Question: At certain college parties, students will smear their bodies with Vaseline petroleum jelly or the cream filling of Twinkies snack food, while sipping tonic water. Can you shed some light on these doings?

Answer: These "Twinkies and Vaseline" parties use black light (ultraviolet light) from an ultraviolet lamp, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics." Some component of the jelly and cream filling, perhaps an aromatic hydrocarbon, fluoresces by absorbing the ultraviolet light and emitting visible blue light; likewise, quinine in the tonic water may help produce the eerie blue glow. Fluorescent paints on walls, T-shirts washed in "whiter-than-white" detergents, black light posters can similarly captivate the eye.

Police have also been known to use the Vaseline effect to track objects passing through criminal hands. "Certain aromatic hydrocarbons will bind to the Vaseline, whose chance smudges can later be identified under ultraviolet light."

Question: When snake charmers from Asia or Northern Africa use their flute to charm a cobra, what music do they play?

Answer: Doesn't matter because the snakes can't hear it but simply hold themselves on guard, swaying to the flutist's body movements, says Marty Crump in "Headless Males Make Great Lovers." Cobras are favorites since they're big, dangerous, and when excited rear upright, spread their hoods by expanding their ribs, and sway. "Fortunately for the charmers, the snakes' strikes are relatively slow and usually can be evaded."

Question: How long could a person go without food?

Answer: Mahatma Gandhi — nonviolent petitioner for India's independence — survived 21 days on just little sips of water. Medical examiner Michael Peel cited well-documented hunger strikes lasting 28, 36, 38 and 40 days. But usually 10-14 days is about the limit with no food AND no water, a little more if the person starts out overhydrated, says Alan Lieberson, MD, in "Scientific American" magazine. This situation comes up often for terminally ill patients for whom artificial maintenance of life is no longer desired.

Near-starvation with continued water is a sad reality of history, adds Lieberson. Survival for months to years is common in concentration camps and during famines. The body can actually moderate metabolism to conserve energy, a phenomenon poorly understood. Medical cases involve patients with anorexia nervosa, end-stage malignancies, or who follow "starvation" diets. When body mass index (BMI) falls too low (12-12.5), organ failure or a heart attack can be fatal. "Normal BMI is 18.5-24.9, and many fashion models have a BMI of around 17."

Question: If the following little poem isn't designed to demonstrate synonyms, antonyms, acronyms ... then what?

"A herb store owner, name of Herb,

Moved to a rainier Mount Rainier.

It would have been so nice in Nice,

And even tangier in Tangier."

Answer: "Capitonyms" are words that change their meaning (and often pronunciation) when capitalized, a fancy factoid that admittedly won't help you polish up your Polish, or meet an august patriarch in August, or speed up your reading in Reading (England), or help any long-suffering Job get a job. On the other hand, the rather capitonymous co-author brothers Bill and Rich will send you no bill for passing along this rich linguistic nuance.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com, co-authors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press.