Playing with Fire

AROUND 40 years ago, at Hull Fair in England, I saw a man dip his fingers in molten lead. He also poured it into his palm and ran it through his fingers. He seemed to suffer no harm although it was real lead; I found a solidified splash and checked. In my vacations I used to work for one of the showmen at the fair, so I found my boss. “That fellow with the molten lead, why doesn’t he burn his hands?”

Continue reading

Some UFO Experiences

Recently I had a UFO experience in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Or rather, I would have had a UFO experience if it had been a UFO. Unfortunately, however, I found a rational explanation for it, which means this story’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

It was very late, past midnight, and my wife and I had just come home from a dinner party to our house in Cashmere, at an altitude of about 100 metres on a ridge at the south end of Christchurch. She went straight to bed, but I felt somehow restless. In hindsight, if I had more imagination I might be able to say I felt as though something was telling me to stay up, to walk outside on to the deck, and look out to the west.

What I saw astonished me greatly. There was a very bright light in the sky away to the southwest. It stayed there for some minutes, almost unchanging, poised in the sky above the suburb of Westmoreland, quite still but with a slightly tremulous quality about it. Knowing the landscape very well, I knew it could not possibly be a street light, car headlight or other normal phenomenon on the ground. It was definitely in the air, about four fingers at arm’s length above the horizon. But it was too still and bright to be an aeroplane. Moreover, there was no engine noise. “My God”, I thought, “am I seeing a UFO?” I’d certainly like to see a UFO. It was very exciting.

I rushed in and got our binoculars, a good pair of 8x50s, went back out and sat down to watch the light carefully. It continued to stay quite still and to flicker ever so slightly. Then I noticed another light beside it, smaller and flicking on and off. Curiouser and curiouser. Again I thought, “It can’t be a plane, because it’s been still for too long, and it’s too bright”.

Yes, I really was seeing something for which there could be no normal explanation. I thought of how some of my skeptic friends would respond to this, and continued for some minutes longer to observe it closely, so I could state with certainly it was not some figment of my imagination. Still it shone brightly, flickered ever so slightly and stayed still. I resolved to watch it for as long as it stayed. Minutes ticked by.

Then, abruptly, the light faded in strength and swung away to the north. It was a plane after all — suddenly looking no different from hundreds of others I had seen coming into Christchurch Airport. But what had been so different about this one? How could it have changed so rapidly, so totally? How could it remain still in the sky, be so bright, and yet silent?

Then I realised that this plane had been approaching from the southwest on a path which was some miles further south than the usual approach route. As a result, by the most extraordinary coincidence, it was heading straight towards my house. And not only was it on a compass course that took it right in this direction, but it was descending at an angle that meant it literally pointed straight at me. This explained the intensity of the light, which was aimed like a searchlight directly at me, albeit from a distance of perhaps 20 miles, gradually closing to about five before the plane turned away. Over such a distance, the intensity of the light was increasing so gradually that it did not appear to be moving towards me. And although descending, it appeared still because it was closing on the horizon at an imperceptible rate. The tremulous quality of the light simply resulted from the plane’s vibrating a bit in slightly turbulent air. The second light was one of the plane’s wingtip lights. As I’m slightly colour-blind (green looks white to me at a distance) I couldn’t tell what colour it was.

The explanation was absurdly simple, yet never in a hundred years would I have guessed it. Having watched approaching planes so often in the past helped reinforce the deception, because it was so different to what I was used to seeing.

But the most important part is this: suppose I had not persisted in watching it, or the plane had disappeared, say into a bank of cloud close to the ground, so I had not discovered the real explanation. I would have absolutely denied any suggestion that it was an aeroplane.

“No”, I would have said, “it was too still, too bright, and there was no noise. There was definitely a bright still light sitting in one place in the sky for some minutes.”

And there is another thing — every time an aeroplane is descending at night, with its lights on, in clear air, following a straight descent path, there will be a particular spot on the Earth’s surface where an observer, if there is one, will see exactly the same thing I saw. If you think about how many aeroplanes there are all over the world in the air at any time, there must be nothing unusual about my experience. Except that more imaginative observers than I are bound to have perceived it differently — they will have “actually have seen” a UFO.

