October 29, 2000


In an hour or so I'll be back walking The Great Wall of China, marveling once more at his wonder of engineering. Last night I lectured for an international conference on science communication in Beijing. Then I'm off to Wuhan to do a videotape about the JREF and our work. And of course there will be those incredible intermissions spent entranced by culinary delights that we know as the cuisine of China. Yum.

In a few days, I'll be joined here by Michael Shermer of SKEPTIC Magazine. We'll both be speaking at a conference on Integrity in Science. Can't wait to march Michael around to a few rather special restaurants....

Here are some items that I hope will interest you as we close out the month of October and Hallowe'en is once more passed without any serious inroads on our view of how the world really works....

I was sent this account about how a simple, unbiased, observation of a mysterious event or phenomenon can result in a perfectly ordinary - albeit unusual - explanation for what the media and certain "researchers" would eagerly embrace as "proof" of a ghostly presence that can only be accounted for by belief in the hereafter. This suggests that ghosts in fact may be quite subject to scientific testing, and may in some cases be simply pure energy of a very specific sort.

Scientist/engineer Vic Tandy from Coventry University in England, experienced what he might have thought to be a haunting in his Warwick, England, laboratory, late one night. He was working alone in the laboratory when right there before him, he thought, stood a ghostly figure. He began perspiring, his hair stood on end, and he was understandably stricken with fear. He really thought he's seen a classic ghost.

The next day Tandy returned to the lab and noticed one of his fencing foils he'd left clamped in a vice. The blade was vibrating, and he knew that a quivering blade had to be receiving energy from somewhere. He figured correctly that this energy could be coming from an inaudible sound, and he was proven correct when a "standing wave" was detected trapped inside his laboratory. Knowing he was on to something, the scientist determined the nature of this elusive sound by analyzing his vibrating sword. He wrote down his observations and, after some number-crunching with a few elementary physics formulas, he found the vibrational pattern of the sound wave to be in the 19 Hz (vibrations per second) vicinity. This frequency is called "infra-sound," which consists of sound waves with a frequency lower than 20 Hz.

Now the human hearing threshold for low frequency sound is around 125 Hz. This range of sound energy can cause a human to experience a number of ghostly effects, from a cold spooky breeze to breathlessness and rising feelings of fear, with excessive perspiration and shivering. The physiological effects of infra-sound were studied and recorded by NASA scientists in the mid-1970s, and they include watery eyes, visual hallucination, increased muscle tension, quivering in the extremities, and a heightened sense of impending death. Tandy, perhaps inspired by the late hour and solitude, had made the intellectual leap to an explanation by ghostly means.

But where did this odd and very strong sound wave originate? Tandy found that a new ventilation fan had been recently installed on loose brackets in an adjoining room, and consequently, the wall in between amplified and carried these inaudible vibrations into his lab. Interestingly, with the addition of sophisticated soundproofing, the fan-generated sound in the normal frequency range was so attenuated that there was only a negligible difference in the overall noise level in Tandy's room, whether this fan was on or off. But the very-low-frequency sound, not substantially damped by the insulation, was getting through.

Phenomenon solved, ghost laid. Don't we wish that more genuinely interested scientists tracked down such information?

Well, Stan pulls a stunt that - as I said earlier - the "psychics" often use. He has a two-headed coin. He spins it into the air, and he knows it will be coming down heads, right? The "out" is that if the designated caller says, "Tails!" then Stan will just allow the coin to fall, and will end up paying his share. But if the caller decides to say, "Heads!" then Stan simply reaches out, catches the coin before it hits the floor, and says, "Just wanted to see if you guys were sports!" or some other inane expression, pockets the gaffed coin, and has aborted the bet. That way, he never has to pick up the whole tab, you follow? In the work of the JREF, we always specify that no aborting is allowed. The claimant must always complete the entire agreed-upon test or series of trials. These folks are fond of calling off tests when things aren't going well....

