Fire-walking: How it relates to a hot frying pan

Q. As any seasoned cook knows, a quick sprinkle of water on a skillet can tell if it's hot enough, as the drops bead up and dance about on a thin cushion of water vapor. What's the name for this remarkable phenomenon? –J. Child

A. It's the "Leidenfrost effect," after Johann Gottlieb Leidenfrost, who studied it in 1756, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. This is what keeps the drops from sizzling away immediately, a telltale sign the skillet isn't yet hot enough.

The thin-cushion Leidenfrost effect also comes into play when barefoot firewalkers daringly step across glowing hot coals. The sweat on the nervous walker's feet may vaporize to form a sort of protective layer, with other factors helping as well.

This effect even appears in Robert Ruark's novel Something of Value. To determine which of two men was telling the truth, a tribe forced them to lick a very hot knife, the idea being that the liar would have a dry tongue out of fear and so would be burned, while the truth-teller would have a moist tongue and be protected by the insulating vapor.

"The tribe did not know the Leidenfrost effect by name but realized its operating principle,” Ruark wrote.

Q. Why do most of us, when we get lucky, kiss with our eyes closed? –J. Frost

A. Because in this way we minimize distraction and increase our touch sensitivity, fulfilling 19th-century psychologist William James's aphorism, "Touch is both the alpha and omega of affection," says David G. Myers in Psychology.

In fact, the deprivation of any sense can show up in the accentuation of another sense. In one experiment, people who had spent 90 minutes sitting quietly blindfolded became better at locating the direction of sounds they heard. And blind musicians are more likely than sighted ones to develop perfect pitch. People who have been deaf from birth exhibit enhanced attention to their peripheral vision; their auditory cortex, starved for sensory input, remains largely intact and becomes somehow responsive to touch and visual input.

Q. Can you cite any English words containing the same letter three times in a row? –D. McNair

A. Here's saying you can't because the usual rules of English spelling outlaw triple letters, says Oxford University Press. When three letters do happen to come together, hyphens are used to break them up, e.g., bee-eater, bell-like, cross section, shell-less.

A person who flees is a fleer, not a fleeer, and someone who sees is a seer, not a seeer. Chaffinches used to be called Chaff finches, but when the two words were merged, one of the f's was dropped.

"Written representation of noises often contain triple letters, such as brrr, shhh, zzz, but these don't count as proper words," says the Oxford guru.

Q. "Each and every one of us must help protect the environment." So, who can find fault with these words? –B. Mooney

A. The sentiment is fine, but the emphatic "each and every" has been widely condemned by usage critics for its alleged redundancy, since the words "each" and "every" convey the same message, writes Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky. Moreover, according to various dictionaries of English usage, "the phrase is a cliche, a pomposity, and a bit of bureaucratic bombast." One style guide even contemptuously dismissed it as "pitchman's jargon." Some risk-free advice regarding this, from lawyer-lexicographer Bryan A. Garner: "Unless you need a special emphasis, avoid this trite phrase."

So here's hoping that each and every reader out there heeds this advice, each and every time it's called for.


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