It’s a pity I’m not more imaginative, because if I was I could have seen some much more exciting things like different-coloured lights and an interesting saucer shape. My inability to see such things if an obvious flaw in my personality which I have resolved to correct next time. Then I might have a more interesting story to tell.

Three more non-UFO experiences

  • In about 1960 my father thought he was “having a UFO experience” one night while sitting on the steps outside our house in Samoa. Flashes of light were darting back and forth across the sky. He got up and walked forwards for a better view and discovered the cause was a spider spinning a web about a metre in front of his face.
  • Fishing at Lake Coleridge on a perfectly clear night, I heard an aeroplane overhead but couldn’t see any lights. I looked in the general direction of the sound, and suddenly the plane’s navigation lights came on for about 5 seconds. Then they all went out again. If I had seen this without hearing the engine noise, I would have been unable to produce a rational explanation for it.
  • And another night I was fishing on the lake under low, rather loose cloud. As a plane came over, its lights, flashing brightly, made the whole sky very suddenly seem to pulsate brilliantly. The overall effect was extremely peculiar. Although the plane’s engines could clearly be heard, two fishermen nearby in the dark were totally confused by the experience. “What the f—– is that?” one gasped. “Dunno,” his mate responded in an awestruck voice. I wonder what story they may have had to tell the next day?

Scary Headlines, Dodgy Science

The New Zealand Herald of 5 September carried the headline “Ozone gap to lift skin cancer 7 per cent”.

Then followed a report from Dr Richard McKenzie of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research at Lauder. He said that ozone loss in the past 15 years had caused an increase of 8-10% in the amount of harmful ultraviolet rays reaching Otago and Southland, and that UV levels were expected to rise another 2-3%, reaching a peak in about five years.

So far so good. We have no reason to question the quality of the research and his findings that ozone depletion over the southern region has increased UV penetration over the South Island plains. But Dr McKenzie is then reported as saying that:

Cancers caused by past depletion were only now beginning to appear as the disease often developed some years after exposure to the rays.

And that:

Small changes in UV can have large effects on life. There will be extra skin cancers and earlier deaths will result.

Surely Dr McKenzie has moved beyond his field of expertise. The recent increase in skin cancer is almost entirely attributable to the craze for sun-bathing and sun-tans which began in the 1920s and reached a peak during the early ’70s. Any impact of increased ultraviolet penetration is insignificant when compared to this “life-style” choice which encouraged young children to play at the beach all day, fully exposed to the sun, and teenagers to bask in full summer sun for hours on end in their quest for the perfect tan.

Furthermore, changes in the level of ultraviolet light reaching the ground are much more dependent on cloud cover, general atmospheric pollution, and geographic latitude than on any recorded or predicted variations within the ozone layer. A move from the Arctic to the equator increases annual exposure to UV by 4,000%. If Aucklanders are worried about a 10% increase in UV penetration they should move 200 km south to, say, Taupo.

I am prepared to bet $1,000 to $1 that there will be no increase in skin cancers attributable to increased UV over the next few years. The increases which occur will be attributable to the sun-burned baby-boomers growing up and contracting melanoma. This will peak and decline as a new generation of parents encourage their children to wear hats and use sun-blocks.

If Dr McKenzie can set up an experiment using a control population which stays where it is, in an atmosphere which remains as clear as it is today, and in which no-one reduces their exposure to intense sunlight or increases their use of sun protection, then that population might record the increase he forecasts. But such an experiment would be totally unethical, so the predicted outcome cannot happen. Hence my confidence in the bet.

In an interview Dr McKenzie conceded he was no expert in public health. Maybe he should have stuck to his field and let someone else draw the public-health conclusions. People have to deal with daily predictions of doom from all directions. There is no need to add a fear of UV-induced melanoma epidemics to the list. His forecast sounds unavoidable — and it’s not.

Magician Appears

On 8 February 1994, Professor Clyde F. Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Buffalo, gave a talk in the Department of Zoology, University of Otago entitled “The Magician as Skeptic”. Notices were circulated to zoology staff and senior students, other university departments, and to local skeptics. Some 40 people thoroughly enjoyed the talk. Professor Herreid demonstrated, using a variety of magical tricks, how important it is that a natural explanation should always be sought for an apparently paranormal phenomenon. If such is not immediately forthcoming, any attempt at an explanation should be held in abeyance.

