The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘Occam’s Razor’

Time Traveler Caught on Film? More Like “Whackjob in a Youtube Video”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 30, 2010

Oh my… some days something crosses my email inbox, and while a part of me says “this is just too silly, let it go” another part of me insists that this is simply something which must be dealt with in the most appropriate manner: by mocking it for the laughing stock that it is :)

Case in point: there is a video circulating on the Interwebs of a filmmaker, George Clarke, claiming – seriously, believe it or not – that he’s seen old footage from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie which “proves” the existence of a time traveler!  His evidence consists of his claim that he’s seen what appears to him to be a mobile phone in the hands of a woman in the film.  I’m not kidding, you just have to watch this stupidity in order to believe it…

At the 0:40 point in the video, he makes a blatant argument from ignorance: “Nobody can give me an explanation for what you’re about to see.” Using this sloppy reasoning, he goes on to state later in the video that the only possible explanation has to be that she’s a time traveler holding a modern day cellphone (presumably one which has been upgraded by The Doctor ;) )

I think the best response I’ve seen to this silliness came from a post on the JREF Forum regarding this claim via an appeal to Occam’s Razor. I share that post with you here…

So which is more likely? That someone figured out how to travel back in time and once doing that, figured our how to travel through space roughly 886,973,634,480 miles (based on the Galaxy’s speed of approx 552 Km/s and the travel of 82 years and not counting leap year days or current time vs time that the shot was filmed)? And mind you, that’s not counting in the orbital speed of the Sun in the Galaxy (220 Km/s) over that time.


That someone of advanced age (and possibly diminished hearing) is wearing and holding onto a hearing assist device of the era?

I know which one I’m putting my money on.

So, because MR. Clarke states that “it’s unexplainable” then he’s going to explain it by appealing to time travel?  Personally, I think that leprechauns are a much more valid explanation, because I simply cannot explain it any other way!  ‘Nuff said.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

This past weekend I attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, along with about 1300 other skeptics & supporters of science.  And, like last year, there was a talent show in which I participated.  Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson – this time on karate & board breaking.  And, thanks to my colleague Dean over at the Blog of Phyz, I have some slow-motion footage of my grand finale break…

It might surprise many people to know that pretty much anyone can break boards with little training – in order to do more challenging breaks like that pictured here takes more training, though the basic principles are still the same. But in the end there is *nothing* mystical involved – no chi or “life energy” or any of that rot. With proper body mechanics and good use of mass (twisting the body), velocity (dropping to convert GPE into KE), and a low time of impact (solid supports that won’t give) one can make lots of kindling out of boards. Oh yeah, and the spacers are a nice trick as well :) For a fuller explanation, see my previous blog post on the subject.

And, just to put my money where my mouth is, I have to brag about one more thing: while at TAM8, I taught skeptic & paranormal investigator Joe Nickell how to break boards.  Joe had never before performed a board break, and – to my knowledge – has no formal martial arts training, yet I was able to get him successfully breaking boards with just 5 minutes of instruction.  Here he is successfully performing a palm-heel strike on a board I’m holding…

So, there you have it: if Joe Nickell, at his age & with no formal training, can employ the basic physics & body mechanics required to break a board, then pretty much anyone can do it… no special chi or paranormal powers required :)

Posted in physics denial/woo, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Walking Barefoot on Broken Glass – Not Paranormal, Just Physics

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2010

While at Skepchicamp 2010, one of the woo-busting physics demonstrations I performed was that of walking barefoot on broken glass shards.  Here’s a close up of the action…

This is a standard carnival trick, also used by various New Age gurus to display their supposed mystical, paranormal, or supernatural powers to their gullible followers.  Sorry folks, no woo is required to explain this (pardon the pun) impressive feat.  This is some video shot by a few of my students earlier this year when we were discussing the physics of pressure

It can all be explained with a simple understanding of basic physics: by walking flat-footed on the shards, I spread my body weight evenly over the entire surface area of my feet, which means that I’m touching a large number of glass shards at once. Thus, since my weight is distributed over so many points, the pressure (force per unit area) at any one of those points is so small that it isn’t enough to stab or cut through my skin.

Thus, through a simple application of Occam’s Razor, we can conclude that nothing paranormal is required to explain what’s going on, just good physics!

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher Displays Awesomeness at Skepchicamp!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2010

Well, I’ve had a couple of days to process all that took place during the first Chicago SkeptiCamp, also known as Skepchicamp. In addition to outlining what I contributed, I’d also like to provide some of the thoughts & feedback from others in attendance…

My presentation, titled Bringing Skepticism into the Physics Classroom, was a display of my belief in “sacrificing myself for science” whereby I perform a variety of extraordinary and dangerous demonstrations in the hopes of dispelling any notions of paranormal woo.  Specifically, I performed three impressive physical feats: walking barefoot on broken glass, breaking five wooden boards with my fist, and laying between two beds of nails while a concrete cinder block is crushed on my chest. Talk about fun times! :)

As I told the audience, when I perform these demos for my students I’m not proving that there is no such thing as chi/ki/qi or whatever other New Age “life force” paranormal woo-woo is often invoked to explain these phenomena.  Instead, what I’m encouraging my students to do is simply apply Occam’s Razor to the scenario: their understanding of basic physics is all that is necessary to explain things… no woo required.

