STRANGE BUT TRUE- Sparks fly: Why Wintergreen LifeSavers light up


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. You're in a romantically darkened room when your girlfriend, who is studying to be a dentist, pulls out a pack of wintergreen LifeSavers and reaches to pop one into her mouth. But first she teases, "a sweet light show for you." Pulling a pair of pliers out of her bag, she proceeds to crush the LifeSaver, which to your amazement emits a faint flash of blue light. Can you shed light on this? –D. J. Bickers 

A. It's a form of "sparking," stemming from the graininess of electricity, says David Halliday in Fundamentals of Physics. When the sugar crystals in the candy rupture, one part has excess electrons while the other has excess positive ions. Almost immediately, electrons jump across the rupture gap, with the electrons and the positive ions colliding with nitrogen molecules in the air. 

Oil of wintergreen in the crystals emits enough blue light to light up a mouth or a pair of pliers, in a show of fluorescence. However, if the candy is wet with saliva, the demo will fail because the moisture neutralizes the two parts. 

But, your girlfriend cautions, please don't sit around chomping on these candies with your teeth, or you may need to pay me a different sort of... dental visit! 

Q. Memory plays tricks on all of us, putting on retrospective rose-colored glasses at times, or souring the past with a blue mood. Then there's "state-dependent recall": Put away car keys while drunk and you may not be able to find them– until drunk again. But in just one area we're almost all outstanding... –H. Rubenstein

A. That's our memory for faces, which is virtually limitless among our highly social species. You've heard people say they never forget a face, and they may be close to right. When shown school yearbook pictures 25 years later, says David Myers in Psychology, subjects correctly identified 90 percent of the faces ("Yes, he was in my graduating class") but almost none of the names.

Q. Can you guess what the following words all have in common: mother, smile, love, sunshine, sweetheart, hope, rainbow, sunflower, twinkle, serendipity, lullaby, butterfly, galaxy, lollipop, bumblebee, giggle, peekaboo, cherish, blossom, umbrella? –P. M. Roget

A. If they sound a little like music to the ears, you're on the right track. The above were considered among the most beautiful words in English, by 7,000 people polled in 46 countries for the British Council, says David Crystal in Words, Words, Words. Also voting were 35,000 Web site visitors. In similar polls, the words melody, twilight, hush, luminous, golden, chimes, tranquil were selected.

"Surveys of this kind tend to mix up words that have beautiful sounds like peekaboo and words that have beautiful meanings like hope." Words like parakeet, sycamore, zoo, antimacassar, and doppleganger seemed picked for their sound rather than their meaning.

So what makes a word sound appealing? Perhaps some nasal sounds, especially "m," or continuant sounds like "r" and "s." Two or more syllables help, where the consonant and the vowel sounds vary from syllable to syllable, as in melody and mellifluous. 

Lullaby turns up on everyone's list. "Both mother and enthusiasm also make the lists for their meaning, but aside from these, there are few 'th's' included. And the significance of that? Ask Darth Vader," Crystal says.

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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