Can Opera Singers Really Shatter Glass?

iStock/track5
iStock/track5

Saturday morning cartoons would have us believe that anyone in a dress and Viking helmet can shatter wine glasses, monocles and even the opera house chandelier with one powerful high note. Is this one of those skills that only cartoon characters possess, or can we mortals do it too?

The physics seem pretty straightforward. Every object has a resonant frequency "“ the frequency at which it naturally vibrates. Finding the resonant frequency of a wine glass, which is especially resonant because it's tubular and hollow, is easy. Running a wet finger around the rim and making it "sing" or simply tapping the glass will cause it to vibrate at its resonant frequency (which varies from glass to glass) and push out waves of air pressure. Our ears and brain interpret these waves as sound, with the pitch of the sound determined by the frequency of the waves.

If you've got a good ear or the appropriate computer program, you can find out what that note is and match the pitch of your voice to the to the glass's resonant frequency. Singing that tone will get the air around the glass, and then the glass itself, vibrating. And if you can sing loud enough and long enough, the glass will basically vibrate itself to death.

Loud and long are important for glassware destruction. The volume of a sound is related to the amplitude of the sound wave and the extent that it displaces air. The louder the tone, the harder you're pushing air at the glass. Sustaining the note allows the vibrations to build up enough to cause the glass to fracture. Plain old luck also factors in, since the size and location of microscopic defects in glasses vary and some glasses can withstand more tonal punishment than others.

In 2005, the guys on MythBusters brought us the first recorded and confirmed proof that an unamplified voice can break glass. Rock singer and vocal coach Jamie Vendera had the right frequency (556 Hz) and, after 20 attempts, worked up the volume (105 decibels) needed to needed to shatter a glass. (Here's a link to the MythBusters segment.)

And here's a Popular Science video that has a wonderful strobe-light lit shot of the glass shucking and jiving to the resonant frequency.

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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