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The Secret Life of Your House : A Look at the Everyday World Through a Tiny Keyhole

September 28, 1986|DAVID BODANIS | David Bodanis is the author of the forthcoming book "The Secret House," from which this is adapted


FROM THE ALARM CLOCK, A SPHERICAL shock wave traveling at Mach 1 starts growing outward, spreading and spreading till it hits the wall. Some of the energy it carries causes the curtains over the window to heat up from the friction of the onslaught; much of the rest rebounds, enters the ears of two sleepers and finally rouses them awake.

There's a rolling of eyes and a stirring of head, then a female hand gropes from under the security of the comforter, fumbles on the bedside table, finds the alarm clock and clacks down the button to turn it off.

The buzzing from the alarm clock stops, but the even-higher-frequency shriek from the quartz crystal inside takes over, spreading in a growing sphere from the clock as the sound wave did, striking the walls and heating the curtains, too. But this second room-filling shock wave is inaudible. The waker, desperate to fill the rigors of the morning with some soothing music, fumbles out from the covers again. The radio is found, switched on, listened to for a brief instant, then the tuning knob is furiously grasped. Some simpleton had left it on the news station last night. Now it must be moved to the haven of the classical music station.

The tuning knob quickly rolls, speeding across the megahertz to the new location. There's a crackling as it moves between stations; a slight hiss and buzzing too. Some of the hissings are the cries of distant exploding galaxies, sending out massively powerful particle radiation across space and time in the process of obliteration. Other static comes from lightning strikes on distant continents, which send electromagnetic pulses through the upper atmosphere that travel across deserts and seas into the bedside radio; all are received, then passed over and ignored in the hunt for the right station.

The radio disturbs the other sleeper, and after some fruitless tugging of the comforter, a division of resources is ordained. The first waker lies back to savor the music, while the second one gets ready to emerge from bed.

Bam! The man's foot extends out of bed and lands on the floor. The floorboards jam down, and their vibrations travel sideways like pond waves to the wall. The whole house compresses. Bricks where the floor fits into the wall shrink by 1/100,000 of an inch from the weight.

Any impact that doesn't get lost in the walls stays quivering in the floor. The chest of drawers starts lifting up and down, as does the bed, the chair, the table with its plant on top, the stack of magazines and Sunday papers in the corner and even the old coffee cup left on the floor. All lift up and bounce down, rebound and crash down again, as the floor reverberates to get rid of its buzzing energy.

Then the second foot touches down, the waker stands up, and he steps to the double-glazed window to see what is happening outside.

It is, as usual, raining. Not water raindrops--that's only on stormy days. This is an electric rain uncovered first thing in the morning, a rain of charged air particles that started as simple decay products from radioactive gas nearby. (House walls spray out radioactive gas--a lot if they are brick or concrete, less if they are wood or metal-clad--and front walks and street surfaces do the same.) The particles have been hovering in the lower atmosphere's invisible electric field ever since. This electric rain spatters the lawn, the front walk, the roof, and now it sprays in through the open window. It's a gentle rain--perhaps 200 volts per yard, but at a tiny amperage.

The window in its aluminum frame is slid closed; the invisible shower has not proven of captivating interest. As the window closes, long slivers of its aluminum frame come tearing off. On a steel window such tearing friction would provide a nice niche for future rust to sprout. But here the aluminum window quietly goes about repairing the scratch itself, as it always has. Before the culprit has even turned away, a new layer of aluminum oxide starts growing out sideways from the intact portion. It spreads across the microscopic gouge, covers it and seals it and only stops when it has formed a perfectly fitting replacement for the bit that was lost.

The waker is now on his way to the bathroom. As he steps, the floor continues to shake, and the dust continues to dance from the invisibly rebounding furniture. But there's also something else that moves under his feet--some things rather, roused out of their sleep as the waker strides over them.

These are mites, thousands and thousands of tiny mites: male mites and female mites and baby mites and even, crunched to the side away from the main conglomerations, the mummified corpses of long-dead old great-grandparent mites. Brethren of theirs stir in the bed, too, where they have spent the night snuggling warm and cozy under our sleepers, and now, the great burden above them stirring, they are beginning to stir for the day, too.

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