Multiple Personality Disorder

What can events 100 years ago tell us about a modern disorder?

Students often ask me whether multiple personality disorder (MPD) really exists. I usually reply that the symptoms attributed to it are as genuine as hysterical paralysis and seizures, and teach us lessons already learned by psychiatrists more than a hundred years ago.

Consider the dramatic events that occurred at the Salpêtriére Hospital in Paris in the 1880s. For a time, the chief physician, Jean-Martin Charcot, thought he had discovered a new disease he called “hystero-epilepsy”, a disorder of mind and brain combining features of hysteria and epilepsy. The patients displayed a variety of symptoms, including convulsions, contortions, fainting and transient impairment of consciousness.

A skeptical student, Joseph Babinski, decided that Charcot had invented rather than discovered hystero-epilepsy. The patients had come to the hospital with vague complaints of distress and demoralisation. Charcot had persuaded them that they were victims of hystero-epilepsy and should join the others under his care. Charcot’s interest in their problems, the encouragement of attendants, and the example of others on the same ward prompted patients to accept Charcot’s view of them and eventually to display the expected symptoms. These symptoms resembled epilepsy, Babinski believed, because of a municipal decision to house epileptic and hysterical patients together (both having “episodic” conditions). The hysterical patients, already vulnerable to suggestion and persuasion, were continually subjected to life in the ward and to Charcot’s neuropsychiatric examinations. They began to imitate the epileptic attacks they repeatedly witnessed.

Babinski Vindicated

Babinski eventually won the argument. In fact, he persuaded Charcot that doctors can induce a variety of physical and mental disorders, especially in young, inexperienced, emotionally troubled women. There was no “hystero-epilepsy”. These patients were afflicted not by a disease but by an idea. With this understanding, Charcot and Babinski devised a two-stage treatment consisting of isolation and counter-suggestion.

First, “hystero-epileptic” patients were transferred to the general wards of the hospital and kept apart from one another. Thus they were separated from everyone else who was behaving in the same way and also from staff members who had been induced by sympathy or investigatory zeal to show great interest in the symptoms. The success of this first step was remarkable. Babinski and Charcot were reminded of the rare but impressive epidemic of fainting, convulsions, and wild screaming in convents and boarding schools that ended when the group of afflicted persons was broken up and scattered.

The second step, counter-suggestion, was designed to give the patients a view of themselves that would persuade them to abandon their symptoms. Dramatic counter-suggestions, such as electrical stimulation of “paralyzed” muscles, proved to be unreliable. The most effective technique was simply ignoring the hysterical behaviour and concentrating on the present circumstances of these patients.

They were suffering from many forms of stress, including sexual feelings and traumas, economic fears, religious conflicts, and a conviction (perhaps correct) that they were being exploited or neglected by their families. In some cases their distress had been provoked by a mental or physical illness. The hysterical symptoms obscured the underlying emotional conflicts and traumas. How trivial a sexual fear seemed to a patient in whom convulsive attacks produced paralysis and temporary blindness every day!

Staff members expressed their withdrawal of interest in hysterical behaviour subtly, in such words as, “You’re in recovery now and we will give you some physiotherapy, but let us concentrate on the home situation that may have brought this on”.

These face-saving counter-suggestions reduced a patient’s need to go on producing hystero-epileptic symptoms in order to certify that her problems were real. The symptoms then gradually withered from lack of nourishing attention. Patients began to take a more coherent and disciplined approach to their problems and found a resolution more appropriate than hysterical displays.

The rules discovered by Babinski and Charcot, now embedded in psychiatric textbooks and confirmed by decades of research in social psychology, are being overlooked in the midst of a nationwide epidemic of alleged MPD that is wreaking havoc on both patients and therapists. MPD is an iatrogenic behavioural syndrome, promoted by suggestion, social consequences, and group loyalties. It rests on ideas about the self that obscure reality, and it responds to standard treatments.

