The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘field’

Solving the Mystery Behind “Mystery Houses”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2012

Years ago I performed an impromptu investigation of the Montana Vortex, a roadside attraction whose proprieters claim that there is actually some kind of weird adjustment to the laws of physics in order to account for the strange goings on there.  Like many such attractions, the folks who run the Montana Vortex have a “mystery house” where the effect of gravity seems to be lop-sided.  But while this is obviously an illusion, it certainly feels real…

Thanks to a follower of this blog (@denatureSD on Twitter), I saw this recent Science Friday video from YouTube which nicely explains this phenomenon.  Enjoy! 🙂


Posted in ghosts & paranormal, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Higgs Boson Lecture at Dragon*Con 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2012

While at Dragon*Con 2012, I gave an incredibly well-attended lecture (standing room only!) on the recent “discovery”(?) of the Higgs boson and our modern theories of particle physics (known as the Standard Model).  The lecture was followed by a very fruitful Q&A session which was made all the more interesting because attending the lecture was an engineer who actually works on a detector at the Large Hadron Collider and a theoretical particle physicist!

I recorded the audio of the lecture in order to share it, and I have embedded that audio into the PowerPoint file I used for my lecture.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Higgs Boson – DC Lecture with Audio

Posted in philosophy, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet 🙂

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Placebo Band Bracelets and Opportunity for Easy Skeptical Activism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 14, 2011

I have written before on this blog about the scam called Power-Balance, and how that company has raked in huge gobs of cash by essentially lying to its customers.  In fact, in Australia the company has basically been banned for false advertising, and fortunately more and more people are cluing in to this nonsense here in the United States.  But to help along everyone’s critical thinking skills as well as expose the Power-Balance for the scam that it is, I want to pass along to you a wonderful opportunity to engage in some easy and fun skeptical activism.  Dear reader, I give you the Placebo Band!

The Placebo Band: image courtesy of SkepticBros

There are two outlets for the Placebo Band, the original one at SkepticBros out of Australia and a new North American affiliate at the Placebo Band Store.  In addition, you can find testimonials on the power of  the Placebo Band, as well as instructions on how to educate your friends on how the whole thing works (hint: think placebo effect, hence the name 😉 )

For example, here’s a real* testimonial on the power of the Placebo Band.  Order yours today!!!

*And by “real”, I mean totally fake 🙂

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

Nick Nelson Fails IIG Test to Produce “Vortex Energy”

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 3, 2011

As I outlined mere days ago, the master spinner of all things having to do with so-called “vortex energy” – the notable Nick Nelson – had finally agreed to be tested by the Independent Investigation Group from Los Angeles.  Mr. Nelson traveled to IIG’s headquarters – claiming that he could bring his “vortex powers” with him from the Montana Vortex (a location that I investigated in 2006 and found to be hilariously full of woo & nonsense).  And after he got to IIG, he allowed himself to be tested according to the protocols that both he & the IIG team agreed to ahead of time.

The result: Nick Nelson failed.  Badly.  And he admitted it.

And it’s all on video:

Nick Nelson talks with the IIG’s Jim Underdown before the test begins.

In addition, Mark Edward – a member of the IIG team that tested Nick Nelson – put together a very nice & detailed blog on the whole experience at Skepticblog.  Here’s a couple of noteworthy excerpts…

… Hours of set-up, conferences and phone calls finally paid off with even more long hours of watching a grown man move magnets around the floor, stand stock still while swinging a pendulum over his hand and listening to albeit some great anecdotes about how his world has so many times “blinked” when he has experienced what he calls the “vortex phenomena.’

Unfortunately when the rules of science are applied, in this case careful measurements (really careful: using engineering calipers) of photographs; first before the creation of the fabled vortex using eight foot high wooden poles, then photos snapped and immediately developed, nothing showed up other than what would be expected from discrepancies consistent with human eye variation that were averaged mathematically and compared. …

… The best part for me as Lead Investigator was watching Nick get flustered and finally state to all present the he “…felt like a fool” when nothing happened. What did he expect?

It’s a freaking optical Illusion!

Well said, Mark.  While I must admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude at Nick Nelson’s failure (I had, after all, figured out five years ago, on an impromptu investigation of my own, how his tricks at the Montana Vortex worked), I also feel just a wee bit sad for Mr. Nelson.  I get the sense that he probably believes what he says, and that he has believed it for so long that he is going to have a helluva time trying to rationalize away the stone cold fact that his “vortex energy” claims simply don’t work.

