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Published Friday, June 6, 1997, in the Miami Herald

High Anxiety


illustration by Jeff MacNelly Get ready to dance naked in the streets, because scientists have finally done something that humanity has long dreamed about, but most of us thought would never happen within our lifetimes.

That's right: They have levitated a frog.

I swear I am not making this up. According to an Associated Press article sent in by a number of alert readers, British and Dutch scientists ``have succeeded in floating a frog in air.'' They did this by using magnetism, which, as you recall from physics class, is a powerful force that causes certain items to be attracted to refrigerators. Magnetism is one of the Six Fundamental Forces of the Universe, with the other five being Gravity, Duct Tape, Whining, Remote Control and The Force That Pulls Dogs Toward The Groins Of Strangers.

The AP article states that the scientists levitated the frog by subjecting it to ``a magnetic field a million times stronger than that of the Earth.'' According to scientists, the frog ``showed no signs of distress after floating in the air inside a magnetic cylinder.''

I am not a trained scientist, but my reaction to that last statement is -- and I quote -- ``Duh.'' I mean, of course the frog ``showed no signs of distress'': It's a frog. Frogs are not known for their ability to show emotions; they are limited to essentially one facial expression, very much like Jean-Claude Van Damme. What did these scientists expect the frog to do? Cry? Hop around on their computer keyboard and spell out the words ``I AM EXPERIENCING DISTRESS''?

No, we don't really know what the frog was feeling; this is why we should be skeptical about the scientists' claim, as reported in the AP story, that ``there is no reason'' why this same magnetic technique could not be used on ``larger creatures, even humans.'' Before we start exposing human beings to extremely powerful magnetic fields, we should conduct extensive laboratory tests on Richard Simmons. But if magnetic levitation really turns out to be safe, I think it could have some important ``real world'' applications:

1. GETTING CHILDREN OUT OF BED ON SCHOOL MORNINGS. Scientists calculate that the attraction between a child and his or her bed on a school morning can be up to 75 times as strong as mere gravity. Most parents try to overcome this attraction by pounding on the door and shouting ineffective threats, the most popular one being: ``YOU'RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!'' The problem with this threat is that it's based on the idiotic premise that the child wants to be in school and be forced to sit on a hard chair and figure out how many times 7 goes into 56; naturally, the child prefers the bed.

Think, parents, how much easier it would be if, at 6:30 a.m. on school mornings, you could simply press a button, thereby activating gigantic magnets under your child's bed that would cause the child to float upward, along with any frogs that happened to be in bed with the child. Then, instead of wasting your time yelling ``YOU'RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!'' you could waste your time yelling ``STOP DRAWING WITH THAT MARKING PEN ON THE CEILING!'' So perhaps this is not such a good use for magnetic levitation after all. Perhaps a better one would be:

2. COPING WITH PEOPLE WHO ``SAVE'' SEATS. I don't know about you, but it makes me nuts when I enter a self-service restaurant, airport gate area, movie theater, etc., and there are people ``saving'' seats -- sometimes lots of seats -- for people who are not there, and who sometimes do not ever actually show up, which does not stop the savers from vigilantly guarding their seats, often by placing items such as shopping bags on them. My feeling is, if an actual person was physically there and had to go to the bathroom or something, fine, you can ``save'' that person's seat until he or she returns; but if you're ``saving'' a seat for a hypothetical person who is not there, then the seat should go to real people who ARE there. The concept of ``saving'' seats should be restricted to junior high school, where ``frontsy-backsy'' is still considered a legal technique for butting into line.

So my idea is that public seating areas would be monitored via cameras; if a ``seat-saver'' was observed denying seats to real people, the appropriate magnets would be activated, and the seat-saver, along with the shopping bags, would vacate the ``saved'' seats, very much the way a Poseidon missile vacates a submarine. Granted, the magnetic field would also prevent everybody else from using the seats, but I think the overall effect would be worth it.

3. IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF MEDICAL CARE. I recently had my annual physical examination, which I get once every seven years, and when the nurse weighed me, I was shocked to discover how much stronger the Earth's gravitational pull has become since 1990. There should be magnets -- very powerful magnets -- under doctors' scales to compensate for the gravitational increase, much the way economists adjust dollar amounts for inflation.

I'm sure I could come up with other practical uses for magnetic human levitation, but I have to go. It's been an hour since lunch, and, as a resident of the Earth's magnetic field, I find myself powerfully attracted to the refrigerator.


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