Magazine

Who, What, Why: The questions of 2014 answered

The events of 2014 raised some big questions, which the Magazine tried to answer succinctly in our Who, What, Why series. Here is a selection of the best.

What are frostquakes?

Image copyright Lars Hagberg

In January people in Canada were awoken by loud banging noises. Some assumed night-time intruders were at work, others that there might have been a minor earthquake. Instead, they were told by the authorities that a peculiar effect of the cold weather was probably to blame.

Answer: Frostquakes are the loud cracking of frozen soil caused by expanding ice beneath the surface, occurring after a plunge in temperatures following wet weather.


How do you drive in floods?

Image copyright Getty Images

Drivers in Essex were rescued from their cars after they got stuck on flooded roads, having ignored warning signs. This ruined the vehicles' electrics and put them at risk of being swept away. With much of the rest of the UK experiencing similar conditions in February, we asked the safest way to negotiate waterlogged roads.

Answer: Stay out of water more than six inches deep. Drive slowly in a low gear with high revs to prevent water entering the exhaust.


How does a snake eat a crocodile?

Image copyright AP

An olive python in Queensland, Australia, moved beyond its usual diet of ducklings and rats for a bigger challenge in March. It consumed a 1m (3.2ft) crocodile, taking five hours to cram it in. Luckily, people are usually off-limits, as their shoulders are too wide, but how did a snake devour such a large reptile?

Answer: With difficulty. After the initial death struggle, the snake's organs swell well beyond their normal size and it releases digestive enzymes over several days in order to break down the crocodile's body.


Exactly what does the phrase Boko Haram mean?

Image copyright Reuters

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram gained worldwide attention with the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. Its official Arabic name, Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad". So what does the nickname Boko Haram, bestowed by residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, mean?

Answer: "Haram" means forbidden in Arabic, while the Hausa language phrase "ilimin boko", denoting the style of schooling created in Nigeria by colonialists, was shortened to "boko" and has come to mean Western-style education. So "Western education is a sin" is a workable translation.


How long can someone survive in a life raft?

A search for four missing British sailors in the Atlantic was called off in May after their yacht the Cheeki Rafiki, travelling home from a regatta in Antigua, was found capsized in the Atlantic with the life raft still on board. This discovery ended days of speculation over their survival chances.

Answer: Lengthy periods of survival in a life raft have been known in warm waters but in cold or choppy waters the chances lessen. Access to drinking water, usually from rainfall, is vital to lasting more than a few days.


What language would Jesus have spoken?

Image copyright Thinkstock

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to disagree with the Pope over the language Christ would have spoken. At a public meeting in Jerusalem that both attended, Netanyahu suggested Hebrew, while Pope Francis insisted it was Aramaic. "He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew," Netanyahu retorted.

Answer: Aramaic would have been Jesus's first language, with Hebrew used for scholarly questions. He may also have known some Greek.


Could Tourette's syndrome make a goalkeeper better?

Image copyright Getty Images

US goalkeeper Tim Howard won plaudits for making 15 saves in a World Cup match against Belgium. He has suggested that living with Tourette's syndrome - a condition characterised by multiple motor tics, and at least one vocal tic - since his teenage years made him a better athlete. It helped to sharpen his reflexes, Howard argued.

Answer: People with Tourette's tend to be very good at controlling their voluntary movements and activities that require concentration like sport and music can help reduce tics.


Why does the sum 7x8 catch people out?

Image copyright Thinkstock

UK Chancellor George Osborne refused to attempt this mathematical question, which had embarrassingly flummoxed Labour's Stephen Byers in the late 1990s. "I've made it a rule in life not to answer," the man in charge of the economy told a group of children who interviewed him in July. But research has found that 7x8 is only the seventh hardest multiplication sum, with 6x8 throwing most people.

Answer: People find multiplication sums featuring the numbers 7 and 8 difficult. Calculation becomes harder still when under pressure.


How often do planes fly over conflict zones?

Image copyright Getty Images

The crash of Malaysian airliner MH17 in eastern Ukraine killed 298 people. There was disagreement over whether the plane had been shot down by pro-Russian forces involved in a conflict with the government in Kiev. It raised concerns about how common it was for commercial jets to fly over war zones.

Answer: International no-fly zones must be avoided by all airlines and a national aviation authority can ban its airlines from flying over part of a foreign country. Otherwise airlines decide, but they tend to be secretive about the details.


Who are the Yazidis?

Image copyright Rob Leutheuser

The advance of militant group Islamic State through much of Iraq and Syria left up to 50,000 Yazidis trapped in mountains in northwest Iraq without food or water. Often persecuted and sometimes misleadingly referred to in the region as "devil-worshippers", they tend to live in small, isolated communities. But what do Yazidis, scattered across parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, believe in?

Answer: The Yazidis share elements of their faith with Christianity and Islam, also practising the sacrifice of animals and circumcision. Their supreme being is Yasdan, whose divine will is executed by the Peacock Angel, Malak Taus, whom Yazidis worship five times a day. People can only be born in to the faith. They cannot join it.


Where does the phrase 'boots on the ground' come from?

Image copyright AP

During discussions over military action against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, politicians including Barack Obama and David Cameron were keen to reassure that there would be "no boots on the ground". This meant UK and US troops would not be involved in direct fighting. The term has become a cliche but what was its origin?

Answer: The word "boot", a synecdoche (a figure of speech where the part represents the whole) meaning soldier, was used as long ago as World War One. The earliest known use of the full expression "boots on the ground" came in 1980, in a story in the Christian Science Monitor about the Iran hostage crisis.

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