The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘gravity’

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 »

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  He worked out the fundamentals of calculus, though his work went unpublished for more than 30 years.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! 🙂

Posted in humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

More Media Fail and Silliness: Lunar Effect Babies

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2011

This week there’s been a story going around the media about a supposedly huge jump in births in a Sacramento hospital where “45 babies were delivered in 48 hours.”  Now that may or may not sound very unusual (it ends up it isn’t that strange – read on), but the really weird aspect of this is the claim made by the hospital officials with nary a skeptical thought:

“The human body is 80 percent water, after all. And, given that both menstruation and ovulation roughly follow a lunar cycle – occurring on a monthly basis – it doesn’t seem too far off to think that the moon could have a say in childbirth as well,” hospital officials said.

And, of course, the supposed mechanism for this “lunar effect”, as espoused by the hospital spokesman, is gravitational in nature:
According to the news release, the moon’s gravitational pull “can control a woman’s body” the same way the moon’s gravity controls tides.
*Cue spooky music…
Image courtesy of

First of all, the fact that 45 babies were born in 48 hours is not that significant.  Note the article states that there have been a total of 325,000 babies delivered at the hospital since 1937.  If you do the math, then this comes out to an average of about 12 babies per day – compared to the claim in the article (which basically averages out to about 22 or 23 babies in one day), this seems not very extraordinary because it shows that there was a weekend where the hospital had only double the average number of births!  100 times the average number of births would be statistically significant, but not 2 times the average.

Then there’s the stupid claim about the “lunar effect”.  Not only is this a bogus claim – click here to see why not – but it is also implausible from the standpoint of basic physics.  The hospital spokesman makes a common claim about the “lunar effect” being gravitational in nature, like the tidal effects on the Earth’s oceans.  However, if one takes a moment to work through the mathematics, this arguments falls apart pretty quickly.  For example, I perform the calculations for the tidal effects of the moon (whether it is full or not is irrelevant) on a person in my physics classes, and it ends up the tidal forces that act upon a person are stupendously small – about one-billionth the weight of a paperclip!  So whether or not you decide to wear a hat or use hair gel on any given day has more gravitational influence on you than does the tides from the moon!

That’s because the strength of the tidal forces that act on an object are proportional to the size of that object.  In the case of a large planet, like the Earth, the relative difference between gravity from one side of the planet to the other (this difference is the tide itself) is pretty big since the Earth is big.  But humans are so small on this size scale that the difference in gravity (tide) on us is miniscule.

So the next time you gaze upwards and see the full moon, appreciate it for all its beauty and wonder.  But don’t worry about it making you crazy; the failure of the media to accurately report science is a bigger threat of making you nuts 😉

Posted in astrology, mathematics, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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



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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 62 Comments »

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 »

Double-Whammy of Stupid Regarding the Japanese Earthquake

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 25, 2011

I’ve been sitting on this a bit, but I can’t take it anymore.  Beyond the idiocy being bantered about much of the media concerning the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, there is an entire other layer of stupid superimposed atop that: it’s about what caused the earthquake in the first place and future effects (i.e. “mega”-quakes) resulting from the Japanese quake.

The first bit of pseudoscientific flummery comes from various physics cranks & astrological weirdos who seem to have been going on and on about something called the “Supermoon”.  Here’s a great Bad Astronomy article (written March 11th, 2011) taking down why this Supermoon nonsense is Super-Stupid…

No, the “supermoon” didn’t cause the Japanese earthquake

… The idea of the Moon affecting us on Earth isn’t total nonsense, but it cannot be behind this earthquake, and almost certainly won’t have any actual, measurable effect on us on March 19, when the full Moon is at its closest.

So, how can I be so sure?

The gravity of the situation

Here’s the deal. The Moon orbits the Earth in an ellipse, so sometimes it’s closer to us and sometimes farther away. At perigee (closest point) it can be as close as 354,000 km (220,000 miles). At apogee, it can be as far as 410,000 km (254,000 miles). Since the Moon orbits the Earth every month or so, it goes between these two extremes every two weeks. So if, say, it’s at apogee on the first of the month, it’ll be at perigee in the middle of the month, two weeks later.

