Q. If ants get into the microwave, will their goose be cooked?
A. Another way to ask this: At a concert hall, can you hear equally well from all the seats? Certainly not, says Case Western Reserve physicist John D. McGervey, because wave interference patterns create dead spots in the hall.
Hold that thought.
A woman wrote in to The Guardian of England to say that when removing some well-cooked food from her microwave, she noticed ants crawling around inside the oven. With all the warnings about radiation leaks from ovens that are not well shielded, how did totally unshielded ants manage to survive?
One thing working in the ants' favor is that they don't have much liquid in their bodies, so the microwaves - which cook meats by heating their water content - would act more slowly on ants than on people. That could buy the poor ants some time to save themselves. But how? By seeking out the dead spots, naturally.
Microwave ovens have them just like concert halls, creating those annoying cold pockets in cooked foods. "The ants probably are quite uncomfortable when they are bathed in microwave radiation, so they try to get away. If they find a dead spot they feel better, so they stay there and survive," McGervey said.
Q. What if TV programmers bombarded viewers with subliminal messages to buy particular products or vote for Candidate X? Would audiences obey like puppets?
A. This sort of claim made headlines in the 1950s when a movie theater operator reportedly flashed imperceptible EAT POPCORN and DRINK COCA-COLA slogans during shows.
But it couldn't have happened that way, says David G. Myers in Psychology. For one thing, the Fort Lee, New Jersey theater where this supposedly occurred was far too small to hold the number of people allegedly exposed. But even more telling, "the briefest possible movie image, a 1/24th-second frame, would not have been subliminal," Myers said.
Yet the possibility of subliminals on TV is another matter, due to much briefer images: So in the wake of the popcorn hoax, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. launched an experiment where it broadcast a mystery subliminal message repeatedly during a popular Sunday night program. Viewers were invited to write in to the station with their guesses.
Some 500 letters were received, with nearly half the writers reporting feeling strangely hungry or thirsty during the show. This was merely an effect of expectations, says Myers. Not a single viewer correctly guessed the actual message: TELEPHONE NOW. "The effect of these 352 subliminal messages on Canadian telephone usage? Zilch."
Q. From the food engineers' cookbook, what exactly do eggs have in common with airplane fuselages and submarine hulls?
A. All three are essentially cylinders with arch-shaped ends, yielding strong structures - like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Indeed, eggs can withstand long drops onto grass and are surprisingly tough to crack when held in the palm and squeezed end to end with the fingers (but better try this cautiously).
In one popular college demonstration, an egg partially buried in sand and outfitted with a wide wooden "cap" can withstand the weight of a 100-pound person, providing the weight is transferred gently and the egg has no imperfections.