For a fuller view of the awesomeness I displayed, check out this great footage shot during my presentation (hat tip to the Bolingbrook Babbler)…

… and here’s another one from a fellow Skepchicamp organizer…

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Posted in physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Physics of Karate – No Woo Required

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2009

I’ve practiced martial arts of various styles for 20 years, and in all that time I’ve heard a number of very strange & woo-filled explanations for why people can accomplish the physical feats they can.  One such example is breaking wooden boards with the bare hands & feet – often people provide an explanation by referencing so-called “chi, ki, or qigong energy”. The whole concept of chi is more of a philosophical concept than anything else, and it is little more than a “dragon-in-the-garage” (an untestable notion that cannot be verified through scientific means).

karate chop

Well, I’m here to tell you that such physical feats as board breaking can be performed & explained simply by referencing the known laws of physics – no woo required.  Take a look at the video of me performing such a break with five pine boards at once…

How do I accomplish this feat?  Here’s how: I hit the boards really hard – the question is how do I generate such a large force of impact?  Read on…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

“Proof” of the Loch Ness Monster? Hardly…

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 29, 2009

Oh please… another news story about the Loch Ness Monster. How many times do we have to be subjected to the inane mutterings of cryptozoologists claiming to see “proof” of these mythical creatures in the most grainy of photographs?

Apparently, at least one more time…

loch ness monster

This amazing image on Google Earth could be the elusive proof that the Loch Ness Monster exists.

Sun reader Jason Cooke spotted “Nessie” while browsing the Web site’s satellite photos.

The shape seen on the surface of the 22-mile Scottish loch is 65ft long and appears to have an oval body, a tail and four legs or flippers.

Some experts believe Nessie may be a Plesiosaur, an extinct marine reptile with a shape like the Google image.

“This is really intriguing. It needs further study,” said researcher Adrian Shine, of the Loch Ness Project.

Sightings have been claimed for centuries.

To see the object, enter co-ordinates Latitude 57°12’52.13″N, Longitude 4°34’14.16″W in Google Earth.

You’ve got to be kidding me…

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Posted in cryptozoology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

The Physics of the Bed of Nails: No Woo Required

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 22, 2009

When I was at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas recently, I participated in the first TAM Talent Show.  My skit focused upon a favorite physics demonstration and gave me an excellent opportunity to teach some skepticism: the Bed of Nails. Having performed this demonstration about 40-50 times throughout my teaching career, I decided it was time to take things to the big stage :)

The demonstration is simple, and dangerousIT SHOULD NOT BE ATTEMPTED WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION!!! In it, I lay down upon a bed of nails, have a second bed of nails placed atop my stomach & chest, have a concrete cinder block placed atop that, and – last but not least – have an assistant break the block with a 10-lb sledgehammer!  Here’s some slow motion footage of the demo at the TAM Talent Show…

Moments later, I got up off the bed of nails with no damage at all – pretty impressive stuff!  Here’s a photo of my chest seconds after the demo…


The bed of nails has a history of woo – there are some in the martial arts community who claim that their chi or “life force” protects them from injury.  Others, such as gurus in India, claim that the only reason they are uninjured is because of the specific type of meditation they perform.  But a simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to explain what’s going on here – and it doesn’t have anything to do with chi, mysticism, or anything supernatural.

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The “Ghost” of Michael Jackson

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 6, 2009

Oh please… apparently, the ghost of Michael Jackson is now making the rounds.  That is, according to numerous slavering fans who have apparently thrown their brains right out the window.

I mean, we all knew it was going to happen (just like it has with other famous people, like Elvis), but I was holding out hope that it might take at least a bit longer than this so the news cycle wouldn’t have another reason to go on and on and on about MJ.  Arrrgh.

Anyway, here is the news story is making the rounds on the Internet (say, he sort of does look like a ghost)…

Ghost of Michael Jackson cures fan of fatal illness?

One rather expected consequence of the passing of the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson is a rash of alleged sightings of Jackson’s ghost.

From the Philippines to Mexico, From Japan to the United States fans have been claiming to have been visited by Michael’s spirit.

Good grief!  As if this isn’t bad enough, it seems that some folks are making even crazier claims – namely that the King of Pop has miraculously cured them of their ailments!

Angelina Ramos, aged 38, a beautician and Manila native has been a serious Jackson fan ‘all her life’.  Last year never-married Angelina contracted a rare blood disease. Doctors gave her a ninety percent chance of not surviving for more than a year.

Angelina was shattered when her hero died. Two days after Jackson’s passing Angelina woke up at night and felt a presence in her bedroom. She sat up and felt a hand pull her back down. She looked up and she saw her hero.

‘He looked radiant, at peace, absolutely beautiful. It was Michael for sure. He had a warm smile on his on his face’ said Angelina.

‘I was both stunned and at the same time uplifted’

I wonder how long until there are calls for the Vatican to give MJ sainthood?  But, believe me folks, it gets even better…

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

What is it?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 14, 2009

I frequent the JREF Forum quite a bit, and if you’re at all into skepticism and whatnot, I suggest you go over to check it out sometime. Anyway, recently someone posted an interesting photo there and essentially asked: “What is it?”


No doubt you can see what I see – a strange light which seems to be among or beyond the branches of the tree. It appears to be a ghostly entity sometimes referred to as a “spirit orb” by some woo-proponents; others will insist that it is some kind of UFO or alien craft. I’ve seen some posters on the JREF Forum (not all are skeptics) seriously make these arguments – no kidding.

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Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »


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