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"What does the Lifesaver experiment say about Susan? That she's always open to fun and creative ideas."
-- Ira Flatow

One notorious Susan Stamberg broadcast literally threw off sparks.

It started with a Baltimore mother's letter to NPR science reporter Ira Flatow. Her children claimed that when they chomped wintergreen Lifesavers in the dark, the candy sparked. She wanted Flatow to confirm the phenomenon, and explain the science behind it.

First, Flatow recalls, he did some research: He called the company that makes Lifesavers, which he says denied the phenomenon and threatened to sue if its product were maligned. So Flatow moved straight to the lab work: To close the All Things Considered broadcast on July 25, 1979, he took Stamberg, a microphone and two rolls of wintergreen Lifesavers into a pitch-black closet.

The audio paints the scene: A crunch of teeth on hard candy, and then Stamberg squealing, "I saw it! I saw a flash of kind of greenish light!" What was the cause? Flatow said he had no answer, but he was sure "some smart listener" soon would provide one.

Dozens did. When a sugar crystal is crushed, they said, it gives off a high-voltage discharge. Nitrogen in the surrounding air is charged, producing the flash.

The closet caper was such a hit that NPR re-broadcast it on the experiment's first anniversary. To this day, Flatow says, "People still come up to me and remember that experiment." And to this day, he says, Stamberg "is always, always receptive to wacky ideas. She likes to take a chance."

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  • Copyright 2001 National Public Radio