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Why Does Inhaling Helium Make Your Voice Sound Funny?

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Helium's atomic number is 2 and its atomic weight is 4.002602. Its boiling and melting points— -452.1°F and -458.0°F, respectively—are the lowest among the elements. It is the second most abundant element in the known universe (after hydrogen). And it makes your voice sound really funny when you inhale it. Here's why.

A Crash Course in Sound

When you speak, air travels up from your lungs and through the larynx, where it meets the vocal cords (or vocal folds), twin infoldings of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx, and hits the underside, causing them to vibrate. The vibration of the cords excites air molecules in your vocal tract and sets up resonant frequencies. The vibration of the vocal cords influences the pitch (the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound) of your voice; the vibration of the air in the vocal tract influences your voice's timbre (the quality of a sound that distinguishes different types of sound production—remember that for later, it will be important); and manipulation of the vocal tract—moving your tongue, lips, etc.—creates different resonant frequencies and allows you to make the different sounds of speech, like "oohs" and "aahs." Your voice finally leaves your mouth in the form of waves, oscillations of pressure transmitted through a medium.

Voice, Meet Helium

In addition to the vibrations and manipulations that influence the sound of your voice, what another person hears when you speak also depends in part on what the space where the sound is created contains. The air that fills a room where you might be speaking to someone is made up of roughly 78.08 percent nitrogen, 20.95 percent oxygen, 0.93 percent argon, 0.038 percent carbon dioxide, and tiny amounts of other gases. Nitrogen, which makes up the majority of our air, has a mass roughly seven times greater than that of helium. Because helium is lighter than air, sound waves travel through it faster. In a room where the temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, sound travels at 344 meters a second through air, but 927 meters a second through helium. When you inhale helium, you're changing the type of gas molecules in your vocal tract and increasing the speed of the sound of your voice.

Some people think that helium changes the pitch of your voice, but the vibration frequency of the vocal cords doesn't change along with the type of gas molecules that surround them. When your vocal tract is filled with helium, your vocal cords are vibrating at the same frequency as usual. It's actually the timbre (again, the quality of a sound that distinguishes different types of sound, also known as tone quality or tone color) that changes, because those lighter-than-air helium molecules allow sound to travel faster and change the resonances of your vocal tract by making it more responsive to high-frequency sounds and less responsive to lower ones. Your voice winds up flat and Donald Duck-esque and listeners perceive this as a change in pitch.

More Fun With Gases

If a lighter gas like helium gives us a squeaky-sounding voice, you might to assume that a heavier-than-air gas would amplify the lower resonant frequencies and make it deeper and richer (trading Donald Duck for Barry White, if you will). You'd be correct; gases like xenon and sulfur hexafluoride slow the speed of sound and lower the resonant frequencies of your vocal tract. 

No Fun With Gas

As amusing as the results are, inhaling helium is not so great for you. While you're inhaling it, you're not getting the oxygen you need for normal respiration. Breathing helium continuously can cause asphyxiation within a few minutes. That light-headed feeling you get from a few inhalations is a sign you need to take a break. And please don't ever inhale helium directly from one of those pressurized tanks. The high flow rate can rupture your lung tissue or send a concentrated mass of gas into your bloodstream, after which it can lodge in the brain and cause a stroke, seizures and death.

This story originally appeared in 2009.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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