I read this as a tag line on the Internet, but it’s still a good question: why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets? –Matt McCullar, Arlington, Texas

Correction, Matt. This is not a good question. This is a dumb question that appears to be a good question only until such time as you actually give it some thought. As anyone acquainted with aviation or basic physics knows, the pilot’s helmet has never been intended to provide protection against a crash. If the plane encounters the landscape a bit too abruptly you’re sausage no matter what you’re wearing. The leather or cloth head covering worn by WWII aviators was a holdover from open cockpit days, when you needed protection against the wind and rain. Closed cockpits had come into general use by WWII, but in the early years at least it was customary to take off and land with the canopy open, apparently (Cecil hears differing stories on this point) in the ill-founded hope that you’d be able to get clear of the plane if it nosed in while you were near the ground. Pilots also wore helmets because they held your radio earphones, but most of all, military bureaucracy being what it was, because regulations required it. When jets came in, most air forces switched to the hardened “brain bucket” in use today, but the purpose of this was merely to protect a fighter pilot’s head from being bashed against the canopy during high-speed maneuvering, not to save him in the event of a crash. Similarly, the kamikaze pilot’s helmet merely helped him complete the trip, not survive it.

Why are dead bodies embalmed? It seems like a lot of trouble for a sack of dead meat that will shortly be dropped into the ground, or even cremated. If the concern is sanitary, why not simply use refrigeration? I suspect most of what undertakers do is geared toward separating grieving relatives from large amounts of the deceased’s estate, rather than hygienic and compassionate corpse disposal. –Peter van der Linden, Los Altos, California

Jessica Mitford tackled this one in her classic muckraking book The American Way of Death (1963). She came to basically the same conclusion you did: morticians embalm bodies because they can charge money for it. That’s not to say embalming is completely pointless; it does preserve the body for viewing. What frosted Mitford was that morticians used to embalm bodies even if they weren’t viewed, on the excuse that the law required it. It doesn’t, but you can see what got morticians started thinking otherwise. In the latter 19th century doctors and others in the then-emerging field of public health concluded that urban cemeteries were a major cause of epidemics. A movement began to relocate cemeteries to outlying areas, and somewhere along the line the related idea took root that embalming helped prevent disease. It does, but only in bodies not yet interred. If all you want to do is return Aunt Millie to the biomass without inspecting her remains first, you’re within your rights to refuse embalming. Take the family to her favorite tavern instead. I’m sure she’d rather you toasted her memory and pickled yourselves rather than waste the money pickling her.

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no living creature to hear it, is there a sound? –Julie Bosselman, Houston

People often ask me my secret. I tell them it’s that I still remember how to open a dictionary. According to the (a) definition in my American Heritage (third edition), sound is vibration carried through a suitable medium in a frequency range capable of being heard by the human ear. It doesn’t say the sound actually has to be heard. So according to (a), yes, there’s a sound. The (c) definition says a sound is the sensation generated in the organs of hearing by the aforesaid vibration. So according to (c), no, there isn’t a sound. Not the most definite answer in the world, you may think. But certainly definitive.

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