The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for the ‘magic tricks’ Category

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! :D

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

It’s Equinox Time, So Balance Some Eggs for Science!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2011

Tomorrow, September 23rd, is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, and it is on this occasion that I like to inject a little skeptical and critical thinking fun into my physics classes.  Most of us have heard of the urban legend about balancing an egg on its end during the equinox – the thing is, this is true!  The myth is the implication that one can only do this on the equinox, when – in fact – you can balance an egg on end pretty much any time you want.

Case in point, here’s a couple of photos of me balancing eggs on their ends during the time of year exactly opposite to the equinoxes…

During the summer solstice…

And during the winter solstice…

In addition, here’s a nice Youtube video showing some tips on how to accomplish this trick:

The reason why this trick works boils down to simple physics: it’s called unstable equilibrium.  If you have a flat and level surface on which to perform this trick, and there aren’t a lot of vibrations around, then chances are you can balance a number of eggs in a standard dozen pack.  As long as the eggs are relatively smooth on their ends (look closely and you’ll see some bumps on some of them) and you are very patient, then with some practice pretty much anyone can perform this trick.  The Bad Astronomy blog has a pretty good rundown on the physics as well.

So the next time you hear someone pass along the “eggs can be balanced only on the equinox” myth, whip out some eggs and balance away.  It’s a quick, easy, and fun way to advocate for skepticism and science :)

Posted in astrology, magic tricks, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Solution to the “Self-tying” Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2011

This is the solution to the puzzle presented in my previous blog post – Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9  – wherein I show you how to supposedly tie a knot in a length of rope without releasing the ends. Of course, it is a trick, so watch the video carefully to see just how the trick is done. And have fun with some friends, family, or (if you’re a teacher) students with this puzzle.  It is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking!

Check out the Youtube video for the answer…

One last thing: I cannot claim credit for inventing this trick. I learned about it from Penn & Teller’s old book “Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends”, so credit should go to them :)

Posted in education, magic tricks | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 18, 2011

Well, I’m back from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, and I’m slowly but surely getting caught up on things.  I just wanted to take a moment to share with everyone a trick I showed off during my “Skepticism in the Classroom” lecture at TAM9.  In this video, I show how to use a simple nylon rope to perform a *seemingly* mathematically impossible feat: having the rope tie a knot in itself without releasing either end of the rope. I show this to my students as a lesson in skepticism and critical thinking, and it never ceases to catch their interest.


Can you figure out the trick? Stay tuned to my Youtube channel for the solution ;)

Posted in education, magic tricks, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 7, 2011

There was a time when I had really high hopes for cable channels like the Discovery Channel – I had hoped that they would be bastions that would promote sound science amidst a sea of sensationalistic cable TV docudrama and crapola (can you tell I don’t watch TV or cable?)  Sadly, the more time that passes, the more and more I shake my head in shame for what has happened to the Discovery Channel.  Case in point: the newest show on this “science” network, “The Supernaturalist”.

The show just launched a few days ago, and the Discovery Channel was promoting it as the Next Big Thing on their network.  Here’s the press release:

Mind-blowing Magic in The Supernaturalist

06/14/2011

MAGICIAN USES HIS OWN SKILLS TO FIND ELUSIVE MAGICAL MONK IN NEW
DISCOVERY SPECIAL ‘THE SUPERNATURALIST

Dan White performs mind-blowing magic: manipulating physical objects, performing surprising card tricks and making items appear from seemingly thin air. All of this, he admits, is merely an illusion. White has a mission: to find REAL magic. In Discovery Channel’s THE SUPERNATURALIST, premiering Wednesday, June 29th at 10PM et/pt, White travels to a remote corner of the planet and finds himself in a place where magic isn’t just tricks. It is believed to be very real… and even dangerous.

Locals in the Himalayan country of Nepal believe there are monks within its borders who use their powers to harm anyone who crosses their path. White relies on his talents as an illusionist to open doors normally closed to outsiders in an attempt to find one of these feared monks and – hopefully – witness his true magic. White’s mission will introduce him to many people, each getting him one step closer to the men in the mountains.

Unfortunately, in Dan White’s quest to “find REAL magic” – and the Discovery Channel’s quest to continue catering to the lowest common denominator (remember their stupid ghost-hunting show?) – it seems that everyone involved has left their basic critical thinking skills at the door.  For example, check out this footage of when Dan White “discovers” the levitating powers of the monk he has sought for so long…

The overly credulous nature of this clip, and how Dan White – the supposed skeptic – plays it up as legitimate (honest!) is downright pathetic.  There are some very basic questions to ask regarding a scenario like this:

1. Why isn’t the filming done in one continuous shot?  Note all the breaks in the clip between the time the monk sits down and when he “levitates”.

