the right chem­istry

Montreal Gazette - - Viewpoint - JOE SCH­WARCZ

Twenty- five years have passed since the world was rocked by the nu­clear ac­ci­dent at Ch­er­nobyl in Ukraine. Given that can­cers at­trib­ut­able to the re­lease of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als have a long la­tency pe­riod, the hu­man toll, aside from the 30 or so im­me­di­ate deaths among re­ac­tor staff and emer­gency work­ers, can only be es­ti­mated. Some re­ports pre­dict the fall­out could even­tu­ally re­sult in sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand cases of pre­ma­ture can­cer, oth­ers put the num­ber closer to 30,000. In any case, the use of the term “dis­as­ter” is cer­tainly ap­pro­pri­ate. how­ever, for fac­tory worker Leonid Tenkaev and his wife, the ac­ci­dent pro­duced a dif­fer­ent out­come. It trans­formed them into hu­man mag­nets! Or so they say.

Pic­tures of the cou­ple show spoons, keys and even irons stick­ing to their bod­ies as if they were glued there. Per­haps they were. From the pho­tos one can­not tell. The Tenkaevs, how­ever, are not the only ones to claim to have such mag­netic pow­ers. In­deed the Web is ablaze with pic­tures and videos of “hu­man mag­nets” plas­tered with every­thing from coins to cell­phones. But for these liv­ing cu­riosi­ties, cut­lery, es­pe­cially spoons, seems to have a par­tic­u­lar ap­peal. How­ever, hu­man mag­nets, un­like metal-bend­ing psy­chics, don’t dis­fig­ure these uten­sils. They just at­tract them. How? Ex­pla­na­tions abound about how bod­ies can gen­er­ate elec­tro­mag­netic fields, with some lucky in­di­vid­u­als ap­par­ently be­ing blessed with par­tic­u­larly po­tent ones. Spoons prob­a­bly have night­mares about psy­chics and hu­man mag­nets and their en­ergy fields. Sci­en­tists too.

Well, the hu­man body does gen­er­ate tiny fields, but these are way too weak to at­tract me­tals. Cu­ri­ously, hu­man mag­nets also claim to at­tract plas­tic ob­jects which have no mag­netic prop­er­ties. A tough one to swal­low.

How­ever, one facet of hu­man mag­nets is ev­i­dence­based. They cer­tainly do at­tract at­ten­tion! Mostly from gullible re­porters who do not re­al­ize that there are var­i­ous ways of per­form­ing seem­ingly re­mark­able feats with­out hav­ing to in­voke para­nor­mal ex­pla­na­tions.

All that is re­quired is fa­mil­iar­ity with the prin­ci­ples of de­cep­tion, some­thing that of course is in the do­main of con­jurors.

Could that be why no hu­man mag­net has been able to claim the $1 mil­lion of­fered by the James Randi Ed­u­ca­tional Foun­da­tion for any demon­stra­tion of a para­nor­mal phe­nom­e­non un­der con­trolled con­di­tions?

Per­haps the most fa­mous hu­man mag­net is Miroslaw Magola, a Pole who now lives in Ger­many but trav­els the world search­ing for “uni­ver­sal truths.”

It seems that in 1992 he dis­cov­ered that he had the abil­ity to counter the laws of na­ture. Magola can cause ob­jects to stick to his body sim­ply through “thought power.”

Judg­ing by the pic­tures he wildly dis­trib­utes on the Web, Magola spe­cial­izes in metal bowls with smooth sur­faces. He works him­self up into some sort of mag­netic men­tal frenzy and then places his palms on the bot­tom of up­side-down bowls and picks them up, ap­par­ently de­fy­ing grav­ity.

He can also plant the bowls on his fore­head. Ready to use if there’s a leak.

Magola ap­pears to be re­pro­duc­ing an ef­fect that has been per­formed by en­ter­tain­ers and fake psy­chics (surely an oxy­moron) for over 100 years.

It does make for a great spec­ta­cle. An­other hu­man mag­net, ap­par­ently on the cut­ting edge of sci­ence, proudly shows off a cou­ple of meat cleavers stuck to his bare chest. Of course it is not the edge but the flat side of the cleaver that is stuck to the skin. And therein lies a clue. The ob­jects that stick to these hu­man mag­nets al­ways have a smooth sur­face.

Have you ever cut a potato with a sharp knife that has a wide blade? It can be quite a chal­lenge to un­stick the knife from the potato. Smooth sur­faces brought to­gether will stick, es­pe­cially when they are sep­a­rated by a thin layer of liq­uid! Press­ing smooth ob­jects to greasy skin cre­ates a suc­tion cup-like ef­fect, es­pe­cially when the sub­jects tilt them­selves back­wards as they tend to do. And some peo­ple re­ally do pro­duce es­pe­cially sticky sweat. There’s even a con­di­tion known as “ac­quired cu­ta­neous ad­he­sion syn­drome.”

Isn’t it in­ter­est­ing that the hu­man mag­nets are al­ways hair­less?

And why is it that the mag­netic at­trac­tion can­not pass through fab­ric? Authen­tic mag­nets don’t have that prob­lem. James Randi has de­bunked hu­man mag­nets nu­mer­ous times in lec­tures and on tele­vi­sion sim­ply by ask­ing the claimants to dust them­selves with tal­cum pow­der. They al­ways fail to per­form.

But Magola claims that he has de­bunked the de­bunkers by ap­ply­ing tal­cum pow­der to his hands and he even cir­cu­lates a video as proof. The video is to­tally un­con­vinc­ing. He ap­plies tal­cum pow­der with his right hand, wipes off most of it, and then pro­ceeds to pick up the up­side-down bowl with his left hand which ap­pears to be strangely curled as if to hide some­thing. Per­haps a thin layer of grease?

And why don’t hu­man mag­nets at­tract odd-shaped ob­jects, or balls? Could it be be­cause sur­face ad­her­ence is very much de­pen­dent on the size of the con­tact sur­face? And how come a com­pass nee­dle doesn’t point to­ward these mag­netic peo­ple?

Magola claims that he is ready to meet the James Randi Ed­u­ca­tional Foun­da­tion’s chal­lenge and col­lect the $1-mil­lion prize for suc­cess­ful demon­stra­tion of a para­nor­mal phe­nom­e­non. The truth is that he has not ap­plied for the chal­lenge even af­ter per­sis­tent re­quests to do so.

Could it be that un­der test con­di­tions the power would dis­ap­pear? I sus­pect so. Es­pe­cially with con­jurors around who are fa­mil­iar with ma­gi­cian’s wax and var­i­ous other modal­i­ties that can be used to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of de­fy­ing grav­ity. Af­ter all, lev­i­ta­tions and sus­pen­sions are the bread and but­ter of ma­gi­cians.

Of course they do not claim to be able to sus­pend the laws of na­ture, they just claim to pro­vide whole­some en­ter­tain­ment us­ing ef­fects well within the bound­aries of sci­ence.

Un­like the hu­man mag­nets who sully peo­ple’s minds by pre­tend­ing to have para­nor­mal pow­ers, I find their claims of at­trac­tion re­pul­sive.

Joe Sch­warcz is di­rec­tor of Mcgill Univer­sity’s Of­fice for Sci­ence and So­ci­ety

( He can be heard ev­ery Sun­day from 3-4 p.m. on CJAD ra­dio.

joe.sch­[email protected]

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