In the October 4 issue of the New York Times, Kenneth Chang reports that quicksand, the lethal substance that sucks unlucky movie heroes down to their death, is made out of the ordinary ingredients water, sand, salt and clay. If you happen to step in quicksand, will it be the end of you?

Researcher Daniel Bonn analyzed this substance and reported on it in a recent issue of the prestigious journal Nature. Bonn, who lives in Amsterdam, became interested in quicksand when he was in Iran a few years ago and saw signs warning about it. He collected samples and took them home to analyze.

He even did the really scary thing: he walked into one of these quicksand areas, and immediately sank down to his ankles. He quickly escaped, however, and he doesn’t think it was capable of sucking him down over his head, since the pool of quicksand wasn’t that deep. However, he did find that it was hard to get out of.

When he returned to Amsterdam and analyzed the quicksand, he found out that it contains loosely packed grains of sand, with clay holding the grains of sand together. When a heavy weight, like an animal or human being, impacts the substance, the clay quickly turns to liquid. The salt causes the clay to form a kind of gel, instead of surrounding the individual grains of sand the way it normally would. This means that the sand particles become densely packed together and anyone who falls into quicksand ends up surrounded by tightly packed sand. The force needed to pull someone out of quicksand is about the same as the force that would be needed to pull a car out of the mixture, even though a car?at several thousand pounds?is much heavier.

Quicksand mostly claims birds and small creatures, but if you ever fall in, remember this trick: slowly wiggle your feet and legs. This causes water to flow into the tightly packed sand, breaking it up and freeing you. Don’t struggle or move quickly, although this is the natural reaction when encased in the sand.

People actually float in quicksand, because it’s impossible to sink all the way down into it. However, it’s often found in the mouths of rivers. When people get stuck in it and can’t get out, they eventually drown from the ordinary water flowing over their heads.

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