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Fact and Fiction: James Randi's "Amaz!ng Meeting" and Mark Alpert's Physics Novel, Final Theory

James Randi, famous debunker of frauds, talks about the "Amaz!ng Meeting" coming up in Las Vegas, and SciAm editor Mark Alpert discusses his new physics novel, Final Theory. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/daily, www.badscience.net, www.randi.org, www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4vgsZmleoE

James Randi, famous debunker of frauds, talks about the "Amaz!ng Meeting" coming up in Las Vegas, and SciAm editor Mark Alpert discusses his new physics novel, Final Theory. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/daily, www.badscience.net, www.randi.org, www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4vgsZmleoE

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting June 4th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll talk with world-renowned James Randi, and Scientific American editor Mark Alpert discusses his new novel, a physics thriller. First up: James Randi is a top magician and a stage artist who went by the name the Amazing Randi. For the last three decades, he has supported sound science and exposed fakes who claimed supernatural or paranormal abilities. The James Randi Educational Foundation has long offered a one-million-dollar prize to anyone with such ability that is truly demonstrable, that money is still unclaimed. I called Randi at his office in Fort Lauderdale.

Steve: James Randi, great to talk to you this morning. How are you?

Randi: My pleasure. I'm glad to be here. I think that we have to meet in person one of these days. This business of over the telephone sounds a little subversive, don't you think?

Steve: We actually have met, and I'll talk about that a little later, but first tell us about this meeting that's coming up in Las Vegas, and then we'll talk a little bit about your foundation.

Randi: So, this is the amazing meeting number six. We've had five before as you probably guessed. It [is] called "I Skeptic" and it's subtitled, "Modern Skepticism in the Internet Age". We have [a] wonderful, wonderful keynote speaker this year, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson who is [an] astrophysicist that we all know and love with the Hayden Planetarium. He is also a host of one of the PBS Nova series. So he is going to be our keynote speaker, and we have got Ben Goldacre is coming over. You know the name of Ben Goldacre?

Steve: No, I don't.

Randi: He is with The Independent newspaper in the UK and you should look him up on Google sometime. Ben Goldacre is a very, very skeptical gentleman, who writes about science and such and has always maintained a great interest in the James Randi Educational Foundation. We have Matthew Chapman, and—Matthew Chapman, that doesn't mean much to you—but he is the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, and he doesn't even have a beard. I have to ask some him about that.

Steve: Right!

Randi: And of course we have got our good friends Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer and good people like that who will be helping us out as they do each and every year, and they are always very welcome.

Steve: And what will Dr. Richard Wiseman, be talking about it?

Randi: Richard Wiseman is always talking about some recent project that he has got going in the UK. He does wonderful things, like setting up kiosks all over the UK in department stores and what not, now [where] people are trying to guess which one of a certain shape will be produced on the screen next. The test in telepathy and precognition or whatever and guess what—those experiments all turn to be absolutely null. People get exactly what the chance would call for it. So, he is going to talk to us about one of those projects that he has got going.

Steve: Excellent! Now where can people find out more information about the meeting? And if they want to attend, what do they do?

Randi: Well, if they go directly to http://www.randi.org, you may click in there and then look for the Amazing Meeting, and you'll see it in there and you can register right online.

Steve: Now, "Skepticism in the Age of the Internet". The Internet is a double-edged sword, because there is so much wonderful information available, but there is just so much information, some of which may not be accurate.

Randi: That's very true, very true.

Steve: And you really have to check your sources and figure out whether something that's been passed along—we all get e-mail everyday with these claims or stories and so many of them are false.

Randi: That's very true. So, the double-edged sword is a very good way to look at it. I found that such a thing is Google, which I consider to be almost supernatural, frankly. I spoke to the Goggle chaps at the Google labs not too long ago in California. That's an experience and is so true and one of these days we'll discuss it but Google, with the enormous, enormous amount of information that it puts out every second of every day has to have an awful lot of garbage in there too and they can't be expected to clean house every few minutes. So, they've got an awful lot of nonsense in there, so they just can't get that out of their system so to speak; so misinformation as well as information. So, take the good stuff and discard the bad stuff and get smart in order to be able to find the difference.

Steve: I rely on http://www.snopes.com a lot to...

Randi: Oh, yes.

Steve: … to figure out what's true and what isn't. Are there any other sites that you recommend?

Randi: Snopes there is very meticulous about that. They look into each detail, everything that they print. Wikipedia is an interesting, sort of in-between situation; I think you might agree. It's got a lot of good information in there, but I have to go in regularly and check any place where my name appears and just sort of sharpen up or trim some of the corners on it to make it a little more accurate, but I willingly do that because it is a great source of information.