Perhaps Mr. Nelson and others like him who have their paranormal claims tested by folks like the IIG and fail at those claims should consider the wise words of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick:

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Vortex Master Nick Nelson Accepts Skeptical IIG Challenge

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 29, 2011

I just wanted to update everyone about a very interesting development concerning the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery and the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) – you may recall that I blogged about this initially last summer, when it seemed an investigative team from IIG might go to the Montana Vortex to test their paranormal claims.  Well, it seems that vortex expert of the Montana Vortex, Mr. Nick Nelson, has finally agreed to the terms of IIG’s $50,000 challenge:

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG works with the applicant in designing the test protocol, and defining the conditions under which a test will take place. IIG representatives will then administer the actual test. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform an informal demonstration of the claimed ability or phenomenon, which if successful will be followed by the formal test. The IIG conducts all demonstrations and tests at our site in Hollywood, California, except in special circumstances.

However, there is a twist.  Apparently, Nick Nelson has traveled to Los Angeles to conduct the test, as opposed to the IIG team going to Montana – this is because, in addition to all manner of other interesting claims he makes, Nick Nelson now seems to be claiming that “his vortex” (and its related effects) travels with him!  Wow…

In any case, the IIG is going to be conducting their test of Mr. Nelson’s claims/abilities this Saturday, April 30th.  The test will be streamed live via the Internet, and if you are interested in keeping up with the latest developments on this skeptical investigation you can check for updates at IIG’s investigation page.

Stay tuned 🙂

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bogus Power Balance Bracelets Get PWNed

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

Have you heard about the “Power Balance” bracelet?  It is a supposedly amazing device which, when worn, apparently confers to the wearer greater strength, balance, and flexibility!  Amazing!!!  Just watch this video “proving” the wonders of the Power Balance technology!

The Power Balance technology is supposed to work by…

… harnessing naturally occurring frequencies by programing them into a Mylar hologram.

That’s a quote directly from the Power Balance video above, and it’s complete and utter garbage. Firstly, as a physics professor, I can tell you that the goober in the video peddling this nonsense (and his bosses manufacturing and marketing it) don’t know the first damn thing about “naturally occurring frequencies” or “holograms” – if they did they wouldn’t be putting them into the same sentence.

Second, it is quite easy to definitively show that this whole Power Balance scheme is just a big, fat scam.  Just take a look at how skeptic Richard Saunders and his crew at the SkepticZone demonstrate how the scam works…

Third, it’s not just skeptics like me and Richard Saunders pointing out the scam, but it seems the law in the United States is catching up with the Power Balance charlatans as well.  Just look at this article at the Podblack Cat blog 🙂

Power Balance Bracelet Facing USA Class-Action Lawsuit

It’s official – if you’re in the USA and brought a Power Balance bracelet, you can sign up at

And be a part of the nationwide class-action lawsuit against the makers of the Power Balance bracelet.

Wow, that’s a triple whammy.  Spread the word far and wide about this scam, because these charlatans are actively marketing & selling this bogus product to far too many gullible customers.  Folks, you might as well burn your money for all the good it’ll do you.  In short, I think it is appropriate to deliver the following message to the Power Balance company…

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

A Skeptical Investigation of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 25, 2010

Recently, I was contacted by the Independent Investigation Group (IIG) out of Los Angeles, California, concerning an impromptu skeptical investigation my wife and I had conducted of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery back in the summer of 2006 during our vacation.  Apparently, a man named Nick Nelson (whom I had met briefly at the site) – somewhat of a pseudoscientific guru regarding all New Age “vortex” claims – had contacted IIG about taking them up on their $50,000 Challenge. IIG’s prize follows in the spirit of James Randi’s famous Million Dollar Challenge:

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG works with the applicant in designing the test protocol, and defining the conditions under which a test will take place. IIG representatives will then administer the actual test. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform an informal demonstration of the claimed ability or phenomenon, which if successful will be followed by the formal test. The IIG conducts all demonstrations and tests at our site in Hollywood, California, except in special circumstances.

Well, it seems the folks at IIG could be actually going to the Montana Vortex site, outside of Columbia Falls, Montana, at the request of Nick Nelson to test out the various claims by the proprietors.  If Mr. Nelson can come up with the money to fly some IIG investigators out to Montana and put them up for a couple of days, then perhaps there will be some serious investigation of the supposedly “paranormal” phenomena at the Montana Vortex.  I’m not sure, as of this writing, whether or not IIG and Nick Nelson have finalized any plans, so stay tuned for more info.

**Note: the IIG investigators want me to make clear in no uncertain terms that Nick Nelson initiated discussion of their $50,000 Challenge with them, and not the other way around!

Anyway, as I stated earlier, the IIG folks contacted me, because they heard (probably through this post I made on the JREF Forum) about my desire to send the results of my off-the-cuff skeptical analysis to James Randi.  They wanted my notes to see what I thought of the tricks & optical illusions (that’s all they are, in my professional opinion as a physics professor) taking place at the Montana Vortex, and I eagerly shared them with IIG.  And I shall also share them with you here.  I hope you enjoy the read… 🙂

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments »

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