STRANGE BUT TRUE- Don't sneeze: How to keep a spoon dangling


Q. Here's one for the riotous road: the nose spoon-hang. What keeps the lightweight utensil suspended there, to the amazement or sarcasm of onlookers? –C. deBergerac

A. You'll need to clean the spoon and the tip of your nose, breathe lightly onto the interior surface of the bowl and then seat it against your nose, details Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. When you feel the spoon hold, let it dangle. If it and your nose are free of oil, there can be enough friction to make this work.

Condensation from your moist breath helps fix the spoon in place. Although a thick water layer acts as a lubricant, a very thin layer acts like a glue because of electrical attraction between the water molecules and the nearby surfaces of spoon and skin.

"My record for this stunt is 1 hour and 15 minutes, which I like to say was in a French restaurant in Toronto," Walker says. "However, the truth is I was in a truck stop in Youngstown, Ohio, where a burly member of a motorcycle gang suggested that the spoon would hang better if he reshaped my nose."

Q. The police suspect there's been a murder, but no body has turned up anywhere. Does this mean they have to give up on the case?– S. Peterson

A. That's what 1949 London serial killer John George Haigh boasted to police after killing Mrs. Durand-Deacon, saying he had dissolved her remains in acid so the victim no longer existed, says E. J. Wagner in The Science of Sherlock Holmes. "You will find the sludge which remains on Leopold Road. But," he smiled confidently, "you can't prove murder without a body."

Haigh was mistaken on this point, as many others have been. The law does not require a corpse but rather a "corpus delicti," or "the body of evidence that establishes the crime has taken place." Not understanding this, Haigh made a full confession of the killing, plus five others, claiming he was a vampire in dire need of their blood. The police pegged his motive as going after the women's valuables. When experts examined the sludge, they spotted small polished pebbles that turned out to be gallstones of the late Mrs. Durand-Deacon. Also found were her dentures, bone fragments, and part of a handbag. Later, the jury wasted no time in finding Haigh guilty and sentencing him to death.

Q. Are you sports fan enough to know who's in peril of encountering a life-threatening "burble"? Out of the clear blue sky, one might add. -I. Carus

A. That's the name skydivers give to the wake they generate as they fall, at maybe 200 kilometers per hour terminal velocity, with a vortex of air currents stretching a meter or so behind and pure turbulence farther back, says New Scientist magazine. Silent and invisible, burbles can play havoc with jumpers or their equipment. Under normal free-fall conditions, divers can change their orientation and rate of descent by adjusting their arms and legs to alter the force of the air on their bodies. Move into a burble, however, and the force changes suddenly, precipitating a tumble.

These risks are highest during formation dives with large numbers of divers. When two or more join together, their burbles combine into an even bigger problem for the divers above them. Especially when divers release their parachutes, they must be sure to keep them clear of burbles. In early 2007, Russian skydiver Kirill Samotsvetov died during an attempt to create a 200-person formation in free fall. After the formation broke up, Samotsvetov deployed his chute but flew into the burble of another canopy, collapsing his parachute.

Q. It was one of those days: You accidentally stepped onto a leftover movie set from the The Incredible Shrinking Man– and got shrunk. Now what's coming? –R. Matheson

A. This'll leave you about an inch high, says University of Chicago biologist Michael LaBarbera, who actually took calipers to film frames of the old classic to gauge the shrinkage. You used to be maybe 70 inches, so you've scaled down by a factor of 70: 1/70th as tall, 1/70th as broad, 1/70th as deep. This means you'll now be only about 1/350,000th of your original weight (1/70th cubed), because weight varies with volume.

Look out! At just a tiny fraction of an ounce, you could become mousemeal!

And who turned on that big chill? At your size, you have a lot more surface area for your weight– 70 times as much in fact (because your weight got shrunk in three dimensions, area only two). This means you're losing body heat fast. You'll have to step up metabolism like other small critters, meaning you'll need to eat all the time like a tiny shrew, which consumes its weight in food every day.

But here's a bracing fact: The cross-sectional area of your muscles shrank less than your weight, leaving you 70 times as strong for your size! So that sewing needle you located will feel light as a rapier, if ever that venomous spider ventures out of its hiding spot. You know it's lurking somewhere. After all, you've seen the flick.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at