During the time that Steve Allen, then other celebrities, and finally Johnny Carson hosted the NBC-TV "Tonight" show, I was a guest some 30 or more times. Several of my appearances were repeated. Eight years ago, when Johnny said his final goodbye, I lost touch with him and frankly I resisted contacting him out of respect for his desire for a complete retirement from public life. Two weeks ago, I received a most pleasant surprise phone call from him, and I can tell you that he has recovered quite well from his coronary bypass, has purchased a new boat, and just came back from a voyage to Mexico. It was very good to hear that familiar voice once more, strong, firm, and just as if it were 1992 again. We had a few laughs, and he discussed with me some of the more outrageous matters that have currently taken the attention of TV producers, especially those dealers-in-grief, the phonies who purport to speak with the dead. Johnny shared my dismay over this trend.

We spoke of other matters, too, and I received Johnny's assurance that he approved of the work the JREF is doing. During his hosting of the Tonight Show, he had supported me by giving me many opportunities to appear there and explain how such matters as spoon-bending and dowsing were more easily explained by sleight-of-hand and self-delusion than by supernatural powers. We recalled the only time that the Israeli cutlery-mangler had been on his show, and perhaps due to the instructions I gave the prop people, was unable to call up his claimed divine abilities.

To my delight, Johnny Carson - through his Foundation - made a $100,000 contribution to the JREF. I take this as an expression of his long-standing attitude about fakers. Ever since I first met him, many years ago, I'd been aware that he would not tolerate fakers and pretenders. On one occasion, he told me quite directly that anyone could appear on his show, but they had to level with him about any claims they made. One young fellow who insisted that he was the real thing - a psychic - proceeded to do a demonstration that Johnny, having a substantial knowledge of magic as The Great Carsoni, immediately pointed out as a simple card trick. That pretender left in some confusion, and later claimed that "negative vibes" had interfered with his abilities. (Where have we heard this complaint before?) Another major performer who had always been on good terms with Johnny during his frequent appearances on the show, was suddenly banned from the show after he tried to show the host a rather obvious trick, and claimed it was the real thing. Bad move.

The next week, a letter arrived from Johnny that said, in part, "I enjoyed our chat the other day, although I had the suspicion that you were really channeling through Carlos." This refers to the performance artist Jose Alvarez, who created the "channeler" Carlos, who wowed Australia and demonstrated that an artist can bring such an entity into media existence simply by applying his skills. Josť is with me on this trip.

Johnny Carson is one of the Very Good Guys, and we thank him for his generosity and particularly for reaching out and caring enough to support our work.

Remember the wonderful discovery by Florsheim Shoes of "unipolar" magnets? This breakthrough in quack physics is clearly unknown to the manufacturers of the "TheraP" (cute!) line of magnets supported in straps, patches, slings, neckware, bracelets, and belts, each of which "Enhances Relief of Pain, Improves Blood Flow, and Promotes the Body's Natural Healing Process." TheraP announces that they use "bipolar" magnets! Says the advertising, "It is believed that bipolar magnets offer greater coverage and deeper penetration..." And these aren't your ordinary bipolar magnets, no sirree! They're "Gold Standard Magnets," the result of "New Revolutionary Technology," the exciting "Magnetic Wave" shape, too.

This assembly of useless toys is not found in an incense-infused tent at a carnival. It's not offered at a "New Age" booth at the county fair. The TheraP products are proudly offered by Sears Roebuck & Company. Their display tells customers, "Studies have shown that magnets may be an effective therapy . . . [that] improves blood flow and oxygen exchange" in the fortunate users. Please note the use of the word, "may." My finely-tuned senses detect lawyers...

First, the "unipolar" magnets don't exist, and never did. All magnets are automatically and inescapably bipolar, so Sears is not offering us anything startling or new in the way of quackery. It's just standard baloney, nothing more.

