The questions of the age... and the man with all the answers

Do nails continue to grow after you die? Is there an MI4 as well as an MI5? Grace Hammond talks to Mitchell Symons, who knows the answers.

He blames it on his genes. Mitchell Symons, whose book Why Girls Can't Throw is just out, knew from an early age he had inherited what he calls his father's "predilection for looking at the flip side of just about everything."

"While the rest of the world strains to hear the latest news on the perils of smoking," he says. "I'm the one saying, 'Yes, but what about the benefits?'

"I've always wanted to write a book which would answer the sort of questions that you don't even find asked elsewhere and finally I've actually done it."

What's the best thing to do in a plummeting lift?

Assuming the lift is falling at a speed of 60ft per second (40mph), there's nothing you can do to soften the impact.

Some people recommend jumping, but at best you can only jump at four or five mph and therefore you would still hit the ground at 35mph. It's like jumping from the 20th instead of the 22nd floor.

Is it dangerous to swallow chewing gum?

Let's get this clear. Chewing gum doesn't take seven years to digest and it doesn't wind itself round the alimentary canal.

It is indigestible, but so is quite a lot of the stuff we eat – grape pips, watermelon seeds – and it simply passes through the digestive system as roughage. If swallowed in large quantities it can, however, clog up the digestive tract.

There's a MI5 and a MI6, but is there a MI1, MI2,MI3 and MI4?

According to my intelligence source, who asked to remain anonymous, MI1 was Military Intelligence Administration, MI2 dealt with the Middle East, China, Burma and Tibet, MI3 covered Western Europe, the United States and South American and MI4 dealt with maps and surveys.

During the 1960s all these sections were gathered together under the umbrella of Defence Intelligence Staff.

Instead of swearing, some people say "Gordon Bennett". Did he exist and, if so, who was he?

James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918) was an American newspaper proprietor who was so wealthy that his name became an exclamation. In his lifetime he spent a total of $40m. He once went to a restaurant in Monte Carlo and, finding it full, bought it and instructed the headwaiter that he was always to reserve a table for him and he once tipped a train porter $14,000.

How come Israel can enter the Eurovision Song Contest?

Tough question; simple answer. According to the BBC, Israel, although not a European country, is a member of the European Broadcasting Union – the sole criterion for entry to the contest. Other member countries include Jordan, Libya and Morocco, but Arab countries traditionally tend not to enter because of Israel's involvement.

Why is it thought bad luck to say "Macbeth" in a theatre?

I phoned my old friend Barry who's an actor and he told me: "There was a time – happy days – when every town had its own theatre. If a play wasn't doing well, the theatre would take it off and put on an old crowd pleaser like Macbeth. From this grew the idea that Macbeth was unlucky because it was only used when the other play had bombed.

As an international language, why isn't Esperanto used at the United Nations?

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by a Polishman named Dr Zamenhof and he called it Esperanto because it means "the one who hopes".

Unfortunately, hope is all that was achieved. Hardly anyone speaks this artificial language and indeed in the US, there are more people who speak Klingon, a language made up by and for fans of Star Trek, than there are Esperanto speakers.

Why is it easier to park a car backwards than forwards?

When you turn a car's steering wheel it moves the front wheels. Therefore, if you get the back end of the car in first, the trickier part – the actual parking – can be done with the end over which you have greater control: the front.

For the same reason it is much easier to get out of a parking space frontwards.

Why do women button to the right whereas men button to the left?

In olden times men dressed themselves, but (wealthy) women were dressed by their maids who naturally would button them to the left. Another possible explanation along the same lines is that women's clothes are designed to be unbuttoned by men.

Do hair and nails continue to grow after you die?

When someone dies that's it. They're dead, everything stops. The blood stops flowing and so the hair and nails stop growing.

What does happen is that the body dries out after death and so the skin on the scalp – and, for that matter, around the fingernails – recedes a little which might give the appearance the hair and nails have grown. But they haven't.

What would happen to the passengers if someone opened the emergency exit of an aeroplane while it was in the air?

An aircraft's doors open in not out. On the ground that doesn't matter because the air pressure is the same inside and out. But when you're flying it's different.

The higher you go, the thinner the air. This means the cabin has to be pressurised, or else everyone would die of lack of oxygen.

The difference between the pressure inside and the pressure outside makes it impossible to open any of the doors. So there's nothing to worry about.

To order a copy of Why Girls Can't Throw, published by Bantam Press, priced 9.99, call the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or order on line at Postage and packing cost 1.95.