The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘qi’

Physics and Martial Arts: My Interview with The Secular Buddhist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 8, 2011

While I was at Dragon*Con in Atlanta last month, I did a lot of things.  Among them was to be interviewed by my friend and skeptical colleague Ted Meissner, a.k.a. The Secular Buddhist.  For a long time, Ted and I have wanted to do a discussion on physics and the martial arts, because we are both skeptics and have a history of martial arts training.  And, believe me, if you have been engaged in martial arts training for a considerable amount of time, chances are that you’ve heard some really goofy claims out there.  From “no-touch knockouts” to “shielding with chi”, there’s a lot of nonsense being spread around in the martial arts world, and Ted, me, and Brian Gregory (of Virtual Drinking Skeptically) take it all on.  Enjoy! 🙂

Episode 85 :: Matt Lowry and Brian Gregory :: Physics and Martial Arts

Matt Lowry the Skeptical Teacher, and Brian Gregory of Virtual Drinking Skeptically join us to talk about the myths and facts of the physics of martial arts.

I remember a television show called “That’s Incredible”, and indeed it was. One particular episode had a self-proclaimed martial arts master, James Hydrick who could — supposedly — move pencils and turn phone book pages with his extra-normal powers. This was debunked with a few flakes of packing material on another show, showing how this charlatan was simply using his breath to cause objects to move.

But there are people who mistakenly believe their own press, who think they really do have supernatural powers, or that they are enhancing their strength with invisible fields of cosmic energy. As you can see in one of the embedded videos on the web page for this episode, one fellow comes drastically close to severing his own arm because of this unfounded delusion. It is important for us to question with confidence, to ask for evidence, or else all claims are equally true, and equally, potentially, harmful.

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry is a high school physics teacher (plus a part-time physics & astronomy college professor) with a strong interest in promoting science education & critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” His blog The Skeptical Teacher is to allow Matt to expound upon various topics related to skepticism, science, and education.

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory is a software engineer that has recently discovered that most of his assumptions about life are wrong; including beliefs, expectations, roles, etc. This transformation, fueled by the Internet, Social Media, Podcasts, and traditional media, has sparked his passion for science, reason, and the naturalistic worldview. Drinking Skeptically is “an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals”. These “real life” groups meet around the country to provide an opportunity for skeptics and skeptic-friendly people to talk, share ideas (and yes, drink) in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.

In case you didn’t notice the Explicit tag in iTunes on this episode, let me just give you an extra warning here: this is an explicit episode. We’re not talking porn, but there may be a light seasoning of expletives. Also be sure to check out the episode page for this episode on The Secular Buddhist website, as I’ve embedded a lot of the videos we talk about on that page. So, sit back, relax, and have a nice… skeptical drink of you choice!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 🙂

Posted in physics denial/woo, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

I’m Now a Believer in Chi

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 29, 2010

Well, I don’t know about you, folks, but I’ve been converted from a skeptic to a believer in chi, ki, qi, qi gong, “life force energy”, or whatever you want to call it.  I know that many times I’ve stated publicly on this blog that, whether you’re talking about breaking boards, laying on beds of nails, or walking barefoot on glass shards, such amazing physical feats have absolutely nothing to this chi stuff, but I can do so no longer.  You see, I’ve been convinced by irrefutable & unquestionable evidence that this chi business is the real deal.

So how was I, a die-hard skeptic, convinced of the undeniable reality of chi?  Simple really… I just saw the most amazing video on Youtube!!!

Wow… now I might have to give all that stuff about crystal power a second look, too.

