railroad’s signaling equipment that’s attached to the rails. An unarrested strike, one scientist estimates, would travel a couple of uninterrupted miles along the metal tracks before it pooped out, charring any metal equipment in its path.

So, what about the paying passengers? Turns out they’re protected from lightning strikes the same way cars and planes are. The skin effect. The charge zips along in the outside of the metal “cage” of the vehicle. If you want to know why, well, it’s a little complicated. A lightning bolt is alternating current, and each surge of current generates its own magnetic field that itself affects the electrical flow. There’s a slight delay in mag field production each time the current alternates, which causes the next surge to flow a little closer to the outside of the conductor until it is flowing along the “skin.” Consider that all this happens in the second or two that the bolt is live.

Heymatt:

Every week I buy my kids enough fruit for the week for snacks. I always get apples and bananas. If they don’t eat all the bananas right away, the fruit always spoils and I have to throw them away. I don’t usually have that problem with apples or grapes or anything else. When you buy bananas green, how can they spoil so fast and what can I do about it?

— Fruit-Filled Mom, via email

Bananas, the ADD fruit. Under the correct circumstances, they metabolize like crazy and go from green to rotten in no time. This is because of their enzyme makeup, the fact that they emit ethylene (ripening) gas like crazy, and of course because their cell walls are particularly soft. Apples are pretty sturdy and, unlike bananas, contain enough vitamin C to stave off rotting for a while. In a rot race, Mom, your bananas will always win. Aside from stuffing your kids’ faces with ’nanners in the first few days, you have a couple of ways of not letting them go to waste. First, in spite of what you hear, you can put bananas in the fridge. Just make sure they’re fully ripe (yellow with dark speckles on the peel) because cold will stop the ripening process and the fruit won’t be as sweet. One warning. Cold is likely to darken the banana peel, which of course will make your kids go “Eeeeeeew,” but the fruit inside’s okay, so peel ’em before you hand them out. The second storage suggestion is freezing them. They won’t be good for anything but baking or smoothies once they’ve thawed, but they’re still healthy and have that yummy ’nanner taste.

Hey! Wake Up!

Our little dip into the pool of knowledge about prolonged sleeplessness leading to death prompted a couple of responses from Aliceland.

In…”Straight from the Hip,” regarding sleep loss, you state, “For the record, the longest sleepless stretch was achieved by a high school student who managed to stay awake 11 days.” I personally knew (years ago) several people who stayed awake several WEEKS using crystal meth.

— Craig, via email

Yeah, Craig. I knew when I wrote that I’d hear from the recreational drug crowd. I decided when I answered the question that I’d concentrate on the scientifically observed facts and bypass the meth runs and other oddities. Just to show you that I wasn’t playing favorites, that I didn’t have any particular druggie axe to grind, I also omitted a completely legitimate (though obscure) medical condition that involves insomnia and death. Fatal familial insomnia, a genetic brain disease characterized by uncontrollable insomnia, hallucinations, and eventual death. I assume your meth heads emerged relatively okay.

A person missing sleep “for a couple of days” could be experiencing the manic phase of bipolar illness. There is evidence that people with bipolar illness who are not treated have increased illness related to physical exertion, including increased cardiac problems. So, people who have untreated bipolar (also called “manic-depressive”) illness could indeed have shortened lives. This could come from illnesses associated with manic exhaustion in the manic stage, or from illnesses associated with depression (even suicide) from the depressive stages.… [S]omeone who just does not seem to need to sleep, nor to catch up with naps that day, should definitely be screened for bipolar disorder, which is very much treatable.

— Estelle Toby Goldstein, M.D., board-certified psychiatrist

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