October 24, 2016

The Saturday briefing: Knowledge is power

IS THERE anything you are desperately yearning to know?

Are there any pressing factual disputes you would like us to help resolve?

This is the page where we do our best to answer any questions you throw at us, whatever the subject.

Q With the latest international meeting on global warming just finished can you confirm that there was a film called Soylent Green made decades ago about life on earth and the terrible effects of global warming?

Bill Rosewell, Uffculme, Devon

A The 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson (in his final role), tells the story of New York in the year 2022 when the world is heading for disaster because of pollution and the overuse of resources.

With more than 40 million people living in the city food is in short supply and the main food source comes from Soylent Green, a new protein-based food originally made from plankton.

But with plankton resources exhausted it is now being made secretly from something else.

But what?

There’s a murder mystery running through it too.

Q I have heard it said that the rule “I before E except after C” does not really work.

However the rule I was taught back in the 1940s and 1950s states: “I before E except after C when it rhymes with me”, except for the words “seize” and “weird”.

This rule has never let me down.

Have the words, “When it rhymes with me” been dropped over the years?

Joan Roseveare, Coningsby, Lincolnshire

A The “I before E except after C” rule dates back to James Stuart Laurie’s Manual Of English Spelling which came out in 1866.

Henry Fowler added the words “when the sound is EE” in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926 and he also pointed out that it doesn’t work with personal names such as Keith and Sheila.

“Seize” and “weird” are often given as the most common exceptions but there are others such as weir, protein, caffeine and codeine as well as some exceptions the other way round, with “ie” following “c” in “species”.

Q The “shortest day”, usually on December 21, will soon be with us.

I once read that in terms of actual daylight hours the shortest day actually occurs a lot earlier in the month.

Is this true?

Tony Seagrave, Penymynydd, Nr. Chester

A The winter solstice, which this year is on December 22, is the shortest day (in terms of hours of sunlight) in the northern hemisphere.

But it’s not the day when sunset is earliest, which happens about a fortnight earlier.

The day of latest sunrise occurs about a fortnight later.

This is due to a difference between solar time (as measured on sundials) and the time clocks.

That difference is caused by variations in day length as the Earth orbits the Sun.

Our 24-hour day is just an average throughout the year: some days, as measured from one sunrise to the next, are slightly longer than others and our clock time varies by up to about 15 minutes from solar time.

Q Please settle a debate between friends.

Is the death penalty still in force in the UK for the offence of treason or the killing of a monarch?

Dave Merchant, Pembroke Dock, Dyfed

A The death penalty in the UK was completely abolished in 1998.

The last executions in the UK were in 1964 and capital punishment was abolished for murder the following year in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland.

The death penalty remained on the statute book for treason or piracy with violence until 1998.

Remarkably, beheading was still a possible method of execution for treason until 1973 though it had not been used since 1747.

Q In the hit single Human by The Killers the words “Are we human or are we dancer?” was the song’s refrain but I seem to remember the line came from somewhere else in the past.

Can you help?

Martin Davies, Weobley, Herefordshire

A According to Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers who wrote the lyrics to Human, the line was inspired by a quotation about America from the writer Hunter S Thompson: “We’re raising a generation of dancers”.

Hunter S Thompson was a leading figure in the US counter-culture movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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