The Weekly Radio Show..... Well, I've been pre-empted so many times from my Saturday evening radio slot, due to something called "football," that management is now looking around for a new time/day location. Suits me fine. And I'll keep you informed. Often, those pre-emptions were announced to me just after the new web page went up, so I was unable to let you know. And, speaking of this web page....

New Page-change Schedule! Our faithful web-master, Wade Caldwell, is just so busy with his other tasks, that we've retained a full-time professional to not only maintain the page, but to re-vamp many important features. It all started with Chip Denman, who is a long-time friend and web-designer. Chip handles SWIFT, our newsletter, and he designed the original web-page, too. That design has won all sorts of praise, and although we'll be making changes, the basic plan will be retained. Thank you Chip, Wade, Jutta, and all the others who contributed to our success. Jeff Kostick, president of Innovation Design, will be aboard from here on in. Contact him at jeff@innovation-design.com if you have suggestions. AND - the new web-pages will be going up online Fridays, rather than Sundays, from now on. When working out of hotel rooms doesn't slow us down, that is.

Pastor Randy White of a Florida church near Tampa, is smack in the middle of a media frenzy to exploit one of the oldest and most popular evangelical stunts - "speaking in tongues." This is something that Diane Sawyer of ABC-TV's "Prime Time Thursday" calls, "verbal rapture." I almost thought she might have mispronounced "verbal" as "herbal," after seeing the episode.

I first saw this phenomenon when I was about 17 years old, in Toronto, Canada. A local minister had discovered that the newspapers went ecstatic when his parishioners mumbled, burbled, and shouted in "unknown tongues" at his services, and he found that he was able to interpret this holy language! Well, we tested him, and that will be discussed later in this piece.

Pastor White speaks his piece while touring the fleshpots of his district, since, he says, "Satan can't understand" what he's saying. Nor can I, I must admit. White says that this is "pure prayer," and that "523 million speak in tongues" around the world. How this figure is arrived at, we're not told. Perhaps by divine knowledge?

Says White, "This actually goes beyond the natural. People want the supernatural. They're hungry for something that is outside of the natural realm." In my opinion, no, yes, and yes. A spokeswoman (no pun intended) for his church admits that when she's carrying on in tongues, she has no notion of what she's saying. But, we're told, the Roman Catholic Church has accepted this phenomenon as real, just as they accept possession and exorcism as valid. So there.

Professor Harvey Cox, brought in to comment, points out that people just have a hard time sitting still for more than an hour, and this sort of participation relieves their boredom. He calls "speaking in tongues" a learned social phenomenon that the parishioners pick up and adopt as a "belonging" mechanism. In fact, ABC-TV showed us a young chap who admits that in order to be accepted in his church circle, he at first faked the process, then as he got into it more, he believed it was real. I note that at no time were his friends able to tell that he was faking it. To them - and to me - it all looks the same.

Back to the year 1945, and m y test of the interpretations of this babble given by the minister. My friend Gary and I had a very early model of a WebCor wire-recorder. This predated tape-recorders by a bit, and it was the wonder of my circle of friends. Gary and I attended a service at the church, plugged in the WebCor, unknown to the minister, and recorded some of the gibberish and the provided translations. Then, the next week, we interviewed the gentleman and played back some of the material. He gave us the divine interpretations - which were quite different from what he'd previously provided. He was not amused.

Well now, the ABC-TV program provided us with the name of a young chap - David Swantek - who, while he cannot speak in tongues, can interpret the babble. It seems to me that David has a million dollars in his future, then, since the JREF will certainly accept his ability as supernatural.

Where are you, David Swantek?

All for this week. Composing these pages while going through a hectic travel routine is a bit much, as you might imagine. Fragile, slow, and erratic Internet connections rather take a lot of time, and I must apologize or not coming up with another puzzle this week. Hey! It's 7:30 in the morning. The talented folks in the kitchen will be serving up warm, cuddly little chashao bau dumplings and soft pastries stuffed with chestnut paste, along with that savory noodle soup that gets the citizens of Beijing revved up every morning. Heaven awaits.

Until next week....