To begin with the first point, MPD, like hystero-epilepsy, is created by therapists. This formerly rare and disputed diagnosis became popular after the appearance of several best-selling books and movies. It is often based on the crudest form of suggestion. Here, for example, is some advice on how to elicit alternative personalities (alters, as they have come to be called), from an introduction to MPD by Stephen E. Buie, MD, who is director of the Dissociative Disorders Treatment Program at a North Carolina hospital:

It may happen that an alter personality will reveal itself to you during this [assessment] process, but more likely it will not. So you may have to elicit an alter… You can begin by indirect [sic] questioning such as, “Have you ever felt like another part of you does things that you can’t control?” If she gives positive or ambiguous responses, ask for specific examples. You are trying to develop a picture of what the alter personality is like… At this point you may ask the host personality, `”Does this set of feelings have a name?”… Often the host personality will not know. You can then focus upon a particular event or set of behaviours. “Can I talk to the part of you that is taking those long drives in the country?”

Once patients have permitted a psychiatrist to “talk to the part…that is taking these long drives”, they are committed to the idea that they have MPD and must act in ways consistent with this self-image. The patient may be placed on a hospital service (often called the dissociative service) with others who have given the same compliant responses. The emergence of the first alter breaches the barrier of reality, and fantasy is allowed free rein. The patient and staff now begin a search for further alters surrounding the so-called host personality. The original two or three personalities proliferate into 90 or 100. A lore evolves. At least one alter must be of the opposite sex (Patricia may have Penny but also must have Patrick). Sometimes it is even suggested that one alter is an animal. A dog, cat, or cow must be found and made to speak! Individual alters are followed in special notes for the hospital record. Every time an alter emerges, the hospital staff shows great interest.

The search for fresh symptoms sustains the original commitment while cultivating and embellishing the suggestion. It becomes harder and harder for a patient to say to the psychiatrist or to anyone else, “Oh, let’s stop this. It’s just me taking those long drives in the country.”

The cause of MPD is supposed to be childhood sexual trauma so horrible that it has to be split off (dissociated) from the host consciousness and lodged in the alters. Patient and therapist begin a search for alters who remember the trauma and can identify the abusers. Thus commitment to the diagnosis of MPD is enhanced by the sense that a crime is being exposed and justice is being done. The patient now has such a powerful vested interest in sustaining the MPD enterprise that it almost becomes an end in itself.

Certainly these patients, like Charcot’s, have many emotional conflicts and have often suffered traumatic experiences. But everyone is distracted from the patient’s main problems by a preoccupation with dramatic symptoms, and perhaps by a commitment to a single kind of psychological trauma. Furthermore, given that treatment may become interminable when therapists concentrate on fascinating symptoms, it is no wonder that MPD is regarded as a chronic disorder that often requires long stretches of time on dissociative units.

Charcot removed his patients from the special wards when he realised what he had been inventing. We can do the same. Close the dissociation services and disperse the patients to general psychiatric units. Ignore the alters. Stop talking to them, taking notes on them, and discussing them in staff conferences. Pay attention to real present problems and conflicts rather than fantasy. If these simple, familiar rules are followed, multiple personalities will soon wither away and psychotherapy can begin.

What Does Quantum Mechanics Show Us?

Attempts to interpret the results of quantum mechanics in ways people can understand can themselves lead to confusion.

Some physicists and philosophers conspire to waste intellectual resources on pseudoproblems with no empirical consequence — notoriously, quantum interpretations. In the process, it is perhaps not surprising that some more ancient conceptual cul-de-sacs put in an appearance.

Some of the words that get thrown around often are “determinism”, “causality”, “reality” and so forth. Some pictures, like Bohmian hidden variable interpretations, are best seen as attempts to preserve the viability of certain labels, though empirically the whole enterprise remains vacuous. However, since interpretations are useful only as conceptual tools if at all, certain conceptual perversities introduced can be grounds for criticism of an interpretation beyond its inconsequentiality.

Bohmian pictures typically preserve a classical-like sense of reality, universality of causation (there are no fundamentally uncaused events), and, provided standard quantum mechanics is retained, determinism. Note, however, that these terms refer to nothing of any possible empirical consequence, and are but descriptive of a particular language used to describe the physical content. The conceptual perversity enters in confusing idiosyncratic features of descriptive language with information content.

