The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for December, 2009

127th Skeptic’s Circle @ Life, the Universe, and One Brow

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 31, 2009

The final installment (for 2009) of the Skeptic’s Circle is now being hosted over at Life, the Universe, and One Brow – a blog which engages in “A discussion of skepticism, logic, math, intelligent design creationism, board games, the Utah Jazz, marriage, having a oldest child with PDD-NOS along with a middle daughter with ADHD and three other children, being a DBA, teaching, the St. Louis metro area, and anything else that comes to mind.” Sounds groovy – check it out…

The 127th edition of the Skeptics’ Circle

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Top 10 quirky science tricks for New Year parties

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 31, 2009

In the spirit of the New Year, I wanted to share with you all a quick video about 10 things you can do at a New Year party to share the wonders of science.  This video originates from Prof. Richard Wiseman, all the tricks are quick and easy to do, and it’s called “Top 10 quirky science tricks for New Year parties”

Enjoy the fun, and have a Happy New Year!  :)

*Note: Hat tip to The Blog of Phyz for sharing the video.

Posted in skeptical community, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Happy Winter Solstice! — Time to Balance Those Eggs

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 24, 2009

**Note: This is essentially a repost of an earlier entry…

Let’s balance some eggs, kids :)

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!  It might seem a strange thing to be celebrating, this specific position of Earth in its orbit around the sun, but we skeptics have our reasons.  This, of course, has to do with the old myth of being able to balance eggs on their ends only during either the vernal (spring) or autumnal equinox – of course, all references are in regards to the northern hemisphere.

But wait, it’s not the equinox, so why bring up this myth now?  To debunk it, of course.  According to adherents of this myth, usually the same folks who are into astrology-related woo, during the equinoxes “things line up cosmically” (probably some misunderstood reference to the fact that the length of day & night are the same), and this should result in the capability to stand eggs on their ends.

The funny thing about this particular myth is that it contains a kernel of truth… you can stand an egg on its end on the equinox, just as you can at any time of the year – even the solstices, as far away from the equinox as you can get.  Case in point, I’m away visiting family, and I just balanced an egg on end in the kitchen…

This supposedly “cosmic event” took me all of fifteen seconds to accomplish – with a little practice, it’s easy to do. To understand why it is that eggs can be balanced in this manner, it is more helpful to look to the science of physics rather than the pseudoscience of astrology – this link at the Bad Astronomy blog explains in more detail.

So, the next time you hear someone make this loony claim, have a little fun with it – whip out the eggs and balance away!

Posted in astrology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skepchicamp Fundraising Party!!!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 22, 2009

On March 6, 2010, Chicago will play host to the very first ever Skepchicamp, Chicago’s and Skepchick’s take on the popular Skepticamp.

To make this event happen, and make it happen again, we’re going to need money. And to get that money, we’re going to offer you free* booze and food! The Skepchicamp planning team will be holding a fundraiser on January 23, 2010 at 7:00pm in the South Loop home of Chicago’s own skeptical pediatrician, Dr Jennifer Newport.**

Only 50 tickets available, so get them before they’re hot!

Ticket Price:

$30 until January 16

$40 after January 16 (if available)


Black Tie and Pants Optional

SurlyRamics suggested

*Free with purchase of fundraiser ticket
** Dr. Newport’s address will be emailed to the guest list one week prior to the event. Approximate address is mapped.

Event Page:

Buy your tickets now! :)

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Textbook stickers for all your educational needs

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2009

If you’ve kept track of various creationist-related nonsense over the years, then you no doubt have heard about their attempts to insert “disclaimer stickers” into biology textbooks.  For example, in the case of the infamous Cobb County debacle, here’s what the sticker looked like…

Of course, this is just another variation on the tired, old creationist tactic where they say schools should “teach the controversy” or “teach all views” and “let the kid’s make up their minds”.

