STRANGE BUT TRUE- Suck it up: Mouth-testing a vacuum's power


Q. Who put the original suck in the "suction sweeper," as the vacuum cleaner was once called? Exactly how much suck is in one? –B. Hoover

A. Today's variety can generate low air pressure equivalent to an elevation of 25,000 feet, or suction enough

to yank a man out through a gash in a plane's pressurized cabin, as demonstrated at the end of the James Bond film Goldfinger, says David Bodanis in The Secret House.

It all began in London, 1901, when Ferris Wheel constructor H. Cecil Booth attended a convention for the unveiling of a new device, a compressed air generator rigged to shoot out a stream of air for clearing away common dust.

Suddenly, Booth was struck by a better idea: Why not switch on the compressor to run backward so it would suck in the dust rather than merely moving it about? "The concept was so awesome that he needed to test it without delay," Bodanis says. "Booth returned to his office, knelt down on the floor, spread his lips over the carpet and proceeded to suck in furiously. He fell back gagging and choking, his mouth full of dust, ecstatic that his idea worked."

Q. Dreams are often bizarre enough to lead people to wonder if they might be going crazy. Can you assess your mental health by looking at your dreams? –S. Freud

A. Few studies have been done with psychiatric populations, mainly because these people are often taking medication that interferes with dreaming and recall, says psychologist Veronica Tonay of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of Every Dream Interpreted. But chronic schizophrenics have reported dreams with few friends and more aggression toward familiar people. Morbid themes were also present.

The clinically depressed have fewer and shorter dreams and characters that are generally family members or others from the past. Vacation getaways, happiness, and friendly interactions are typical, though rejection is common. 

"However, because of the neurochemical changes that accompany both of these disorders," Tonay says, "it's difficult to say what these dream differences mean psychologically."

It's not uncommon for people suffering childhood abuse, a war experience, etc. to have "post-traumatic stress disorder," leading to nightmares that may not begin until years afterward. "If your dreams disturb you, and have been doing so for some time, please seek help to understand them," says Tonay. But don't jump to conclusions– other experiences and conditions can lead to bad dreams, so any diagnosis must be multi-faceted.

Q. What's the surprise in store for many a new scuba diver bringing back objects found underwater? –J. Cousteau

A. Treasured coins, medallions, etc. seem to shrink once they're fetched out, a result of the quirky way light behaves underwater, going slower in the liquid, then faster (refracting) as it passes into the airspace of the diver's goggles, says Dennis Graver in Scuba Diving, Third Edition. Objects there seem about 25 percent closer and 33 percent bigger than they really are. Once brought up, on the other hand, they may explode into colorfulness. Down below, it is dark, especially in turbid water, forcing divers to use their night vision, which mutes color and fine detail.

"Warmer" reds and oranges are absorbed while leaving the "cooler" blues, which is why deep clear water is blue and why "below 100 feet (30m) the underwater scene appears drab."

Q. Is there any scientific explanation for love– like why it happens between strangers? –A. F. Dite

A. There are laws of love just as there are laws of any natural phenomenon, says psychologist Phillip Shaver:

1. Romantic love, once thought to be largely Western, is now known to be universal, although it is not always– maybe not even usually–the basis for matrimony. "In cultures where parents or other authorities arrange marriages, love is often viewed as dangerous and foolish. Hence the popularity of Romeo and Juliet stories."

2. Early attachment is key, with the same bonds that grow between infant and caregivers being carried forward into adulthood and shaping romantic love, says psychologist Chris Fraley. Thus adult lovers indulge in touching, kissing, "baby-talk," and playful flirting.

3. Married couples tend to be similar in age, attitudes, social status, political views, religion, body build, looks, even height and eye color. Scores of studies show that the opposite of "Opposites attract" is true!

4. People raised together, as in a kibbutz, generally don't intermarry, perhaps a natural way of avoiding genetic ill-effects of incest, says Dr. Shaver. Part of the "rush" of falling for a stranger is self-expansion as the other's best traits are incorporated into oneself.

5. Are marriages made in heaven? They're made in the neighborhood as people whose paths cross again and again grow familiar, then fond, then familial. Sometimes the process can backfire, relates psychologist David Myers. Just ask the Taiwanese man who wrote 700 please-marry-me letters to his girlfriend. "She did marry–the mail carrier."

Q. True or false: Sand is to the deserts of the world as water is to the oceans. –T. E. Lawrence

A. Oceanic quantities surely reside in both, but the analogy doesn't hold because three-fourths of desert areas have no sand cover at all, with mountains being more typical, says Nicholas Lancaster of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. Where there is sand, depths vary dramatically, from a meter for the Simpson Desert in Australia to over 400 meters for certain sand dunes of the Algerian Sahara. In deserts of the U.S. Southwest, sand cover is rare (less than 1 percent).

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at