It is said that Pierre Curie could never enter his own laboratory while an experiment was in progress, because his body had become so radioactive that his mere presence discharged the sensitive electrometers.

It was while pondering this story that I came up with my new theory of vacuum cleaning. You know the scenario. You run your vacuum cleaner over a carpet, removing every particle of visible dust. Then you look behind you, and the carpet that you have just vacuumed is once again covered in dust. How could this be?

My new theory is that running a vacuum cleaner over the carpet has produced a static charge in the carpet, similar to that which arises when you rub a plastic comb on a piece of dry cloth. The comb becomes charged, and can be used to pick up small scraps of paper and the like (I’ve written about this phenomenon in detail in Chapter 4 of Weighing the Soul).

Similarly, the charged carpet attracts specks of dust from the air, undoing all of your work.

If my theory is correct, one answer is to moisten the carpet slightly before vacuuming. I’ve tried it with a fine mist spray, and it seems to work. But it’s still just a theory, and I do not have an electrometer to check it out further. Over to you, experimentalists!

Having been an experimentalist all my life, it’s good to feel that the boot is on the other foot. But that’s the way that science goes. I wonder if my theory is worth another IgNobel Prize? It would be nice to have two.

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