February 9, 2001

The Greeks re-validated, ear-candling comments, Einstein on astrology, that dratted triangle, and a peculiar staircase....

I mentioned some time back the wonderful discovery of an Archimedes palimpsest (look it up!) that has proven to be the earliest transcription of the great philosopher/mathematicianís writings and the only known copy of his "Method of Mechanical Theorems." It is being studied at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, where Iíve had the privilege of seeing it in process of examination. Johns Hopkins University has been studying imaging methods to recover the original text, as well. This remarkable find, overwritten with a Byzantine prayerbook, is the property of a good friend. This transcript was copied from perhaps several copies of the original 200 P.E. document. And, two centuries after it was penned, a monk erased it and re-used the vellum.

Digital photographic techniques in the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths reveal geometrical drawings in addition to the original text. The badly damaged pages, eaten away by various bugs, flora, and chemical deterioration, are slowly giving up their former glory to dedicated technicians from the Xerox Corporation and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Seeing this treasure up close and in person is as close to a religious experience I suppose Iíll ever have.

An exciting new development has emerged in this project, and it serves to establish that those dusty geniuses of early times had other, hitherto unsuspected, talents and insights. I cannot tell you about this right now, not until it has been officially released, but it will cause an appropriate stir in academic circles. Youíll read about it right here, anon.


Darrel Henschell of the Fayetteville Freethinkers in Fayetteville Arkansas writes:

In November we tested a "grave dowser" who claimed to be able to determine the gender of grave occupants. She could have won my $1,000 if she could have identified only 16 of the 20 graves correctly but she only managed a predictable, and slightly under chance, 9 out of 20. [My note: and she would be in the running for the JREF million-dollar prize, too!]

I have recently written a skeptical article on "ear candling" for my monthly column in a local paper.... In my tests I found that not only do ear candles not produce a vacuum, smoke will actually come out of the small unlit end of the candle in some cases.

There are other, even graver, dangers to this process. A reader identified only as "Vince" writes:

A few years ago when I was about 16 or 17 and was with my family for a birthday party, my grandmother happened to mention the practice of "ear-candling" and how her mother used to perform this home remedy on her when she was a child. Inevitably within 10 minutes everyone was melting wax over the stove and forming cone-shaped objects from the soaked cloth. I noted that it did not seem plausible that the burning cone would "create a vacuum and suck the wax out" because I'd seen similarly shaped objects burn previously with no such effect. My suggestion that it might not "be real" was of course met with incredulity, so I suggested a test, mostly similar to the one detailed on your page. One candle would be burnt in a bottle of coke on the table and the other would be used in my right ear. The one in my ear would go first. I remember the burning cone producing very strange noises as it did its "work." When unraveling the rest of the base after the burning top was blown out, I was pretty surprised to see yellow wax inside, and for a moment thought I might be making an idiot of myself because I could see no way that the coke bottle could replicate THAT effect. Five minutes later IT DID! That was the last time we ever did any ear candling and I think we were all the wiser for the experience.

Vince described a serious ear-pain he suffered for two weeks after this episode, and concluded with:

In my opinion ear-candling is not only a useless homeopathic remedy, it is also a very stupid thing to attempt. Sticking random waxen objects in your ear canal and setting them on fire is not only a superb way give yourself an ear infection but it's also a great way to permanently damage your tympanum by DRIPPING HOT WAX ON YOUR INNER EAR! So fair warning, your volunteers might be demanding a little monetary recompense before agreeing to go "under the candle."

Vince, this has nothing whatsoever to do with homeopathy, but itís apparently just as useless. Thanks for your observations! Then from Canada comes this additional negative view of the process. Sandra Yemm, a practitioner of ear candling in that country, explains the technique like this: "You put a special hollow candle at the ear and you light it and it acts like a chimney, like a vacuum pulling up and so it does pull up and out of the ear." But a woman who bought this pitch from another practitioner hardly agrees:

"She told me it was going to clear out earwax. She told me it was going to clear out yeast. She told me it was going to clear my sinuses. And she said that particularly if you're living in an urban environment it helps to clear out a lot of the debris and pollutants that could accumulate inside your ear. I had both ears done and the right ear went fine, didn't appear to have a problem and then the very first few minutes that I was having the left ear done, some hot wax ... rolled into my ear, rolled down through my ear canal, burned my ear canal and adhered itself to my ear drum."

