The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘pain’

“Miracle Baby” and God’s Powers

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 14, 2012

So over the last few days there has been a lot of hubbub on the Internet about a supposed “miracle baby” in Argentina who was thought to be stillborn and left for dead in a morgue.  The thing is that the kid wasn’t actually dead, and she somehow survived there for over 12 hours before being discovered.  And people are calling her a “miracle baby” that somehow proves the existence and goodness of God, blah blah blah…

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great the kid survived (though recent reports show that she may be dying).  But it just bugs the crap out of me when people point to events like this as some kind of “proof” of God’s omnipotence and goodness.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it blatantly ignores the big and classical problem of evil and suffering in the world.  Why would a “good” God allow such a thing to happen to this little baby in the first place?

Or, to put a little more punch to my point and as a way of balancing out this topic with a harsh dose of reality, allow me to share the following picture which is worth more than a thousand words…

Image source

And another thing this whole story got me thinking about: it seems to me that the standards people have for so-called “miracles” have been dropping.  I’ve heard people declare that “it was a miracle their headache went away”; are you kidding me?  I’m an atheist and all I have to do to get over a headache is… wait.  Maybe your claim to a “miracle” might be a bit more impressive if you had your arm hacked off in an industrial accident and it magically regrew after you prayed.  To put this whole criticism of miracles into perspective, allow me to share this humorous graphic 🙂

Thanks to Irreligion.org

Posted in philosophy, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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

 

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

 
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