In response to this idiocy, some skeptics & educators have decided to fight fire with fire: by providing textbook stickers for all manner of subjects.  This is done partly as a joke, but the serious side is to illustrate just how stupid & intellectually vacuous this creationist argument really is – here’s a link to the stickers (image below)…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Maine Legislator Pushes Cell Phone-Cancer Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2009

In another *facepalm* moment, the state legislature in Maine will soon be considering a bill that would require cell phones to carry warning labels that they, you guessed it, might cause brain cancer.  Ugh – I have posted about this topic before (in my post “Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths”), and I cannot state strongly enough that there is no evidence that cell phone use causes cancer!  Not only is there no conclusive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer, but according to the known laws of physics there is no physical mechanism by which this is even possible. But that won’t stop some non-scientifically minded nut with political clout from pushing this nonsense into a useless law…

Maine to consider cell phone cancer warning

A Maine legislator wants to make the state the first to require cell phones to carry warnings that they can cause brain cancer, although there is no consensus among scientists that they do and industry leaders dispute the claim.

The now-ubiquitous devices carry such warnings in some countries, though no U.S. states require them, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. A similar effort is afoot in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom wants his city to be the nation’s first to require the warnings.

Maine Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, said numerous studies point to the cancer risk, and she has persuaded legislative leaders to allow her proposal to come up for discussion during the 2010 session that begins in January, a session usually reserved for emergency and governors’ bills.

And here’s my favorite part of the article…

While there’s little agreement about the health hazards, Boland said Maine’s roughly 950,000 cell phone users among its 1.3 million residents “do not know what the risks are.”

Ahem, Rep. Boland, this is an argument that is essentially begging the question… the assumption is that there is a risk, despite there being any conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship (not to be confused with correlation) between cancer & cell phone use AND a lack of any kind of physical mechanism to even facilitate that process.  Folks, this is what happens when you mix political power with the Paralyzing Precautionary Principle. Now this may be crappy science, but I’m sure it’ll raise Rep. Boland’s political profile – too bad she couldn’t just stick to the actual science as opposed to pushing pseudoscientific & fear-mongering woo woo.

Folks, if you live in Maine, please take a moment to contact your state representatives and ask them to – for the sake of good science & sound legislative policies – just throw Boland’s bill in the trash heap where it belongs.  I’m sure there are far better, more important, and real issues the Maine legislature could be dealing with on behalf of that state’s citizens.

Rep. Boland, this one’s for you…

Posted in environmental hysteria, physics denial/woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

I’m a bad, bad person.  No kidding, I’m bad – really, really bad.  I say this because in my physics classes today, I killed Santa Claus. Well, to be more accurate, what I did was use our knowledge of physics to kill the fantasy of Santa Claus (because it’s pretty damn hard to kill something that isn’t real).  And I have no guilt at all for doing this, because if 16-18 year old kids are still harboring some kind of actual belief in Santa, then they need a strong dose of reality laid on them! :)

So how did I do it?  Just how did I kill the Santa fantasy?  Here’s how… I used a brief PowerPoint presentation to make the following argument:

  1. No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
  2. There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to the Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.
  3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, and assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.
  4. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of his sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.
  5. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course we know to be false but for the purpose of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.
  6. This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
  7. The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.
  8. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (refer to point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal load, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the woman).
  9. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy per SECOND, EACH!
  10. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create a deafening sonic boom in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second! Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to forces 17,500 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force!!!

Thus, in conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, HE’S DEAD NOW!!!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

126th Skeptic’s Circle @ Weird Things

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

The latest installment of the infamous Skeptic’s Circle is now being hosted over at the Weird Things blog – which is all about “exploring science, the strange, and the unknown”.  Sounds like my kind of place! :)

Go on and check it out…

Posted in internet, skeptical community, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

Earlier this week, a news story made the rounds making the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that the Hubble Space Telescope had imaged a “cosmic Christmas ornament” in the sky.  Here’s the image…

The article then goes on to state:

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a festive view of the cosmos in time for the holiday season, with some saying the picture of a star nursery looks like a wreath, maybe a Christmas tree, or even Santa.