To illustrate, let us go back to some venerable theology (actually quite an apt comparison for some pathologies of theoretical physics). One of the classical “proofs” of God invokes the notion that everything must have a cause. This would appear to be a perfectly good generalization from our experience, and we would of course like to extend this to a universal statement instead of having unseemly exceptions to the picture. Even if all in the universe is in a causal chain, it as a whole cannot be explained by causes internal to it.

So, instead of leaving the totality of everything uncaused, we declare it to have an external cause, and equate this to God. To terminate the potentially infinite causal series there, we call on the total self-sufficiency or self-causedness of God. This is basically the classical cosmological argument. There are many reasons for its failure, one being that no coherent self-sufficient God-concept can be found.

Is “God” Useful?

But let us ignore such problems for a second, and ask if any information is being conveyed by the God explanation for “it all”. The answer is none: the whole argument is driven by the principle that everything must have a cause, and “God” merely serves as an empty label to provide us with a cause, within this argument. Instead of inventing spurious entities to save principles, it is better to acknowledge the notion of uncausedness. It is intimately related to patternlessness, i.e., randomness, and it is inescapable. The cosmological argument merely points to a deficiency in our conceptual equipment.

It is not only theology that ties itself into knots over causes, but philosophy as well. Interpretations of quantum mechanics that have no empirical consequence whatsoever, but restore the notion of full causality by invoking permanently hidden variables and non-communicative superluminality, similarly convey no information while preserving the universality of causation.

The necessity of causation is a conceptual deficit that has been embodied in theology, which has regularly offered pseudo-explanations for cases where no pattern existed. Randomness is one of our psychological blind spots, in areas having little to do with religion as well; even a so-called “hard” science has its troubles with it (not only in QM, but in statistical mechanics also).

It is in this sense that interpretations can be pernicious, beyond being a waste of time. Taking them seriously as anything but inessential conceptual tools dictated by convenience leads to the pretense that predictions of consequence can be obtained from them.

Consciousness or holistic connectivity can be invoked in consequence-free ways, but it is regularly stretched to the point where one can pretend that empirically relevant forms of these words naturally have a place in the physics. They do not, unless some very important modifications are made in quantum mechanics. It will not do to propose revolutionary ideas merely by resorting to information-free, obfuscatory philosophizing.

In his Minority Report (1956), H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

“Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians … of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology.”

The Great Nelson UFO

Lights in the sky are not always aliens on the lookout for earthlings to abduct. Sometimes they are mostly a load of hot air.

On Wednesday afternoon we saw a UFO. My wife, Fleur, did not say,”Look — a UFO!”, but “Surely they’re not parachuting today!” Parachuting is a popular sport at Nelson airport, but not when traffic is busy, and not when a strong Sou’wester is blowing.

The object, directly upwind and over the airport, looked a bit like a parachute. If it was, it could be landing on our roof in a few minutes; the wind was very strong (up to 58kph we found later). At that moment it was a genuine Unidentified Flying Object, but not for long.

I ran for binoculars. The object was a balloon, rounded at the top, highly elongated and hanging in folds near the bottom. But it appeared stationary. It could not be tethered or it would endanger flights still using the runway. So why had it not already passed overhead?.

UFO enthusiasts seem able to know immediately the size, speed and distance of an object they have seen. This is obviously impossible unless at least one of these factors can be determined independently.

Logical thinking was required. The sky was cloudless, the air very clear. We could see a brilliant object against a deep blue sky. In mid-afternoon on August 18th it was reflecting the low sun. A casual glance to the southwest picked it up immediately. It looked close but that had to be an illusion; it still did not appear to move.

Fifty minutes later it was directly overhead. It was moving, but crossing our field of vision very slowly. Thus it had to be high. An object drifting at ground level would have covered around 50km in that time. The mountains shelter us from the strong southwest airstreams over New Zealand, so wind velocity would be greater at high altitudes. We could deduce it was travelling very rapidly. It also had to be large.

We knew what it must be: a constant-altitude research balloon. They are released with a small volume of helium at ground level, but expand to a great size when atmospheric pressure is low, where they travel well above the 12,000m level of commercial jets. They maintain their altitude within a relatively narrow band.

But is it really possible to see such an object over 50km away? From our garden, where we watched the balloon, we can see mountains which are further away than this, but mountains are big. However, a small object, strongly reflecting sunlight, will show as a point of light. The UFO was only turned into a balloon by binoculars. Otherwise no real detail could be distinguished. Once past the vertical and no longer strongly reflecting towards us, it was almost invisible.

