Montreal Gazette

HUMAN MAGNETS AND THEIR REPULSIVE CLAIMS

the right chemistry

- 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

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

joe.schwarcz@mcgill.ca

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