As I was slogging through yet another interesting assignment for medical school, I happened upon this interesting tidbit:

“BEZOARS. Bezoars are foreign bodies in the stomach of animals and humans that are composed of food or hair that has been altered by the digestive process. Historically, bezoars were esteemed for their alleged therapeutic properties and aesthetic value, and one was included in the crown jewels of Queen Elizabeth I.” (From Pathology, second edition, 1994, by E. Rubin and J. L. Farber, page 649.)

What “therapeutic and aesthetic” uses were people able to come up with for hair balls? Is Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Hair Ball on display somewhere? –Mark Phillips, Baltimore

If they can promote the work of Michael Bolton as aesthetically desirable, I don’t see why they’d have any problem with hair balls. Actually, if you can suppress the thought of where they came from, bezoars are said to be kind of pretty. While I can’t say I’ve laid eyes on one, I’m told they’re hard and glassy, somewhat like pearls, which are produced in a similar way. The original bezoars (also called bezoar stones) came from the wild goats of Persia as well as certain antelopes and other cud-chewing animals. They were believed to offer protection against poison and for that reason were highly prized during the Renaissance by the Medicis, particularly when they had the Borgias over. Bezoars were later obtained in the New World from Peruvian llamas, but these were held to be of inferior quality, prefiguring the problem of California wines. Reportedly a gold-framed bezoar was listed in the 1622 inventory of Elizabeth I’s crown jewels. Dunno if you can see it on the palace tour, but keep an eye out.

Little was heard about bezoars in modern times until 1987, when a seven-centimeter specimen was removed from the stomach of a 35-year-old man in Kansas City. Tan and egg-shaped, this bezoar is thought to have been the result of the man’s habit of eating pieces of Styrofoam (polystyrene) cups. It did not make much of a splash in the world of fashion. Too bad. Given an aggressive PR strategy. it could have been the hottest thing since the chia pet.

Every so often you see it on the news: streets full of celebrating Middle Eastern men indiscriminately firing guns straight up into the air. If I learned anything from physics class, it’s that what goes up must come down. I’m certain the returning projectiles don’t float harmlessly to earth and wonder how often they plunge into bystanders. –Kathy Johnson, Madison, Wisconsin

Don’t worry, it’s no worse than getting beaten over the head with a two-by-four. While it’s true what goes up must come down, it needn’t do so at the same speed. You run up against what’s known as “terminal velocity.” A bullet fired straight up will slow, stop, then fall to earth again, accelerating until it reaches a point where its weight equals the resistance of the air. That’s its terminal velocity.

How fast is that? It varies with the weight and shape of the bullet, but in rummaging around on the Web I found an account of government tests with, among other things, a .30 caliber bullet weighing .021 pounds. Using a special rig, the testers shot the bullet straight into the air. It came down bottom (not point) first at what was later computed to be about 300 feet per second. “With the [.021 pound] bullet, this corresponds to an energy of 30 foot pounds,” the account says. “Previously, the army had decided that on the average an energy of 60 foot pounds is required to produce a disabling wound. Thus, service bullets returning from extreme height cannot be considered lethal by this standard.”

If 30 foot pounds doesn’t mean much to you, the bullet made a mark about one-sixteenth of an inch deep in a soft pine board. About what you’d get giving it a good whack with a hammer. Cecil on occasion has done precisely that, substituting his thumb for the pine board in the interest of science. Both writer and thumb survived. Note: the preceding applies strictly to bullets shot straight up. If the bullet is fired more or less horizontally, so that it travels in a shallow arc, it may not have lost much speed by the time it returns to earth. In that case it could do serious or even fatal damage. I don’t mean to encourage people to make New Year’s Eve celebrations even crazier than they already are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.