The strength of gravity depends on distance, so the gravitational effects of the Moon on the Earth are strongest at perigee.

However, the Moon is nowhere near perigee right now! [Note: This article was written on March 11th, the same date as the Japanese earthquake]

The Moon was at apogee on March 6, and will be at perigee on March 19. When the earthquake in Japan hit last night, the Moon was about 400,000 km (240,000 miles) away. So not only was it not at its closest point, it was actually farther away than it usually is on average.

So again, this earthquake in Japan had nothing to do with the Moon…

The second bit of nonsense which is making the rounds on the Internet is an article published in Newsweek magazine stating that the Japanese earthquake makes it more likely there will be a super-duper “mega-quake” which will, among other things, flatten California & the west coast of the United States.  Sadly, this is yet another example of media fail on a scientific topic, because had the writer (supposedly a “journalist”, but actually someone who doesn’t deserve that title) of the Newsweek article taken just a little time to check his facts, he would have seen that such an idea is nonsense. has a great take down of this fiasco…

Bogus Claim: Japan Earthquake Won’t Trigger a California Quake

An unfounded scientific assertion by a nonscientist has swept across the Web like a tsunami over the past few days. In an article in Newsweek, writer Simon Winchester claimed that the 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake, following close on the heels of recent quakes in New Zealand and Chile, has ratcheted up the chances of a catastrophic seismic event striking in California.

In his article, “The Scariest Earthquake Is Yet to Come,” Winchester pointed out that all three of those recent earthquakes occurred along faults on the edge of the Pacific Plate — the giant tectonic puzzle piece under the Pacific Ocean — and that this also butts up against the North American plate along the San Andreas Fault.

“[A] significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often … followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side,” he wrote. “Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate — one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year. That leaves just one corner unaffected — the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco.” …

Of course, the actual journalists (not the hacks who seem to pump out useless bilge called “science reporting” at Newsweek) at check with real scientists on the question, and here’s what they found:

… “There is no evidence for a connection between all of the Pacific Rim earthquakes,” Nathan Bangs, a geophysicist who studies tectonic processes at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, told Life’s Little Mysteries. “I don’t know what the basis is for the statements and implications in the Newsweek article, but there is no evidence that there is a link.”

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earthquake geologist David Schwartz, who heads the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project, concurred. “Simon Winchester is a popular science writer, not a scientist,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying we won’t have an earthquake here in California at some point in the future, but there really is no physical connection between these earthquakes.” …

… Rich Briggs, a USGS geologist whose work focuses on how earthquakes happen, explained another way in which earthquakes can cascade. “The other way earthquakes affect their neighbors is that when a fault ruptures, it sends out seismic waves that in the case of large earthquakes can even circle the globe. In some cases, this ‘dynamic stress transfer’ increases seismicity,” Briggs told Life’s Little Mysteries. “But that only happens as waves go by, in the minutes that it takes the waves to travel out from the fault zone.” …

… So when will a major earthquake strike California? “Based on models taking into account the long-term rate of slip on the San Andreas fault and the amount of offset that occurred on the fault in 1906, the best guess is that 1906-type earthquakes occur at intervals of about 200 years,” Robert Williams, USGS seismologist, wrote in an email. “Because of the time needed to accumulate slip equal to a 20-foot offset, there is only a small chance (about 2 percent) that such an earthquake could occur in the next 30 years.” …

The Japanese earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and all the related pain, suffering, and death is a horrible tragedy that the world will no doubt be grappling with for many years to come.  However, in order for us to deal with these inevitable & uncontrollable tragedies, we must use the best tools at our disposal.  These tools include addressing things from a careful, rational, scientific, and fact-based view, not by appealing to our more primitive notions of superstition & fear-mongering.  One works, the other doesn’t: take a guess which is which.

