Most of us have heard the effects of breathing helium on speech-- sort of Billy Barty on speed. The explanation is that helium, being a light gas, allows more rapid vocal cord vibrations, hence, higher speech tones. What about the converse, breathing a heavy gas, say, argon? Can we expect Richard Nixon on Quaaludes?
-- J.J., El Cajon
Whoa. Back up the truck, Jack. The higher pitch is caused by the more rapid movement of the light helium molecules excited by the vocalizing. Sound travels through helium from 1.6 to 2.9 times faster than through air (depending on the purity of the helium), and so its pitch is higher. The gas doesn't change the rate of vibration of your vocal cords (more correctly, your vocal fold). That adjustment made, a hit of argon would produce an effect not unlike a bullfrog in a barrel.
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From the "Television Is Our Friend" files, a letter from T.O. in O.B. responding to a question about huffing argon to make your voice deep, just as helium makes you sound like one of those gymnastics bunnies. Sez T.O. (heartily seconded by me and my phalanx of lawyers), "Don't try the argon or any other heavy gas. The gas will sink to the bottom of your lungs and displace oxygen. You could pass out and/or suffocate! I did see a guy do this trick on Letterman one night. He had to stand on his head to get the bullfrog effect and to let the gas sink back out of his lungs." Ya know, T.O., it never occurred to me that anyone would try this. I took the question as just one more harebrained Aliceland notion that would require far too much actual work to accomplish. Thanks for reminding me that it's exactly this kind of thing that has made Aliceland what it is today. Whatever that is.