Question

What's the secret to a flaky piecrust?

Opinions differ on this one, but we'd put our money on lard. Some recipes call for part lard, part butter. Others use whole wheat flour and vegetable shortening or oil. Some bakers swear by Crisco. But lard has one surefire advantage over other ingredients: It mixes unevenly with flour. Scientifically speaking, it has a rough crystalline structure that results in a flakiness that other ingredients can't match. (Butter comes close, however, and some prefer its taste.) We won't deny the health costs of lard. It's rendered hog fat, after all, made by heating and then chilling the fat around the back and abdomen of the creature. It won't do your cholesterol count any good, but it does tend to be inexpensive and widely available. To make a basic double crust for an 8- or 9-inch pie, use this recipe: Place 2 cups flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a bowl and whisk to mix. Cut in 2/3 cup lard with two knives or a pastry blender until the pieces are no bigger than peas. Add ice water, a tablespoon at a time (up to 6 tablespoons), until the dough just holds together. Form the dough into two balls, one slightly larger for the bottom crust. Flatten the balls to about an inch thick, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and chill for at least an hour. Roll out on a floured board without stretching the dough. Line your pie plate with the bottom crust, fill as desired, and cover with the top crust.

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What is the largest insect?

Well, among the longest insects are the South American long-horned beetle (Tytanus giganteus), which measures almost 10 inches long, and a stick insect -- Pharnacia serritypes, a group where the females can measure more than 14 inches long. The heaviest insect is the African Goliath beetle (Megasoma elephas), which can weigh up to about 3-1/2 ounces.

The Great Eastern laid telegraph cables across the Atlantic. When was the Great Eastern built, where, and by whom? Was it designed as a cable-laying ship? Are models available for builders?

The Great Eastern was built by the British in the 1850s. It was the largest vessel up to that time and was designed to sail to Australia with 4,000 passengers or 10,000 troops and return without refueling. However, the ship was too big to be profitable and bankrupted three corporate owners. It was "hired" to lay the Atlantic cable--a joint U.S.-British endeavor--because it was thought to be the only ship large enough to handle the load. In 1866, the Great Eastern sailed into Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, having laid 5,000 tons of cable over a distance of 1,600 miles--an extraordinary feat. We don't know whether models are available, but you could consult the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, England, for information. Or visit the museum's Web site at www.nmm.ac.uk.

Where did the expression "the cat's pajamas" come from

Its origin is unknown, but by the turn of the 20th century in America, it was widely used to mean first-rate or attractive.

What can you tell me about the Chautauqua movement?

The Chautauqua movement began on the western shore of Chautauqua Lake in western New York State. In 1873, Rev. John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller proposed expanding religious revival meetings to include secular instruction. The Chautauqua Institution, founded in 1874, offered programs in the humanities, sciences, and arts, with visiting speakers such as authors, explorers, scientists, musicians, and political leaders, as well as various forms of entertainment. Thousands of people attended the meetings. Out of the original idea sprang smaller groups in other locations, as well as correspondence courses for home study groups and individuals. By 1912, the movement had taken on a more commercial bent, and traveling lecturers and entertainers were organized. The traveling circuit continued for about twelve years, but the Chautauqua Institution is still going strong today.

Does forked lightning travel up or down?

Both, actually. A visible forked channel, called a stepped leader, stretches down from the thundercloud until it induces a streamer of positive charge to rise from Earth to meet it. As soon as the two connect and form a pathway, the bright return stroke shoots up from the ground to the cloud in what we see as the brilliant flash of lightning.

Is the United States or any other country trying to locate life on other planets?

Well, yes, but you may not be alive to find out the results of their efforts. Just this past March, Canadian astronomers used a radio telescope in Ukraine to transmit a greeting toward four specific stars similar to our Sun. Sun-like stars were chosen as targets because they are considered the most likely homes for life. The target stars are about 50 to 70 light-years from Earth. Therefore, the RSVP will have a long turnaround time -- it will take more than a century for the message to get there and any reply to get back. This isn't the first effort to make contact with other beings. NASA's Pioneer and Voyager missions, which left Earth in the 1970s, carry information about human civilization, just in case the probes are intercepted by someone out there. The four probes, however, are now just barely to the edge of our solar system. Earth's radio, television, and other communication signals also may alert other beings to our presence. Since the 1960s, scientists have been "listening" for signs of life through radio telescopes. So far, they haven't detected any such signs.

Is there a difference between heat lightning and sheet lightning?

No, these two kinds of lightning are really just regular lightning that lights up distant clouds. You don't hear the accompanying thunder because the clouds are too far away. (The sound of thunder rarely carries more than 15 miles.) Heat or sheet lightning usually doesn't bring rain immediately, but it indicates that unsettled weather is on the way.

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