The UFO caused some excitement in Nelson. According to the local paper, many people rang the police. The object was quickly identified as a balloon, but many other assumptions were incorrect. Finally the paper published a piece revealing that the balloon had been released from New Caledonia. The altitude was reported as 24km, the inflated size as 100m high and 30m wide. These proportions fit our observation, but the size was greater than we had anticipated.

American experts have suggested that a number of UFO reports have involved sightings of these balloons. This seems likely. However, there were no Nelson reports of UFOs in the traditional sense. Are Nelsonians particularly skeptical? I doubt it, but we were able to watch during perfect conditions. There was time for people to call the police and time to check an object which could hardly be missed. The same object glimpsed through a gap in the clouds might cause more of a puzzle.

This object seemed very close, yet was a long way away. Watched from a stationary position it did not seem to move, but if observed from a moving position, it would have appeared to be moving, keeping pace with the observer due to the effect of parallax, hence reports of people being chased by UFOs.

Our “UFO” was a beautiful object when seen through binoculars, but it did not make the TV news. In 1979, TV1 spent nearly 20 minutes of the evening news showing out-of-focus film of the planet Venus, claimed to be a UFO. There is money to be made if a UFO stays unidentified, hut not otherwise. TV1 sold their film overseas and it was shown on BBC, CBS and several Japanese stations. Presumably it was very profitable.

How to Make the Miraculous Blood of St Januarius

Brew up a miracle for fun and profit, in the comfort of your own kitchen.

The blood, in a phial in a church in Naples, is reverently turned over several times during services every few months. It has seldom failed to liquefy since 1389. (It has also accidentally liquefied when the monstrance holding the phial was being cleaned!) Three Italian scientists are quoted in the Skeptical Inquirer (Vol 16, No 3, Spring 1992, p236) as having duplicated the “blood.” The relevant data (Nature vol 353, p507) are:

“To a solution of 25g FeCl3.6H2O in 100 ml of water we slowly added 10g CaCO3, and dialysed this solution for 4 days against distilled water from a Spectra/por tubing (parchment or animal gut works just as well; a simple procedure1 even allows us to avoid this dialysis step). The resulting solution was allowed to evaporate from a crystallisation disc to a volume of 100ml (containing about 7.5% of FeO(OH). Addition of 1.7g NaCl yielded dark brownish thixotropic sol which set in about 1 hour to a gel. The gel could be easily liquefied by gentle shaking, and the liquefaction-solidification cycle was highly repeatable.”

Thixotropy is the property that interests us, that of setting to a gel or shaking to a sol(ution). I had always imagined the warmth of the priest’s hands was the main secular reason for the liquefaction, but apparently not.

I rang my old chemistry master, Alex Wooff, in Christchurch, to find out what the dialysis would involve. Dialysis is a differential diffusion through a membrane. You put the mix in a tube (rather like a sausage skin with the ends tied, I gather) and the tube in a tank of distilled water. Certain acidic by-products pass out through the tube walls, and what you want stays inside. (Someone who speaks French could look up what Herr Doktor Guthknecht had to say in 1946 about avoiding that.)

Alan Wooff also explained that the calcium carbonate would have to be precipitated — common chalk wouldn’t do; “You wouldn’t want lumps in it.”

Perhaps (I like to give people the benefit of every possible doubt) the 14th century originators of this pious fraud did not use sausage skin — let alone Spectra/por tubing — but stripped a blood-filled vein from the saint’s leg, say, and piously washed it in a mountain stream, like kaanga pirau.

If some reaction turned the iron in the haemoglobin into FeO(OH)– a reaction with the chalky deposits of the saintly artherosclerosis, perhaps? — and all unknowing they dialysed it out, perhaps they would get the result that the faithful see in Naples to this day.


Denise of Salmond Smith Biolab (Freephone 0800-807-809) told me they could get precipitated calcium carbonate (CaCO3) from England for $22.86 a kilo, in six or eight weeks by air freight at $39. They have hydrous ferric chloride (FeCl3.6H2O) in stock at $47.22 for 250 grams. The minimum order of dialysis tubing (10mm diam, 32mm flat) is 30 metres at $60. Geoff Meadows of Clark Products Ltd quoted $36.59 for 20 l of deionised water.

