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The Straight Dope 

Last weekend my girlfriend and I spent the night in a mountaintop lodge at an elevation of 9,000 feet, about 6,000 feet above the town in which we live. The romantic intent of the evening was slightly stifled by the fact that we both had a serious gas problem. It was distracting to have to constantly fight to hold back a fart. It seemed odd that we both developed this problem at the same time. We didn't eat the same thing, so it was probably not the food. The problem went away when I was back in the valley the next day. I came up with the theory that the lower air pressure at the higher elevation caused our bodies to expel gas in order to balance internal and external pressure. Could this be, or should I dump this farting woman? --B.M., via the Internet

Excuse me? You think your own toots smell like lilacs in May? But you're on the right track with this pressure thing.

Medical researchers have a pretty sorry record when it comes to answering the vital questions of life, but by God, when it comes to flatulence they're on the case. In 1967 the New York Academy of Sciences devoted a two-day conference to gastrointestinal gas. The gas issue was hot then because of the space program. Many feared man's mission to the stars might come to grief if an astronaut had a little too much chili before liftoff and the crew was, you know, overcome.

One of many fascinating nuggets brought to light during the conference was the effect of altitude on gas. During World War II flight surgeons had discovered that above 30,000 feet some aviators suffered pain from abdominal distension due to expansion of intestinal gas. What happened was that as outside air pressure decreased, the volume occupied by intestinal gas increased. Experiments revealed that the volume of gas, typically around 115 milliliters at sea level, doubled at 15,000 feet, tripled at 25,000 feet, and rose by a factor of 7.6 at 40,000 feet. The increase from your 6,000-foot climb was less dramatic but probably enough to make your gut puff up like a balloon. Be grateful all you did was fart.


You must be investing the proceeds from your column in Treasury bonds. It's the only explanation for the rewriting of history in your description of the Federal Reserve System [November 24]. The U.S. didn't experience runaway inflation before the creation of the Fed. The typical economic disaster in those days was just the opposite--a "panic," or deflationary spiral, caused by a crop failure or other decline in the economy. As farmers and the businesses that depended on them failed to make loan payments, local banks closed or curtailed loans in order to satisfy their own creditors. Imagine the impact on the economy if Visa suspended everyone's account and you have an idea of what happened. Given the fact of cyclical deflation, your idea of the pre-Fed U.S. government wrecking the economy by inflating the currency is nonsense. Your quaint confidence in the Fed and "sound money" is charming, but many economic historians don't share your view. For example, many believe the Fed killed a recovery during the Great Depression by keeping the money supply too tight. A jolt of new Federal Reserve notes was just what the economy needed. The "experts" have an important role, but a measure of democratic control of the economy is what keeps many of us eating three meals a day. --Ryan Chew, Chicago

God save me from sophomore econ majors. The Fed does not increase the money supply literally by printing up more Federal Reserve notes. Instead it tries to influence money growth through discount-rate adjustments and other arcane tools. This doesn't always work. One or two wrong turns excepted, the Fed pursued a policy of "easy money" during the Depression without generating much economic growth. What the economy needed, and what it eventually got, was a good dose of that old Keynesian tool, deficit spending.

I don't know where you get the idea inflation was not a problem prior to establishment of the Fed. The issuance of worthless Continental notes during the war of independence is well-known. Uncontrolled issuance of private banknotes continued until 1863. Attempts to bring order to the nation's financial system met with only limited success until the establishment of the Fed, and even the Fed failed to prevent the Depression. It was only with the realization that sound money had to be combined with shrewd federal spending (fiscal) policy that the old cycle of giddy prosperity followed by panic was, if not ended, at least greatly moderated.


Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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