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Psychics, Physics and Magnets

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 6.1, March 1996

Here is a headline from the business page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, December 29, 1995: “A psychic aided bond decisions?” The story (by E. Scott Reckard of Associated Press) begins: “Los Angeles — Orange County’s former treasurer used interest-rate forecasts from a mail-order astrologer while making the ill-fated investments that pushed the county into bankruptcy, a grand jury has been told. Robert L. Citron also regularly consulted a psychic, former county finance director Eileen Walso testified.”

Need we say more?

A wonderful document has wafted its way across my desk. It is either a press release or a scientific abstract. Its opening paragraph tells us: “The tracker is a serious scientific break through [sic] in modern physics. Its design and engineering were carefully approached to produce a simple unit that allows its operator the ability to search for and locate lost, missing and unseen objects from a distance.”

What follows is a “scientific” explanation of how the tracker works. It is a wonderful explanation indeed: perfectly legitimate scientific terms are stirred together to form a stew that sounds like an real explanation to any persons without a few courses in Electricity and Magnetism under their belts. We are first told that all matter contains positive charges. An indisputable fact. Then we are told that all living beings also contain positive charges — as though living beings are not included under “all matter” and so must be treated separately.

The remainder of the explanation appears to be based on the fact that charged bodies produce magnetic fields when they are in motion. We then find that “Since all matter contains positive charges, when a magnetic field is created by a contained electrically charged body moving through space at a perpendicular angle to its direction, and that magnetic field is brought into alignment with another magnetic field, resonating at the identical frequency modulation, then both objects carry positive charges and repulsion occurs.”

How can I count the ways of error in this one sentence? Though it sounds wonderfully erudite, it totally neglects telling us that normal objects carry as many negative charges as there are positive charges. Therefore normal objects are electrically neutral and do not produce magnetic fields when in motion. (If there were only positive charges, the electrostatic repulsion between objects would be far greater than any magnetic effects due to their motion.) Scientific amateurism and pretentiousness are displayed by the use of “frequency modulation” when “frequency” alone would suffice, if the field were indeed alternating.

For this hypothetical alternation no reason is given.

I will not belabor you with further excerpts from this wonderful theory, except to note that it is clearly concocted by analogy with magnetic resonance imaging methods. A small bibliography at the end includes references to such scholarly works as Physics the Easy Way, and Electrons at Work, published by McGraw-Hill in 1933. I suspect that our inventor studied from these books when in high school, sixty years ago, and still considers them the latest thing.

Magnetic fields are much in vogue these days. Fix your eyes on this advertisement contained in a mail-order catalog emanating from DAMARK International, Inc., a company that sells computers, electronics, and appliances. While trying to sell me a radio-controlled submarine as well as a personal shiatsu massager, they also sneak in an ad for a pair of Magnetizer Foot Strips, selling for $19.99 per pair. These strips fit into the soles of your shoes, and when you wear them the magnetic fields they generate induce current into iron-rich blood creating heat that soothes pain and swelling, while the attractive force of the magnet improves circulation. (Gee, those magnetic fields I felt while working around stellarators in Princeton must have been really good for me. Maybe I should get a magnet and rub it over my sciatic nerve. It’s really been a pain.)

But all good things come to an end. DAMARK says they may be forced to stop mailing me their catalogs if I haven't placed an order recently. Funny, I don’t recall ever placing an order with them. (Maybe they are descended from DAK Products, from whom I bought a computer several years ago.)

Another press release featuring an article by Jane Heimlich, wife of the Heimlich maneuver inventor, touts magnetic cures of all kinds, particularly aches and pains of arthritis and injuries. We are told that negative magnetic energy arrests the growth of tumors, whereas positive magnetic energy accelerates tumor growth. We are told that these beneficial results only come from the use of “unipole” magnets, which are flat plate magnets with magnetic poles on opposite sides. Ordinary magnets (such as those you use on the refrigerator) have opposite poles on the same sides. Which ain't the way I learned it.

Jim Townsend, of Fullerton, California, sells a variety of magnets to fit various parts of the body. His insoles sell for twice the price of DAMARK’s. They must be better.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.