2. Why does the monk have to sit where he does, in front of a wall full of curtains that can easily obscure a device which can lift him?

3. Why doesn’t Dan White ask the obvious question as outlined in #2 above, instead of standing there looking like an idiot with his mouth agape?

4. Why doesn’t Dan White, our token “skeptic”, take a moment to simply walk over to the side to make sure there isn’t a mechanical arm or similar contraption connecting the monk to something behind the curtain.  On a related note, why isn’t this camera angle shown?

A simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to slice through what is very clearly a bullshit display put together to get ratings.  Folks, this is a big joke, and if anyone takes it seriously the only one’s laughing will be the executives at the Discovery Channel who are guffawing at having one over on gullible viewers.  Fortunately, there is a silver lining: I have been inspired to incorporate this footage and a critical analysis of it into my upcoming talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas next week – it will make a good lesson for my students :)

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 51 Comments »

Fun Science Tricks for Christmas & New Years

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2010

I wanted to quickly share with you all some neat science-related tricks from Professor Richard Wiseman; these will no doubt make for all manner of fun at those end-of-the-year Christmas & New Years gatherings.  Enjoy! :)

Posted in magic tricks | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2010

I want to share with you all a couple of Halloween-related lessons I give to my students every year.  That’s because this time of year is the perfect time to inject some explicit critical thinking & skepticism of all things spooky that go “bump” in the night.  I also tie it all in to scientific inquiry…

The first lesson I give my students is that I show them James Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics” video from NOVA. Though it was released in 1993, it is still one of the most well-done videos on the topic, and it is the perfect length & tone for a high school or college class.  Below is a link to Youtube where you can access the entire episode (50-60 minutes long), and I would also like to share with you the notesheet that I have my students fill in as they’re watching the video – Secrets of the Psychics Notesheet

Over the next few days, I will share with you part 2 of my Halloween lesson.  I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, so stay tuned :)

Addendum: In addition, I share some good Halloween & skeptically-themed weblinks with my students on the course website.  They are the Snopes.com page on Halloween urban legends and the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Halloween – I highly recommend sharing these with your friends, family, and students.

Posted in astrology, education, ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

How I Use a Card Trick to Teach About Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2010

Every year when I start a new class, I always take some time on the first day to discuss science & the scientific method. But I have my own fun & unorthodox spin on it: I first tell the “Dragon in My Garage” story, and then I go on to describe the scientific method in a very fun manner.  In short, I do a card trick…

The way I start is to ask my students if they’ve ever been to a family reunion or other gathering where someone present is doing card or magic tricks (suppose this person is “Old Uncle Harry”).  And say Uncle Harry does a particularly impressive card trick (some kind of “mind reading” or mentalism trick); what is likely to be the first response from the children present?  If you said “Do it again!” that’s a pretty good guess, but second to that I’d say the next most common response is “How did you do that?”

“How did you do that?” – contained within this question is a lot of information, folks.  First, it shows that even little kids can think critically & skeptically, because if Uncle Harry responds “It’s magic, kid (wink, wink)” even children know something’s fishy.  Second, it shows that kids want to know some kind of plausible, naturalistic solution to the supposedly “magical” phenomenon they just witnessed.

Then I play off this curiosity & natural skepticism: I ask my students what a particularly curious kid might do to figure out Uncle Harry’s trick (because really good magicians don’t reveal their tricks too easily).  Invariably, they respond that perhaps the first step would be to do some research on card tricks by looking up info on the Internet or going to the public library.  Then, once they think they’ve got an idea of the process, what’s the next step?  “Experimentation” comes the reply – in other words, the student might try to replicate just how the trick is performed by getting their own deck of cards and trying to repeat the phenomenon they observed earlier.  Depending upon their relative success or failure at replicating the trick, they may have to go through this process multiple times before coming to a meaningful conclusion as to how the trick is done.

And that, as I tell my students, is the scientific method in action.  Scientists are going through the very same investigative process as are those kids attempting to figure out Uncle Harry’s magic card trick.  They are attempting to figure out the “tricks” that nature is playing upon us all the time, and to do so they must study, research, hypothesize, and experiment in order to form a coherent & naturalistic explanation for the phenomena we observe (sorry, no “magic” allowed ;) )

And then I ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask for the entire class: “So, having said all of that, do you want to see a trick?”  The answer is always yes, and it’s always a satisfying and enjoyable trick.  This very trick I performed at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 8 for about 150-200 people, most of whom were teachers, and it was a real hit.  In fact, it was such a hit that I decided to write up the solution for it, and I share it with you here… enjoy… :)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, magic tricks, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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