STRANGE BUT TRUE- Not in the rain: Try singing in the shower


Q. Guys, why is the shower stall the perfect place for you to do your Placido Domingo imitation? –M. Carter

A. A main reason an amateur singer may sound better is that in a small stall the wavelengths of the voice can bounce back and forth between the parallel walls or the ceiling and floor and set up resonances, "constructive interference" where sound waves reinforce one another, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. This may make your voice seem loud and bold. Also, the tiled surroundings reflect sound well; if you tried singing in a small absorbing closet, your old sour-note self might re-emerge. Finally, the nearby shower walls return the sound quickly, so you seem immersed in it.

"You can hear a reflection of a note while still singing that note, allowing you to adjust your voice if it is somewhat off key." If all else fails, the downsplashing water can simply drown out any aural infelicities.

Q. From the early space program, can you name some of the "wrong" species that had the "right stuff"? –T. Wolfe

A. Wrong in that many of these "guinea pigs" died or were sacrificed by scientists to study the effects of weightlessness on living organisms, says New Scientist magazine. In June 1957, Laika was the most famous dog in the world when the Soviet Union launched her into space aboard Sputnik 2, but she faced an equally rapid demise a few hours later when her spacecraft malfunctioned.

Before Laika, note Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs in Animals in Space, were monkeys carried high into the atmosphere atop obsolete German V-2 flying bombs in 1948; rabbits, rats, and mice aboard high-altitude balloons in the early 1950's; and the Russian dogs Tsygan and Dezik that survived a sub-orbital flight in 1951. NASA's spacefaring chimpanzees Ham and Enos flew on Mercury to help pave the way for humankind.

 The first fish, on a 1970's space lab flight, were two mummichog minnows that swam erratically in orbit before becoming oriented, but minnows newly hatched on the same flight adapted immediately to the new conditions. Space spiders initially spun too-small webs, finally ones that looked normal except for thinner strands– "either the spiders detected that the same strength of silk was not necessary or they couldn't spin it," the authors note.

 So brave volunteers, no, but certainly heroes of a sort, says New Scientist, whose stories "deserve a place alongside the human stories of space flight."

Q. When you pinch yourself to be sure you're not just dreaming, how do you know you're not just feeling a dream pinch? –S. Freud

A. To test this, dream researcher Stephen LaBerge had lucid dreamers– who become aware they're only dreaming– experiment with three different sensations: pressing themselves on the thumb, caressing their own forearm and pinching themselves. They did these in both the waking and dreaming states. Upshot: The thumb press felt just like a thumb press in either state, says LaBerge in Conversations on Consciousness, edited by Susan Blackmore. With the caress, the pleasantness was higher in the dream than while awake, perhaps because in the dream it becomes more a curious mixture of things. 

The biggest difference was with the pinch, which was much less likely to produce pain in the dream state. "I did this myself and was surprised when I pinched, my skin felt like rubber but there was no pain. Then I took a pencil and stabbed my hand and owwww. Yes I can feel pain in dreams, but it's not a reliable sensation... This may be because REM sleep (dreaming sleep) is more likely to activate the reward areas of the brain than the punishment areas."

Q. Does money buy happiness? Okay, why not? –J. Hingeley

A. Extreme poverty is painful, but once life's basic necessities are achieved, more money buys little happiness, says David G. Myers in Psychology.

Case in point: Once the euphoria of winning fades, lottery jackpot winners are no happier a year later. And going by U.S. surveys, in spite of a doubling of real purchasing power since the 1950s– enabling twice as many cars per capita, plus a flood of TVs, VCRs, home computers, microwave ovens– average reported happiness remains virtually unchanged. The same is true for Europe and Japan, where people today enjoy better nutrition, health care, education and science, but no happiness dividend.

Why money is no elixir has to do with the "elastic band" nature of human emotions, pulling us quickly back from highs or lows and returning us to our "setpoint" level of contentment. "From my childhood, I recall the thrill of watching my family's first 12-inch black-and-white TV set. Now, if the color goes out on our 25-inch TV, I feel deprived... Yesterday's luxuries are today's necessities," says Myers

 If you woke up tomorrow to a utopia of no bills, no ills, a loving family, abundant leisure, says researcher Donald Campbell, all too soon you would grow restless with these and look for something more– which is why writer C.S. Lewis envisioned heaven as a place of ever-expanding joys.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at [email protected].