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The Straight Dope 

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This may seem like a stupid question, but hey, I have no pride. Our psychotic dwarf rabbit, Slick, has an unusual urge to chew on things. He does it pretty indiscriminately and I have some chewed up T-shirts to prove it. Annoying as this is, my sister claims if he didn't do it, he would die. She showed me a gruesome picture of a woodchuck with incredibly long and deformed chompers, and says that's what would happen to Slick if he didn't chew. Is this true? How can I remedy this? --Josh Ingle, Salem, Oregon

There are no stupid questions, Josh, only stupid questioners--but don't worry, you're Kierkegaard compared to some of the characters I hear from. Like the three weirdos who mailed me a dirtball from under the bed so I could tell them what was in it. Sometimes on this job I feel like I ought to wear rubber gloves.

Rabbits and a few other critters have teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives--in the middle-size breeds, about five inches per year for the upper incisors (front teeth) and about eight inches for the lower ones. The teeth abrade away against one another, giving the rabbit a constantly sharp edge.

Once in a while you get a rabbit with a malocclusion, which generally turns out to be the world's worst case of underbite. Since the top and bottom teeth don't meet, they don't wear away against one another and they grow to truly horrifying lengths. This prevents the rabbit from eating, threatening it with starvation. The only treatment, according to my rabbit handbook, is to "cut [the teeth] back to normal length with sharp side-cutting pliers every three or four weeks," an operation that on Cecil's Scale of Grossness is maybe one notch below sheep gelding. Luckily, normal rabbit teeth are self-adjusting, given an adequate supply of chewing material. T-shirts, however, aren't an essential part of the mix. You ever think of trying, say, a carrot?

What do the letters PA stand for? I know some, we'll say, amateur chemists who concoct all sorts of things and consistently have to check the PA to get it right. But none seems to know what PA stands for or why it's such an important factor. The makers of the "Strong Dope" have let me down, so I turn to you, the writer of the Straight Dope. --Duncan Staggs, San Antonio, Texas

PS: Could you mail me a reply? I'd send you a stamp but I'm in jail awaiting transfer to the Texas Department of Corrections. If you can't, put it in the next book and I'll read it depending on which of us (the book or me) is out first.

Too bad about prison, Dunc, but I told you to get that census form in on time. I imagine what your friends are referring to is not PA but pH, a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, 0 being highly acidic, 14 highly alkaline, and 7 neutral. Maintaining a proper level of acidity is important in many chemical processes, and while my experience in home-brew drug manufacture is limited, I imagine it's important there, too.

The pH scale was invented in 1909 by one S.P.L. Sorenson and stands for the exponential power (originally German Potenz) of hydrogen ion concentration. Hydrogen ions are the positively charged particles that make acids acidic. They like to mix it up with other molecules, so the more of them you have, the more potent the acid. For the record--I know this is going to sound like high school chemistry, but I feel obliged to be thorough--a pH of 1 means you've got 10 -1 moles of hydrogen ions per liter, or one tenth of a mole; a pH of 14 means you've got 10 -14 of a mole, or one hundred-trillionth. What's a mole, you inquire? Science talk for "whole bunch of," of course. Don't ask silly questions.

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

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