The spacecraft observed a group of young stars called R136, which is only a few million years old and inhabits the 30 Doradus Nebula, part of a relatively nearby satellite galaxy of our Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the photograph, hundreds of brilliant blue stars are surrounded by a ring of warm, glowing orange clouds of dust. The colorful portrait evokes a giant wreath of pine boughs studded with glowing jewels — sort of. And in the hollow center, the dark shadow has the distinct silhouette of a Christmas tree. Really!

Finally, if flipped 90 degrees clockwise, the image even resembles the face and beard of Santa Claus himself. Somewhat.

Well, whether or not this heavenly view actually has anything to do with the season on Earth, it does teach scientists about what’s happening up above.

This humorous story does a good job of hitting upon the point I wanted to make: what you see in such images, whether they are of “Santa” in a cosmic nebulae in the sky or “Jesus” in a rusty clothing-iron, is the result of a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia. We see familiar patterns because we are trained, by both evolution & our upbringing, to see familiar images even when there’s nothing more than random noise present.

In short, pareidolia is in your head, and different people “see” different things.  More than anything, pareidolia tells us a lot about ourselves and what we’re thinking rather than what we believe we’re looking at.

Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Update on the “Sense About Science” Campaign

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2009

As some of the regular readers of this blog may recall, there is currently a case pending in the United Kingdom which could have potentially far-reaching consequences regarding issues of free speech & skepticism.  Of course, I’m referring to the now-famous case of Simon Singh vs. the British Chiropractic Association and the associated grass-roots effort by our friends over at Sense About Science to reform the libel laws in the UK.  Since I last blogged about it, there have been some interesting developments.  I wanted to pass along the latest update I’ve received on this issue, so here goes…

Dear Friends

A message from Simon Singh:

“It has been 18 months since I was sued for libel after publishing my article on chiropractic. I am continuing to fight my case and am prepared to defend my article for another 18 months or more if necessary. The ongoing libel case has been distracting, draining and frustrating, but it has always been heartening to receive so much support, particularly from people who realise that English libel laws need to be reformed in order to allow robust discussion of matters of public interest. Over twenty thousand people signed the statement to Keep Libel Laws out of Science, but now we need you to sign up again and add your name to the new statement.

The new statement is necessary because the campaign for libel reform is stepping up a gear and will be working on much broader base. Sense About Science has joined forces with Index on Censorship and English PEN and their goal is to reach 100,000 or more signatories in order to help politicians appreciate the level of public support for libel reform. We have already met several leading figures from all three main parties and they have all showed signs of interest. Now, however, we need a final push in order to persuade them to commit to libel reform.

Finally, I would like to make three points. First, I will stress again – please take the time to reinforce your support for libel reform by signing up at Second, please spread the word by blogging, twittering, Facebooking and emailing in order to encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Third, for those supporters who live overseas, please also add your name to the petition and encourage others to do the same; unfortunately and embarrassingly, English libel laws impact writers in the rest of the world, but now you can help change those laws by showing your support for libel reform. While I fight in my own libel battle, I hope that you will fight the bigger battle of libel reform.”

And from me, Síle:

The campaign for libel reform was launched by Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN on Wednesday 9th December. You can read about it in the following articles:

BBC NEWS Comic Dara O Briain says libel laws ‘quash dissent’

The Times Scientists urge reform of ‘lethal’ libel law

The Independent Comic Dara O Briain lambasts ‘bully’ libel law

The Mirror Dara O Briain wants libel reform

THE UCL provost: libel law is stifling academic freedoms

New Scientist blog Campaign to reform English libel law launched

Press Gazette‘Libel can kill – reform it now’

The Press AssociationDara O Briain wants libel reform

To read the background of this campaign see We still need your support. Add your voice at and help us reach our fundraising target at



Síle Lane
Public Liaison
Sense About Science
25 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 7EG
Reg. Charity No. 1101114
Tel: +44 (0)20 7478 4380

Sense About Science is a small charity that equips people to make sense of science and evidence. We depend on donations, large and small, from people who support our work. You can donate, or find out more, at

Posted in free inquiry, medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


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