The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘flame’

The Dark Side of Ghost-Hunting

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2013

I’ve posted many times before about so-called ghost hunters and ghost hunting, and much of the time it has been in either good fun (by spoofing them) or a bit more serious in challenging them to be more rigorous in their methodology.  However, in this post I want to point out the danger(s) involved in ghost hunting; as is so often illustrated on the What’s The Harm? website, when people buy into pseudoscientific and non-critical thinking, it can have profoundly negative effects.

Case in point: recently some moronic ghost hunters in New Orleans decided that in order to get the spirits supposedly inhabiting an old mansion from the 1850s to “come out and play” that they needed to set fire to the place.  The result: it completely burned to the ground…

Ghost Hunters Burn Down Historic Mansion

… The mansion, built in the 1850s, had survived through many incarnations, operating as a boarding house, a hotel and even an illegal gambling house. Though the mansion had been shuttered in recent years, its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, had plans to renovate the building. …

… The fire at LeBeau broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday, Nov. 21, and the building was almost completely destroyed by the time firefighters arrived. The ghost hunters had been trying to produce a reaction from the spirits they assumed resided there, by doing what TV ghost hunters call “provocation,” essentially making loud noises, yelling taunts at the ghosts and banging on walls. Frustrated that their efforts failed to yield any spirits, the group decided to light a fire. Whether this was intended to smoke the spirits out or simply burn the place down, the resulting flames soon reduced the mansion to ashes and four brick chimneys.

While many ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, as this case shows, there can be a dark, dangerous side to the pursuit. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured and even killed while looking for ghosts.

In 2006, a woman was critically wounded looking for ghosts in a private house near a cemetery; she and a friend were trespassing, and the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot them. In 2010, a North Carolina man died while ghost hunting with a group of friends, hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man who couldn’t get out of the way in time. … [emphasis added]

Note the backwards thinking here: the ghost hunters in question were so hell-bent on “proving” the existence of the ghosts supposedly haunting this mansion that, when all else failed, they actually burnt the damn place down!  It is revealing that the thought that perhaps there were no ghosts/spirits in the place at all seems to have never occurred to them, so strong was their confirmation bias in favor of all evidence pointing towards the existence of the ghosts/spirits…

facepalm

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Firewalking is Just Physics, Not Mysticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 28, 2011

Fire is cool… well, not cool, because it’s actually pretty damned hot.  But what I mean is fire is really interesting to watch – what kid hasn’t at some point been fascinated simply staring into the depths of a campfire?  Do you know what’s more interesting?… the fact that some people actually like to walk on fire.  This in and of itself is just all-around awesome, but then some woo-meisters have to go and spoil it with a bunch of made-up New Age nonsense.  The purpose of this blog post is to show you why firewalking really works.

My skeptical physics colleague David Willey shows his stuff, sacrificing himself for science.  **THIS IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND SHOULD NOT BE PERFORMED WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION**

And just to show you that I put my money where my mouth is, below is a video shot of me and my colleagues performing an experimental firewalk back in the summer of 1999…

We decided that we wanted to study the physics of firewalking for ourselves and made this video as a way of documenting the effect. There are (were) two basic competing, scientifically plausible ideas for why it is that firewalkers are not too damaged by the high temperatures during the walk across hot coals: low thermal conductivity and the Leidenfrost effect.

In the first hypothesis, it is the low thermal conductivity of ash, wooden coals, charcoal, or rocks that the firewalker traverses in their journey. Even though the temperatures are extremely high (on the order of 500-800 degrees Fahrenheit), the low thermal conductivity means the rate at which heat will transfer from the hot material to the walker’s feet is very slow. This is why when you check out a baking cake in the oven it is okay to touch the batter but not the metallic pan – the thermal conductivity of the cake batter is low whereas that of the metal pan is very high!

In the second hypothesis, the Leidenfrost effect protects the walker’s feet. The Leidenfrost effect is the same thing that prevents your finger from being burned when you touch a hot iron with a wet finger. The hot iron turns the spit into steam which forms a temporary insulating layer between the iron and the finger. In this argument, the sweat on the walker’s feet is what is vaporized and then protects the feet from the hot coals.

In the video we tested out these two ideas, and we found the Leidenfrost effect to be inadequate to explain the phenomenon. It is the low thermal conductivity of the coals which prevented our feet from being too damaged – I walked a total of four times, three times dry and once with very wet feet. After three dry walks my feet were fine, with only one very small blister (half the size of a pinky nail, barely visible on the video) on one foot, but during the walk with wet feet, to test out the Leidenfrost effect, I found the coals sticking to my feet… OUCH!!! That is where I got badly burned (which is apparent by the very end of the video).

One thing we found was clear: we successfully negotiated the fire bed without any appeals to New Age mysticism or supernaturalism – no prayers were muttered, no crystals stroked, and we never even bothered to measure our “chi” levels. Such appeals to woo are simply not necessary to explain what is happening here – in fact, I have a challenge: if any New Age firewalking guru wants to really convince me that they have paranormal powers, then they’ll walk barefoot across red hot METAL!

I submit that no one will ever seriously attempt such a stupid feat, and even if they did I guarantee they’ll only do it once 😉

For more information on the physics of firewalking, I suggest reading Dr. David Willey’s page at http://www.pitt.edu/~dwilley/Fire/FireTxt/fire.html

 

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