Hat tip to UncaYimmy from the JREF Forum for sharing this little gem of a video with me.  It was so cute I had to pass it along 🙂


Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher Displays Awesomeness at Skepchicamp!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2010

Well, I’ve had a couple of days to process all that took place during the first Chicago SkeptiCamp, also known as Skepchicamp. In addition to outlining what I contributed, I’d also like to provide some of the thoughts & feedback from others in attendance…

My presentation, titled Bringing Skepticism into the Physics Classroom, was a display of my belief in “sacrificing myself for science” whereby I perform a variety of extraordinary and dangerous demonstrations in the hopes of dispelling any notions of paranormal woo.  Specifically, I performed three impressive physical feats: walking barefoot on broken glass, breaking five wooden boards with my fist, and laying between two beds of nails while a concrete cinder block is crushed on my chest. Talk about fun times! 🙂

As I told the audience, when I perform these demos for my students I’m not proving that there is no such thing as chi/ki/qi or whatever other New Age “life force” paranormal woo-woo is often invoked to explain these phenomena.  Instead, what I’m encouraging my students to do is simply apply Occam’s Razor to the scenario: their understanding of basic physics is all that is necessary to explain things… no woo required.

For a fuller view of the awesomeness I displayed, check out this great footage shot during my presentation (hat tip to the Bolingbrook Babbler)…

… and here’s another one from a fellow Skepchicamp organizer…

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

Good News – Alt-Med Gets Whacked in 2009

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 6, 2010

It looks like, upon looking back at the year 2009, that in many ways it was a good one for science & skepticism – at least, it was good for medical science.  That’s because, according to a breakdown by, various forms of alt-med woo woo got a well-deserved smackdown.  That’s because a number of popular alt-med ideas were – gasp!actually tested out under controlled conditions to see if they actually do what their practitioners claim.  Let’s look at the results…


Reiki is a spiritual practice developed in Japan in the early 20th century that, in the hands of Westerners, has evolved into a new-age healing practice. Popular in Hawaii and California by the 1970s, reiki has since become a staple at health spas and in granola-loving cities across the United States.

Reiki involves a practitioner (that is, someone who has taken a couple days of training) who places her hands on or just above a patient’s body to transmit healing energy — the “ki” or reiki, better known as qi in Chinese traditional medicine. Reiki has all the trappings of new-age healing: restoring balance and instilling life energy through mysticism and/or vibrational energy. Akin to a hands-off massage, reiki is said to relieve stress, fatigue and depression and promote self-healing for just about any disease, including cancer.

The two largest scientific reviews of reiki, published last year in International Journal of Clinical PracticeJournal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, reveal that reiki is not an effective treatment for any condition. and in November 2009 in the Also in 2009, the U.S. Catholic Church weighed in, stating at a March meeting of bishops that, “since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for… Catholic health care facilities… to provide support for Reiki therapy.”

Reiki is not an outright scam; the practitioners seem to believe in what they are doing. In the end the soft music and whispery speech of the practitioners during the reiki sessions merely helps one relax.

Well, regardless of the Catholic Church’s theological opinion on reiki, one thing is clear: the science shows that, despite the fervent belief held by its practitioners, reiki doesn’t work. I can wave my hands in the air just as well as a “qualified” reiki practitioner and achieve exactly the same results… nothing at all. What’s next?

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Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

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…

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Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

The Physics of the Bed of Nails: No Woo Required

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 22, 2009

When I was at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas recently, I participated in the first TAM Talent Show.  My skit focused upon a favorite physics demonstration and gave me an excellent opportunity to teach some skepticism: the Bed of Nails. Having performed this demonstration about 40-50 times throughout my teaching career, I decided it was time to take things to the big stage 🙂

The demonstration is simple, and dangerousIT SHOULD NOT BE ATTEMPTED WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION!!! In it, I lay down upon a bed of nails, have a second bed of nails placed atop my stomach & chest, have a concrete cinder block placed atop that, and – last but not least – have an assistant break the block with a 10-lb sledgehammer!  Here’s some slow motion footage of the demo at the TAM Talent Show…

Moments later, I got up off the bed of nails with no damage at all – pretty impressive stuff!  Here’s a photo of my chest seconds after the demo…


The bed of nails has a history of woo – there are some in the martial arts community who claim that their chi or “life force” protects them from injury.  Others, such as gurus in India, claim that the only reason they are uninjured is because of the specific type of meditation they perform.  But a simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to explain what’s going on here – and it doesn’t have anything to do with chi, mysticism, or anything supernatural.

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

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