STRANGE BUT TRUE- Pained: Windows can transmit secrets


Q. Confidential conversations behind closed doors are one thing. But what about behind closed windows? –B. Clinton 

A. Maybe you've heard about LIDAR for "Light Detection and Ranging," just like radar except that it uses pulses of light instead of radio waves, says Geoff Andersen in The Telescope: Its History, Technology and Future. Sound, of course, is transmitted by vibrations in the air, which can cause vibrations in surrounding objects. For example, if people are talking inside a room, the windows will vibrate ever so slightly. If a laser is aimed at the windows, the reflective signal can be gathered by a telescope and analyzed to reveal sounds and conversations going on "behind closed windows." 

So effective is this technique that in places where classified discussions take place, the rooms must be well isolated from the outside world. "Where this is not possible, as with the Oval Office of the White House, there are usually double panes of glass to dampen the signal and active shaker systems applied to the outer pane to further confuse any potential eavesdroppers."

Q. What mistake do United Kingdom national lottery players routinely make, some 10,000 of them each week? Or maybe it's not a mistake. They could still win, couldn't they? –P. Rose

A. All things are possible, picking 6 numbers out of 49. But consider: If they (and their descendants) purchased a ticket every week and kept at it until the year 136,467 AD, they'd have about a 50 percent chance of winning on this 1-in-14-million proposition. (Never mind how much they'd have spent on tickets by then.) Now on this lightning-strike day of winning far in the future, there's another downside. The jackpot would have to be divided equally with the rest of the 10,000 winners, because that's the typical number of players selecting the 1 2 3 4 5 6 combo, says New Scientist magazine. Is this a sort of tongue-in-cheek selection, since most people feel that any set with an obvious pattern is an unlikely winner (actually, all patterns are equally likely to win). Or just maybe they don't care. Playing is fun, the investment is small, the money goes to social purposes, and in the off-off-off chance they do win, several million bucks divided by 10,000 still leaves plenty for a nice night out on the town.

Q. Would racetrack bettors express more confidence in their horse before or after putting down their money? –E. Arcaro

A. This has been studied, and it's after betting, says psychologist Elliot Aronson in The Social Animal. Called post-decision cognitive consonance, the mind sweeps away previous doubts once action is taken.

The same holds true for voters after casting their ballot, romancers after proposing, purchasers of big-ticket items after signing the deal. House-buyers, having put money down, "start minimizing the importance of the dampness in the basement, the cracks in the foundation, or the fact it happened to be built right on the San Andreas fault," Aronson says.

Once made, decisions grow legs of their own as the person searches out self-justifying reasons while filtering out any counter-evidence. Thus new car buyers, reports Danuta Ehrlich, will continue reading ads even after the purchase– but only for their own car!

Q. In looking for that mysterious "sixth" sense in humans, where might be a good place to swing into action? M. L. Retton

A. Try bar gymnastics, says Vincent Mallette in The Science of the Summer Games. Consider a female athlete on the uneven bars, doing swings, handstands, pirouettes. By going from a fully extended giant swing to a fully tucked somersault, she can increase her spin rate 20 times– more than a diver or figure skater– becoming almost a human rotational "bomb." Like fancy diving and tumbling, bar gymnastics relies on a sixth sense that humans share (weakly) with animals, the proprioceptive or kinesthetic sense of knowing where we are in space– our orientation. It is vital that a gymnast or diver know when she has completed a rotation and is ready for the next maneuver; for a trapeze aerialist, it can be a matter of life and death. 

No one organ or sense completely accounts for this, but rather a combination of balance-monitoring by the three semicircular canals of the middle ear– the "roll, pitch and yaw" of pilots– plus a refined internal clock. The eyes and muscles also play a role. So delicately attuned is all this that world-class gymnasts taken into outer space would be much more susceptible to zero-g sickness than an average person. "They've learned to make precise use of gravity, and when gravity goes screwy, they're more afflicted than stumblebums like the rest of us," says Mallette.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at