Posted in astrology, doomsday, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Asteroid Apophis to Hit Earth in 2036? Calm Down, the Sky is NOT Falling

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 9, 2011

In recent days, one of the more popular news stories flying around the Internet has to do with a supposed “doomsday” asteroid called Apophis. And, according to some idiotic journalists who seem to want to push a sensationalistic “news” story, this asteroid is going to hit the Earth in 2036 with devastating consequences – in short, they say this is going to happen…

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is, to use the scientifically-accurate phrase, a complete load of crap. That’s because the original story, which came via a Russian “news” outlet, has been completely and thoroughly refuted by NASA and scientists worldwide…

Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch.

Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036. These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be?

In answer to that question, I think we shouldn’t really be scared at all.  When you crunch the latest numbers, the probability that Apophis will actually impact the Earth in 2036 is about 1-in-250,000.  If you work that out to a percentage, it comes out to a 0.0004% chance the asteroid will hit Earth.  That’s a pretty slim chance, and certainly nothing to get all upset about, in my opinion.

Let’s think of it this way: compare the probability that Apophis will hit Earth in 2036 with the chances of other unfortunate events (as reported by Popular Science magazine)…

Lifetime odds of dying from:

Any accident: 1 in 36

A motor vehicle accident: 1 in 81

A firearm: 1 in 202

Poisoning: 1 in 344

A falling object (terrestrial): 1 in 4,873

Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 10,455

Being caught in or between objects: 1 in 29,860

Suffocation by a plastic bag: 1 in 130,498

So that means that you are about twice as likely to die by being suffocated in a plastic bag as compared to the chances that this “killer” asteroid Apophis will wipe out planet Earth.  Stop and think about that for a moment… now, are you suddenly going to start demanding the recall of all plastic bags from society in order to protect humanity?  No?  Good.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I think the issue of tracking & cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) is a very important one, precisely because we have solid evidence that NEOs such as asteroids & comet fragments can and do hit the Earth.  In fact, this happens all the time, but the regular impacts are from smaller objects; the big, “planet-killer” type objects are fewer in number so the chances of one coming our way is comparatively small.  But it could happen, and with the implications being what they are (i.e., the destruction of human civilization on Earth being among the worst-case scenarios) it would be prudent for us to invest at least some resources into these questions.  And we have invested such resources into NASA’s NEO Program.

So, in conclusion, is the sky falling with regards to Apophis?  No.

Should you go buying your own “asteroid apocalypse” bunker?  No.

Should we then turn a blind eye to the potential threat of NEOs?  No.

Should we invest a reasonable amount of money into researching this issue?  Yes.

Interestingly enough, one thing we really can do when Apophis makes its closest approach to Earth in 2036 is use the opportunity to learn more about asteroids and the early solar system.  In fact, some scientists already have plans to use Apophis as an amazing research opportunity!

If you’d like to know more about Apophis, and the related physics & astronomy behind it, I suggest taking a look at this entry over at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

Posted in doomsday, media woo, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How’d the Moon Get There?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 2, 2011

Recently, I’ve posted about how Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly displayed a great deal of scientific ignorance when he tried to argue that God exists because “we cannot explain the tides”.  Of course, scientists do know how the tides work (as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states: it’s gravity from the Moon, duh); but rather than admit his error, Bill O’Reilly has decided to double down on the stupid.  Just watch this…

Once again, O’Reilly makes the all-too-common argument from ignorance, specifically the god-of-the-gaps argument. Of course, we actually do have scientific answers to many of the questions brought up by Mr. O’Reilly.  Let us examine some of his statements/claims… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Bill O’Reilly’s “Tides = God” Argument is Demolished by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2011

As a humorous follow-up to my recent post called God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly, I just wanted to share a hilarious clip from The Colbert Report with you.  In it, Colbert does a marvelous job of, in his satirical way, calling Bill O’Reilly to the carpet on his god-of-the-gaps argument when he says:

Now, like all great theologies, Bill’s can be boiled down to one sentence: “There must be a God, because I don’t know how things work!”

In addition, Stephen Colbert is surprised when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson drops by for a visit and explains why the tides actually work 🙂 …

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