It ultimately took a specialist about four months to clear the wax from her ear entirely.

Toronto ear-nose-and-throat specialist Dr. Rick Fox first heard about ear candling when a patient arrived at his office in incredible pain. The candle had burnt right through his ear, leaving a chunk of wax lodged in it. The patient "had suffered a significant burn throughout his canal and drum. He had perforated his tympanic membrane so we had to do a surgical repair and graft his drum" said Fox, who spent that Christmas day reconstructing the man's ear after it was subjected to a treatment that doesn't work.

"Many of the proponents," he says "cut open the candle and they show you this incredible amount of wax. What they don't show you is that if you don't put it into the ear, and you still light it on fire and you open it up, it looks the exact same. All the junk that's left in the candle is simply the beeswax and the residue. It's not human ear wax." Thatís exactly what we at JREF discovered.

Health Canada, the Canadian national health service, also tested the candles and found they don't work. In a statement, Health Canada wrote: "There is no valid scientific data available to support any therapeutic benefits associated with the use of ear candles." This is a combination of lawyer-speak and government bureaucratise that means, "Ear candles donít work."

Sandra Yemm now admits that ear candling doesn't remove the wax from one's ears, but not willing to admit that sheís selling quackery, she adds, that's not the point. "It doesn't matter whether [ear wax is] being removed or not because you're going to get some harmony through the changing of the energies and perhaps that's all that's needed" she says. But a burned patient says, "The fact is, this is a procedure that is completely and totally ineffectual. It does nothing." Thatís direct-speak.


Recently, an astrology group has been repeating on the Internet an old canard about Albert Einstein, who they claim wrote:

"Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things, and I am greatly indebted to it. Geophysical evidence reveals the power of the stars and planets in relation to the terrestrial. In turn, astrology reinforces this power to some extent. This is why astrology is like a life-giving elixir to mankind."

Former astrologer Geoffrey Dean, writing to Ivan Kelly, renowned expert and critic of astrology, said:

"Re that Einstein quote. This is a good example of astrologers quoting each other nth hand, but with nobody ever checking the original quote. In a letter in ĎCorrelationí June 1991... I chased it back to a book (in French) by the late Swiss-Canadian astrologer Werner Hirsig, ĎManuel d'astrologie,í where the quote appears in French in the preface, but with no source given. From there it was quoted by Solange de Mailly Nesle (1981), from which it was quoted by Tad Mann (1987) and Percy Seymour (1988), and from there ever onwards seemingly without end.... Various people including Solange, Percy and myself have checked Einstein's writings and biographies but have been unable to verify it, so Solange and Percy have deleted it from later editions of their books. His biographies contain nothing to suggest that Einstein had any interest in astrology, and its style differs from that of authentic Einstein sayings."

Dean ended by suggesting that the purported quotation should be disregarded until authenticated. Dr. Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptics Society, chimed in with:

According to Alice Calaprice, Senior Editor at Princeton University Press and an editor on the Einstein Papers project for the press for the past 20 years, this astrology quote, like so many others attributed to Einstein by people in order to gain credibility, is totally bogus. In fact, it is in her edited volume THE EXPANDED QUOTABLE EINSTEIN ... under "Attributed to Einstein," along with hundreds of others just like it, such as "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts" and "preparing a tax return is more complicated than relativity theory." ... Under astrology, Einstein did say: "The reader should note [Kepler's] remarks on astrology. They show that the inner enemy, conquered and rendered innocuous, was not yet completely dead."

To amplify the naive opinion of Einstein, expressing his conviction that astrology was not to be taken seriously and was now devalued, I will quote from an 1896 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (just donated to the JREF by James Harter) on the subject:

Astrology, the so-called science by which various nations, in various ways, have attempted to assign to the material heavens a moral influence over the earth and its inhabitants.... Even at the present day a few may be found who, from a superstitious reverence for the past, or the spirit of contradiction, pride themselves on their adherence to the belief of stellar influences. It is no longer necessary to protest against an error which is dead and buried ...

Au contraire. Every celebration or assumption of the demise of any specific form of superstition or pseudoscience, whether framed by an Einstein or the editors of an encyclopedia, is followed by a groan of dismay when that notion proves itself a Hydra....

