The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘force’

Merry Newtonmass!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 23, 2011

It’s almost December 25th, and while some people are celebrating certain holidays (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti!), one thing I like to do is take a little time to recognize one of the greatest contributors to modern science: Sir Isaac Newton.  Newton was born on December 25th, 1642 (according to the old-style Julian calendar)…

I totally stole this image from Skeptico 🙂

Isaac Newton was an English physicist and mathematician.  The son of a yeoman, he was raised by his grandmother.  He was educated at Cambridge University (1661-1665), where he discovered the work of Rene Descartes.  His experiments passing sunlight through a prism led to the discovery of the heterogeneous, corpuscular nature of white light and laid the foundation of physical optics.  He built the first reflecting telescope in 1668 and became a professor of mathematics at Cambridge in 1669.  He worked out the fundamentals of calculus, though his work went unpublished for more than 30 years.  His most famous publication, The Principia Mathematica (1687), describes his works on the laws of motion (now named for Newton), orbital dynamics, tidal theory, and the theory of universal gravitation, and is regarded as the seminal work of modern science.  He was elected president of the Royal Society of London in 1703 and became the first scientist ever to be knighted in 1705.  During his career he engaged in heated arguments with several of his colleagues, including Robert Hooke (with whom he argued over authorship of the inverse-square relation of gravity) and Gottfried Leibniz (over the authorship of calculus).

Of course, while Newton was certainly no saint (he had a reputation for being kind of a nasty guy, especially to his academic opponents, and he also dabbled in alchemy, Biblical numerology, divination, the occult and many other things we’d consider quite woo-ish today), we can see from his accomplishments listed above just why he is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of all time, and it is for those contributions to humanity that we remember him.

So this December 25th, take some time to raise a glass, and perhaps admire a falling apple, to toast Isaac Newton and his legacy.  Cheers! 🙂

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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 🙂

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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 »

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