Far out! Dream is clue to dreams

Q. What great experiment by a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist was dreamed up in a dream– twice? ­D. & P. Everly

 A. In 1920, German-born Otto Loewi was working on an experiment to see whether nerves send messages chemically or electrically, says A. Alvarez in Night. But details of the experiment stumped him, until on Easter Sunday they came to him in a dream. "He woke, scribbled it down, then went back to sleep. But by morning the dream had vanished, and he could not decipher his nocturnal scrawl," Alvarez writes.

No problem. The next night he dreamed the dream again, and this time went straight to his laboratory at 3am. He prepared two frogs and stimulated the vagus nerve of one, slowing its heart rate. Then he transferred blood from this frog's heart to the other's, and when its heart slowed too, Loewi had his answer: Nerves are not like tiny wires, but transmit their signals chemically.

The chief chemical, it later turned out, is acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that triggers dreams. "A dream, in short, had provided a clue to understanding the chemistry of dreams," the author concludes.

Q. ESP has yet to be convincingly demonstrated in the laboratory. If and when it is, what is one scientific law it will almost certainly have to obey? ­S. Barling

 A. Einstein once remarked that he had an open mind on ESP but would not believe it until a "distance" effect had been demonstrated, says physicist Lawrence Krauss in Beyond Star Trek. After all, long-range forces in nature like gravity, light, and radio waves grow less intense the farther away the source, so why not ESP, which would presumably be transmitted via some sort of brain waves?

Even "Hollywood has generally caught on to this sensible idea," Krauss writes. In Star Trek, Spock has to touch the person whose mind he is reading, and Deanna Troi must be close by to sense someone's feelings. The captured alien in Independence Day seemed to have to be in the same room with victims to commit psychic killings. And the spooky children in Village of the Damned could sense others' malevolent thoughts only if nearby.

"Some of the wackier shows on TV lately seemed to stray from this principle– but then, they're wacky," says Krauss.

Q. What would life be like if people couldn't lie? ­T. A. King

A. Volunteers who kept "truth diaries" reported telling a lie or two a day, to flatter, to protect others' feelings, to avoid embarrassment or loss of face, or for personal gain, say Carole Wade et al. in Psychology.

If nobody could lie, life would be rougher, many relationships hard to maintain, says psychologist Paul Ekman in Telling Lies. The friend who kindly conceals boredom would be unmasked. The husband who pretends amusement when his wife tells a joke badly, the wife who feigns interest in her husband's tale of how he fixed a gadget, may feel abused if the pretense is challenged.

On the other hand, imagine a world where everyone could lie perfectly. We would all be misled much of the time. "Basically, the world we live in– where we can lie but not perfectly is probably the best."

Q. If you could rocket to any planet in our solar system, where would you see the most spectacular sunsets? ­W. Von Braun

A. We Earthlings alone enjoy the riotous palette of colors marking day's transition to darkness, says astronomer Bob Berman in Secrets of the Night Sky. "Throughout most of the universe, the sun sets and... wham, it's a power failure, a bewildering snap into blackness."

Occasionally there's a lingering slow transition from light to dark, as on a slowly-rotating or cloud-covered planet like Venus, but lacking Earth's atmosphere, no color is generated. Typical is the experience on our moon: day or night, the sky is inky black, pricked with stars. The sun hangs as a lone light engulfed by darkness. Only Mars offers "an anemic attempt at twilight tints. Its thin air, however, is incapable of reproducing Earth's rich hues."

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