Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for December, 2011

Adam Curtis on Enfield, Ghostwatch (plus some Philip)


Two of the greatest creators I profoundly admire for their always insightful and ever balanced overview are Carl Sagan and Adam Curtis – there’s not a thing they produced that I can’t get tired of appreciating. While Sagan was an inspiring author for our scientific dreams, Curtis offers cautionary tales regarding those same dreams. Curtis’ “Pandora’s Box” in particular is required viewing just as Sagan’s Cosmos is.

But they don’t contradict each other, as Curtis never once blames science itself, that ideal thing we try to practice. Instead Curtis exposes how science paradoxically vanishes when people try to promote it with too much eagerness, as that eagerness often translates into misapplied science through political struggle, and that misapplication, that struggle, is his main focus.

Unlike Sagan, Curtis is still with us, actively producing great material, and sharing a lot of it on his very own blog at BBC. His latest post is a gem with great film snippets on “The Ghosts in the Living Room”. How the depiction of ghosts evolved in the small screen, and the link between the Enfield Poltergeist and Ghostwatch.


Which is an opportunity for me to comment a very interesting piece on the Poltergeist mania of the 1970s, the Philip Experiment. A fictional ghost was invented, with a background story full of holes. And they managed to contact the imaginary spirit!


This was a thought provoking isolation of variables, and the results are promoted by those proposing Poltergeist phenomena may be actually psychic manifestations of very living people. Given that a fictional “ghost” manifested mostly all the same paranormal phenomena as allegedly real ghosts, one could do away with actual ghosts and work solely with the collective unconscious. Very well, but Occam’s razor may cut deeper.

I bought and watched the 15 minute documentary on “Philip, the Imaginary Ghost”. It’s fascinating,  but exactly because I couldn’t see a single instance where the alleged physical manifestations of the imaginary ghost couldn’t be attributed to the ideomotor effect, that is, movements made unconsciously by the participants.

Stack-Name-Art-coastersIn the clip above, one participant mentions the “doily nights’”, where they put doilies under all the hands over the table, to make sure that no one was moving it – in which case the stacked doilies would slide and be behind the hand, showing the direction and origin of movement. This method comes directly from the original protocol used by legendary Michael Faraday in the 19th century to prove that precisely table-moving was the result of the ideomotor effect. The stacked cards he put under the hands of “very honourable, very clear in their intentions” parties all showed that whenever the table moved, the hands moved first and further. Never the other way around.

So why did the Philip Experiment obtain results that Faraday couldn’t? Perhaps they had actual paranormal powers, or perhaps their controls were not as good as Faraday’s. One thing all the recorded film that I could see shows is that it’s always the table top that goes forward in one direction, with the legs behind. Though their doilies allegedly contradict Faraday’s cards, the table itself may be evidence they were unconsciously, but very mundanely, moving it by the top, doing away with the last paranormal thing in the experiment and providing another look on how very honourable parties may be integral part of the Poltergeists they investigate, blurring the distinction between their imagination and the reality.

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Triangular cloud falls over Tokyo?


Such a great image, captured over Tokyo and posted December 10 on the popular 2ch, futaba board.

And it’s not a hoax, nor a piece of chemical foam. It’s actually a cloud, it’s indeed a trail. Granted, it’s not actually falling. More pics and considerations after the jump!

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Colored Vibrating Sand, Buddhist Singing Bowls and Levitating Megaliths

Please turn down the volume, and appreciate Japanese artist Kenichi Kanazawa making colored sand dance in beautiful geometric patterns. Magic? Perhaps, but not supernatural.

This is version of what is better known as Chladni plates, as the table top is made of a plate of steel which vibrates when he rubs the rubber balls on its border, an effect similar to rubbing a crystal glass with wet fingers. The vibrating top then makes the sand jump and accumulate in nodal patterns.

Which is a perfect opportunity to present another non-quite-magical, but quite amazing phenomenon: Tibetan singing bowls, dating more than 4,000 years ago, which make water boil almost instantly!

Except that they are not actually boiling water, you wouldn’t be able to cook noodles with it. In a way somewhat similar to Chladni plates, and as Nature News Blog explains, what the bowl is doing is making waves in water which at a critical frequency separates and forms little droplets which can jump and even bounce over the rest of the water, making it look like it’s boiling. Check out above and below some wicked videos courtesy of Denis Terwagne and John Bush:

The phenomenon is non-linear and, thanks to LOST, has a very cool sounding name, Faraday instability, due to Michael Faraday himself, a scientific legend.

And speaking of legend, vibration and Buddhist monks, we come to the last link: acoustic levitation of stones, in the legend of monastery construction, Tibetan style.


Tibetan Monks levitate stones by using an acoustic levitation technique with the aid of drums in this 1939 sketch by Swedish aircraft designer Henry Kjellson. Click the sketch for the full fascinating story.

Acoustic levitation is real, and the grains of sand jumping as well as the droplets of water bouncing are a related phenomenon. And given that Buddhist monks had singing bowls which mastered this resonance, could they have levitated giant boulders with drums?

Unfortunately, we know for a fact they didn’t. You see, there’s a limit in the amount of energy a sound wave can carry, beyond which the sound just turns into a shock wave and the more energy you put into it, it simply turns into heat.

Interestingly, you can make shock waves so powerful that could actually make water boil, unlike the singing bowls, for instance, near a hypersonic jet, though that would be a very inconvenient way to cook noodles. But it’s impossible for thin air in resonating sound to make something like a heavy boulder levitate – granted, a very powerful shock wave could move large rocks, but that’s not something you would get with drums. That’s something you would get with explosives, and this is something we already do.

Well, I hope you’ve seen enough real wonders to allow for one adorable legend to remain just a very nice tall tale!

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Candle Smoke Rainbow


Amazing shot by Grover Schrayer. He explains it:

“I shot it with my Fuji Finepix S8100fd, with a Raynox M-250 macro lens attached. I shot at 1/1000th or higher, using the camera’s built-in flash. The built -in flash gave me head-on illumination of the smoke, and that head-on lighting allowed me to pick up the refraction through the droplets of wax. Any other angle of illumination would not produce the rainbow effect. The hardest part was getting the camera to focus on just the right part of the smoke. I focused on the wick, or the edge of the flame, had the shutter button half-pressed and ready, and blew out the candle and snapped very quickly. Most of the time the results were less than spectacular, but when the smoke and the timing cooperated, I got shots like this…”

Another shot of smoke droplets making a candle rainbow on flickr. [via Petapixel]

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