I quote these observations of Dean, Kelly, Calaprice, and Shermer here so that the reader may recognize that when properly looked into, such mysteries readily yield to research and reason.


I must admit that the 2-triangle puzzle last week (which was suggested by Dr. Greg Trayling) stumped me. Itís easy for me to say that if Iíd spent more time on it, Iíd have come upon a solution, and I well might have. There were so many nice discoverable relationships among the triangles, but just as I was considering extending the lines outside of the figure itself, I got called away to other business. It turns out that thatís where the neatest solution lies.

Martin Gardner sent me this solution from a 1950 book, "Mathematical Snapshots" by Hugo Steinhaus. Itís elegant (just like I prefer Ďem) and it requires no algebra, calculus, or trigonometry ó just basic Euclidian geometry. Martin says that in mathematics this sort of solution is called a "look-see" answer. Draw a line parallel to each side of the inner (yellow) triangle, through the opposite vertex. (Here, for example, line EF has been drawn parallel to the upper side of the yellow triangle through the lower/opposite vertex.) Now add parallels beyond those in the same direction, through the vertices of the largest triangle. (Here, BG runs parallel to EF.) Youíll get the figure seen here. The first set of parallels runs smack through the unused one-third divider marks, of course. This gives us 6 new triangles (green) that are congruent with the original small triangle (yellow). The proof of that is easy. So we have the yellow triangle making up one-seventh of the area of the entire new figure ó if we donít include the white triangles. But we can replace each of those white triangles with one of the 6 small green triangles hanging over the sides of the original large triangle, each of which has a corresponding congruent white one. Conclusion: the yellow triangle is one-seventh of the area of the larger one. Q.E.D.

An instinctive answer to this problem given at first glance might be one-ninth, which many readers gave us. Some then wrote back correcting themselves, and the first correct answer received was from Steve Pagano, who somewhat perversely gave the answer as 9/14 divided by 9/2 ó which reduces to 1/7 right away. He used a simplest-triangle solution with assigned Cartesian co-ordinates.

This week, I submit for your consideration this photograph of my good friend, magician/illusionist Jerry Andrus. The only re-touching has been to remove some distracting bits of equipment strewn about on the floor and against the wall. Otherwise, this is a straightforward photo of what you would see on observing Jerry beginning to climb his Impossible Staircase. This is exactly described that way: he is actually able to mount these steps just as he would any others. To the viewer, itís weird, but to the climber, itís quite unremarkable. Jerry built this several years ago for a display of his fabulous optical illusions at Heureka, the wonderful science museum outside Helsinki in Finland. ("Heureka"is Finnish for "Eureka.") It is astonishing to see the staircase in actual use, since the person ascending or descending seems to be fumbling about on the stairs, yet to that person itís a quite ordinary staircase thatís the same to use as any other! Observe a ball rolling down that set of steps, and your mind will boggle!

Rather than ask you how this illusion is accomplished, which would take far too much of my time to read and yours to write, Iíll just ask you to consider it and perhaps undertake building a small-scale model of it. Try it. Itís really quite an interesting experience.

If you really wonít settle for anything but a puzzle, try this: Draw a square. Now construct an isosceles triangle so that one side is the base of the square, and the triangle is exactly half the area of the square. Easy? Sure. But you must do it using only a straight-edge. Now I didnít say a ruler, so thereís no measuring-off anything. No compass or other tools ó except a pencil to draw with, and you canít fold the paper or any other such trick. No guessing, no luck involved. As always, answers to randi@randi.org, and I canít respond to all solutions.


We should be running a "Dumb Remark of the Week" feature here, and this is a great start, offered us by Linda Rosa: On ABC-TV Evening News tonight, Deborah Amos had a feature story endorsing "Heart Math," also referred to as "energy cardiology." Heart Math folks believe the heart is another brain, capable of independent thought, a powerful, supernatural organ responsible for telekinesis, and other psychic powers. Hereís the quote:

A finding of energy cardiology is that cells store info-energy as cellular memory. The heart regulates the use of the energy in these memories. Heart transplant recipients, for example, often have memories and personality tendencies belonging to their heart donors.

And the Tin Woodman, getting a silken heart from The Wizard, would of course begin to think like a worm....? Did the Scarecrow, getting bran for a brain, start wondering about Wheaties? Ask Dorothy. Thatís too much for my poor encephalon....