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The Straight Dope



I know this is going to sound crazy, but my Slinky (that's the Original Slinky Walking Spring Toy) has the power to turn on, turn off, and change channels on our TV set! Shortly after receiving the Slinky as a birthday gift, I was watching TV and absentmindedly tumbling the Slinky back and forth in my hands. The TV went off, then came back on a minute or two later. At first I figured our TV was on the blink. But when the TV switched itself on the next time I played with the Slinky the truth dawned. Since then, all our friends and visitors have experienced firsthand the power of Slinky. We can turn the TV off and on and change channels. My brother was even able to adjust the volume. There is no physical contact between the Slinky and the TV. It works best from a chair about six feet from the set. Can you explain this? --Karen Schrage, Chicago

It's questions like this that give me the strength to go on. To be sure, I had heard of such things before. But most of the letters were along the lines of the following: "How come when you hold a chopstick in your teeth and pluck it, the TV screen shimmies? Nothing else shimmies." Clearly a case of heavy-metal poisoning, although whether from cadmium or Aerosmith is hard to say. Karen's letter, however, was comparatively rational. We called to check one vital detail: did the set have an ordinary remote control? Karen didn't know, but the set was pretty old (it had come with the apartment), and it might have had one once.

That was all we needed to know. Prior to the early 1980s, most TV remote controls communicated with the set via ultrasonic sound--sound too high-pitched for the human ear to hear. Typically these devices worked by striking a series of metal bars with a tiny hammer. There was usually an audible click, but the frequencies that actually did the job were inaudible harmonics. (You acoustics buffs will know what I'm talking about.) Obviously you don't need a remote control box to bang metal together, although getting the right frequencies is a bit hit-and-miss. A call to the folks at Zenith, which introduced the first ultrasonic remote control in 1956, confirmed that there had been occasional reports of kids switching channels by spilling pennies onto the floor from their piggy banks. We had also heard of people switching on TVs by jingling their keys. When Karen told us someone had turned her set on by jingling keys too, we concluded the Slinky was mimicking a long-lost ultrasonic remote control. Unfortunately for those of you who were looking forward to a pleasant evening of experimenting on your own (why stop with Slinkies? why not anvils and sledgehammers, Caribbean steel drums, or samurai swords?), ultrasonics are now obsolete. They've been supplanted by infrared (invisible light) technology, which is better suited to conveying the complex digital information needed to operate today's plethora of TV controls. Nothing fun ever lasts.

How do they make helium? Think about it. It's an inert gas that doesn't combine with anything else, so there can't be helium mines filled with helium ore. The only place I've ever heard of where you can find a lot of helium is the sun, where it's created by fusion. Fusion is prohibitively expensive on earth, yet somehow commercial helium is cheap enough that they can fill toy balloons with it. What's the deal? --Bob Y., Evanston, Illinois

Come now, Bob, everybody knows fusion isn't the only way to make helium. It's also a by-product of radioactive decay. (The "alpha particles" emitted by some radioactive materials are actually helium atoms minus the electrons.) To get helium all you have to do is find yourself a planet full of uranium and thorium and the like, wait ten jillion years, and presto, you're up to your ankles in the stuff. The helium on the earth's surface drifts off into space, but underground a lot of it collects in pockets of natural gas, particularly in the gas fields of the southwestern U.S. Liquefy the natural gas and filter out impurities and what's left will float a dirigible, cool a nuclear reactor, or make the strongest man sound like a chipmunk. Definitely one of nature's noble gases.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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