The limiting dimension is the volume of the tubing, 2.35 litres. That divides into 78 samples of 30 ml each.

That’s $205.67 (plus the cost of the phials) to produce 78 phials of miraculous blood. Perhaps 20 skeptics might pay $10 each for them, so I’d be lucky to break even. That is, if all the kitchen chemistry worked out.

Of course, if I sold them outside a church at $1000 a phial…?

Anyone got access to a chemistry lab?

1. Guthknecht, R. Bull Soc. Chim. Fr. 13, 55-60 (1946)
Back to main text


This is a summary of a talk given at the 1992 Skeptics conference by Dr Eric Geiringer.

[An E-meter is a device used by members of the Church of Scientology, and some related groups or individuals, to “diagnose” illnesses. The subject grasps a pair of metal electrodes connected to an Ohm-meter, and an “auditor” asks questions and interprets the meter’s readings.]

The resistance the skin offers to the passage of an electric current is inversely proportional to the amount of electrolyte in the neighbourhood, and that essentially means sodium chloride in the sweat.

The skin is an important regulator of the sodium chloride content of the tissues, which must remain constant within narrow limits.

The amount of sweat and its salt concentration (0.1-0.37%) will vary in different people and at different times in the same person with:

  • fluid intake
  • clothes
  • stage of menstrual cycle
  • amount of salt in the tissues
  • amount of salt in food
  • the circum-ambient temperature
  • the number of sweat glands
  • their topical distribution
  • adrenal activity
  • anterior pituitary activity
  • posterior pituitary activity
  • hormone output of heart muscle
  • kidney function

and a number of other factors, all playing a part at any given moment in determining how much salt will meet the electrodes.

To this must be added the psychic state of the subject at the time of measurement, because as with blushing (which is also part of the hypothalamic heat regulating mechanism) sweating will be brought on by joy, fear, embarrassment or pain.

The effect of these variables on the final reading is, of course, additive and gives a composite reading of little, if any, specific value.

E-meter operators may claim that the refinements which they have introduced into the machine and the method standardise subjects to all these variables, and can therefore isolate idiosyncratic differences and enable specific physical or mental disorders to be diagnosed, but it would be up to them to substantiate such an extraordinary claim.

Although Scientology in toto is a dangerous, exploitative and mischievous humbug, we must concede that, by recording and utilising psychic sweating to loaded questions, their use of the E-meter is on a par with the use of lie-detectors<|>–<|>i.e. a crude, nonspecific but marginally valid means of spotting emotionally sensitive areas in a significant number of subjects.

It is the imaginative use, or pretended use, of these Ohm-meters and Volt-meters to diagnose specific mental or physical disorders by homeopaths and acupuncturists which constitutes their real danger.

Hot-footing it in Fiji

New Zealand Skeptics walk happily on red-hot embers, protected by the laws of physics. Fijian firewalkers, however, are said to stroll across white-hot stones. How do they do it?

Fijian firewalking is an ancient tradition. It was originally confined to a few villages on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga). The ceremony achieved fame with a demonstration for visiting European dignitaries in 1885.

As John Campbell explains in Skeptic 15, firewalking is explained by science, not mysticism. Although the firewalker’s skin is in contact with glowing carbon at a temperature of around 700oC, very little heat energy is transferred. No injury occurs because though the surface of the charcoal is at this temperature, the charcoal has a low heat capacity and heat is not conducted through it sufficiently rapidly to raise the skin temperature to a dangerous level. Each foot only contacts the hot charcoal twice for a brief instant. Of course, if skin and hot carbon were in contact for longer, or if the walker attempted to take too many steps on the hot coals, burns would ensue. Faith in one’s firewalking abilities has no effect on the outcome.

Beqa Firewalking

Several published accounts of the Beqa firewalkers describe a ceremony with features that cannot be accounted for by this explanation. Many of these descriptions are rather informal (as well as unbelievable). Others are by anthropologists interested in rituals and beliefs associated with the ceremony. These describe human behaviour in minute detail until it gets to the part which would most interest a physical scientist. Some writers seem unaware that they are describing events which are commonly thought impossible.

