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How Do Tornadoes Form?

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More than 1100 tornadoes tear through the U.S. every year, causing serious damage to lives and property—such as the one in North Dakota, whose 120 mile-per-hour winds injured nine people and destroyed 13 homes on Monday night. Or the April 2014 outbreak where, over a period of just three days, 75 tornadoes battered the swath of land between Nebraska and North Carolina.

The timing of these severe storms isn’t a coincidence. Tornado activity peaks in April, May, and June, especially in “Tornado Alley”—the area around Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, where conditions are just right for brewing up a twister.

Unfortunately, weather systems are extremely complicated and scientists don’t fully understand how or why tornadoes form. What they do know is that there are three basic ingredients: moisture, atmospheric instability (which tends to lift air upward rapidly), and clashing air fronts.

The process starts when warm, low-lying air from the Gulf of Mexico crashes into cooler, higher-elevation air coming off of the Rocky Mountains. The clashing fronts create a swirling thunderstorm called a supercell.

What comes next isn’t exactly clear. The leading hypothesis suggests that as the cool air flows over the top of the warm air mass, it creates a horizontal spinning vortex. The horizontal vortex gets tipped into a vertical orientation as the warm air mass rises, pushing one end upwards, and as rain or hail drags the tail downwards.

Another hypothesis posits that the twister actually starts out in a vertical orientation. As the air masses crash into each other, the warm air rises, hollowing out a column in the supercell where winds spiral upwards in a clockwise direction. The rotating column is called a mesocyclone, and it occurs a few miles up in the atmosphere. Here, again, the vortex is pulled down to the ground as warm air moves upward and cool air drags the tail downwards.

When the vortex touches ground, that’s when it is officially designated as a tornado. The National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, and local residents run for cover.

The twister begins to die down when the cold downdraft chokes off the supply of warm air that feeds it. The funnel contracts in size but—like an ice skater who pulls her arms in during a spin—the winds speed up and the tail may still whip around violently. Eventually, the storm fizzles.

Scientists have measured tornado wind speeds of up 318 mph. To date, the U.S.’s deadliest twister was the Tri-State tornado of 1925, which rampaged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 700 people and destroying 15,000 homes.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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