Think about it: Plan how, not what


Q. Mental rehearsal has been used successfully by golfers (Jack Nicklaus said he "watched a movie in his head before each shot"), baseball players (before each turn at bat during his 70-home-run season, Mark McGwire "imagined smashing the ball with his Paul Bunyan swing"), pianists (imprisoned seven years during China's Cultural Revolution, Liu Chi Kung daily "practiced every piece I ever played, note by note, in my mind," later was back on tour playing better than ever, said the critics), figure skaters, dart throwers, and on and on. But what's a key pitfall here, and how can it be avoided? –R. Rotella

A. When college students facing exams were told to visualize scanning the posted grade list, seeing their "A" then beaming with joy, and to do this five minutes every day, their scores averaged only 2 points better than those of a control group, says David G. Myers in the 7th edition of Psychology.

But another group focused on the process of studying, envisioning themselves reading the chapters, taking notes, ignoring distractions, declining to go on a date, etc. These test-takers started studying sooner, stayed with it longer, and wound up beating the controls by eight points. Advises Myers: "Better to spend your fantasy time planning how to get something than to dwell on the imagined destination."

Q. Did the classic James Bond movie Goldfinger get it right when Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) died after being dipped in liquid 14-carat gold? Could skin suffocation really happen? –P. Galore

A. This is largely urban legend, though Shirley Eaton's autobiography explains that the filmmakers believed their own script, for they left a patch of her abdomen unpainted, says Steven Connor in The Book of Skin. "She died of skin suffocation," said Bond to his spymaster M. "It's been known to happen to cabaret dancers. It's all right so long as you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine to allow the skin to breathe."

Actually, the skin doesn't breathe and does not draw its oxygen from the air. If it did, wearers of tight support stockings for varicose veins would be in trouble, as would swimmers who stay mostly underwater for long periods. And occlusive ointments such as Vaseline are frequently prescribed to cover the entire body, but no one dies.

The germ of truth to the Bond tale, says University Of Pennsylvania dermatologist Dr. Michael S. Lehrer, is that such a covering can prevent sweating and cooling, and thus bring on heatstroke and death. Or the toxic chemicals in the gold or paint might themselves prove fatal. But that's hardly the stuff of silver-screen legends.

Q. If moonlight (moonshine) is sunlight reflected off the moon to Earth, what is "Earthshine," and where would you have to go to see it? –L. Abner

A. No farther than your own backyard for that one too. Whenever there's a thin crescent moon, you may see the dark portion alive with a ghostly glow, "the old moon in the new moon's arms." This is sunlight taking a triple voyage, from the sun to Earth, then bouncing to the moon, then back to your eyes, says astronomer Bob Berman in Secrets of the Night Sky.

Of the universe's trillions of celestial bodies, our moon alone is near enough to serve as a mirror to us, reflecting our own brilliance for our skygazing pleasure. "If you lived on the moon, you'd see beautiful Earth dominating the night sky, four times bigger and at least five times shinier than the moon appears in our own sky."

Is there practical use to Earthshine? By gauging Earth's sunlight-reflectivity, astronomers are gaining clues to changing cloud covers here and possible climate changes. Eventually, says, similar analyses may shed light on extrasolar planets, and possibly even help determine a "reflective signature" to life elsewhere.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at