Accounts agree that flat stones or rocks are heated using wood fuel in a fire-pit. The wood is then raked away, leaving the stones glowing white-hot. After various rituals, the walkers enter the pit and walk round and round on the glowing stones. The men (only men can do this!) have anklets of dried leaves; afterwards neither these anklets nor the soles of their feet show any effect from the heat.

According to Beqa: Island of Firewalkers (published by the Institute of Pacific Studies), the men even gather in the centre of the pit and chant! If these accounts are reasonably accurate then we are dealing with a miracle.

Profit Potential

About 1960 the villagers of Rukua on Beqa discovered that firewalking had commercial potential. The income of this village jumped from about $400 per year to about $6500 with this discovery, and other villages quickly followed their example. Contracts with tourist hotels guaranteed $400 per performance.

The original ceremony had involved the whole village. Firewalkers had to respect certain tabu — in particular, abstinence from all sexual contact for a period of one month. Costumes were made and burned afterwards. About six tonnes of firewood were consumed.


It was quickly discovered that costumes could be modified so that they could be re-used and a much smaller fire satisfied the tourists. If the walkers abstained from sex for only two weeks they were not injured by the smaller fire — this seems quite logical.

More hotels featured the ceremony and teams performed twice a week. The sexual abstinence tabu was reduced to one night or dropped altogether.

Traditionally the fire pit was large. Beqa: Island of Firewalkers contains some photos from the thirties and I have an old postcard of the ceremony. These suggest the hot area was around five metres in diameter (the pits are circular) and the walkers may have needed ten or a dozen steps to cross the hot stones.

The modern pit is about 2.5 metres, but in the two examples I have seen, the hot area was less than two metres in diameter. Apparently the cost of firewood is a big problem.

I have a postcard showing the preparation of a fire pit for a modern performance. The caption reads, “the fire-walkers the cross the pit walking on the white-hot stones.”

Skeptics can safely walk on red-hot charcoal, but “white hot” implies much higher temperatures. For example, mild steel is tapped from a furnace at about 1600oC. This molten metal is glowing brightly but it looks yellow rather than white.

Rock, unlike carbon, has a high thermal capacity, that is, it stores plenty of heat energy which can be released to human skin. This implies that hot rock is more hostile to human feet than carbon at a similar temperature.

Anybody with some knowledge of science should be dubious of the published accounts of Beqa fire-walking. Could the rocks really be white hot?

The anklets worn by the walkers provide a clue. If dead leaves were brought close to an object radiating at a temperature high enough to be glowing white, they would burst into flames. In fact, human skin could be damaged before contact.

Examining the Pit

In Fiji, I have twice had a good look at a fire-pit immediately before the ceremony. When the fire was dying down, any unburnt wood was raked aside and the stones brushed clear of glowing embers. White ash covered the stones which lay in a bed of glowing charcoal. They were so close together that little of the hot charcoal could be seen, but the white sides of the irregular rocks reflected the glow in a spectacular fashion. The rocks themselves were not glowing.

Obviously, the rock upper surfaces were at a temperature well below the 700oC of glowing carbon. This could explain why the Beqa people can stand relatively prolonged contact. The modern walkers cross the pit, circle round the edge and re-cross. All the tourists I have questioned agree on that point. I am sure anybody could do the same.

The photographs I have of the old ceremony with the large pit do not show any activity that could be construed as “walking round and round in the pit.” The old postcard shows a line of about fifteen people, some holding hands. About four or five are crossing the hot rocks. The rest appear to have crossed and are circling back around the edge.

In the pit they seem to be taking short steps, and perhaps few people have feet that could stand such lengthy exposure. However, these people probably never wore any kind of footwear. Certainly some modern Fijians can stand barefoot on a sun-heated surface that would cause me pain.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Beqa people could have crossed such a large pit, so slowly, if they had had to walk on glowing charcoal rather than the relatively cool rock.

So how did this myth arise, that Fijians could walk barefoot across white-hot rocks?

Poor observation and inaccurate reporting, plus the will to believe, seem adequate explanations. The rocks are certainly white as they are covered in white ash; they are certainly hot, as they are heated in a fire. They are not, however, white-hot.