Steve: Yeah, one of the pitfalls of celebrity I guess, in the modern age?

Randi: Yes! Indeed it is. Well I'm only a minor celebrity, but hey, I wear it very well, I think.

Steve: Well! You're not a minor celebrity around my house, where I grew up seeing you on programs like Wonderama in WNEW in New York.

Randi: Yes! Well, I spent that money already, you know.

Steve: So you were the Amazing Randi back then and are you no longer amazing?

Randi: Oh! I'm still amazing, but I just don't just use that moniker. I think that it, sort of, takes away the position of being the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, to call yourself, "amazing". I rather try to discourage people, although my close friends always refer to me affectionately as "amazing" and they are absolutely correct.

Steve: So, how did the foundation get started and what's the purpose?

Randi: It's a strange story actually. Years ago, when I first got on the Internet, I got a little bit of a presence going there and I heard from one gentleman from time to time, who just signed his name. I didn't know who he was and then he suddenly got my attention when he wrote me and said, "By the way, I usually give away a lot of money every year, perhaps I should give some to the foundation." We had just started the foundation and I thought that was an excellent idea, but I insisted in going all the way to Virginia, the state in which he lived, in order to confirm. I wanted to make sure that we [were] really of the same philosophy, general philosophy, yes, but specific philosophy; and we hit it off very, very well from the very beginning. This is a gentleman, who is anonymous now and will not be named; he who will not be named and we, as I say, we hit it off very, very well and he funded the foundation and he is as matter of fact, the one who eventually gave us the million dollars to put up as the prize, the great character we dangle in front the so-called psychic in order to entice and reprove their case.

Steve: And the foundation though has grown since then into, sort of, a general rationalist program.

Randi: Oh Yes! We've evolved, if you will pardon the expression.

Steve: Oh please! I'm all for it.

Randi: Yeah, well we are too because we have done it. We have evolved over the years. We have been in business for over 10 years now and we have got the million-dollar offer out for 10 years as of this last March 6th. It will be discontinued on March 6th two years from now because it just [would] have been too much of a pain in a certain part of the anatomy in order to continue it. It takes too much time and it really isn't as productive as we thought it would be. It seems that everybody is offering a million dollars for everything these days.

Steve: The XPRIZE for psychic powers.

Randi: Exactly! All psychic claims or abilities or whatever, they don't actually have to have psychic powers, they just have to demonstrate that such things exist and we don't claim that there isn't such a thing. We allow them to claim that there is and then we say, "Fine, prove it and you get a million dollars." And you'd be surprised there is not a lineup right outside. I'm looking out the window—no there is no lineup this morning; in fact there wasn't yesterday, in fact there never is a lineup of people hammering at the door trying to get up the million-dollar prize.

Steve: Not to mention, if I had psychic powers, your million dollars would be pocket change.

Randi: Yeah! Oh, indeed, sure I would hope so.

Steve: I would be in Las Vegas, but not for your meeting. (laughs) I had mentioned that we actually did meet once. I was in the audience at a[n] AAAS conference, and you were the speaker; and I happened, I think I happened to sit in the seat, maybe you directed me to it with the power of your mind, I don't know, but I was called on and you had a column of newspaper print and you were moving your hand up and down the print and you cut that column exactly where I told you to from about 50 feet away and then when you made the cut, there was a particular line of text right above the cut and you told me to turn the chair over that I had been sitting in and that line of text was written on a piece of paper on the bottom of that chair.

Randi: I would say that's a miracle of something of [a] religious nature, wouldn't you?

Steve: Well, it obviously stayed with me. You know, you have been accused of being a charlatan in that. Some people think you really do have psychic powers, but you make believe it is just tricks.

Randi: No, I'm not really a witch, I admit that, but on the other hand why don't you ask me how I did it?

Steve: How did you do it?

Randi: With [With] great skill and dedication, funny you should ask!

Steve: Well! James Randi it's a pleasure to talk to you. Great luck with the meeting, and I hope we talk again.

Randi: Well luck has nothing to do with it. It'll all depend on the registration.

Steve: Great skill—and "Luck is the Residue of Design'as Branch Rickey had said.

Randi: There you go. Okay. Thank you so much.

(music plays)

Steve: Ben Goldacre's Web site is www.badscience.net. And for more on James Randi and the "Amazing Meeting" in Las Vegas, just go to http://www.randi.org. Next up, SciAm's Mark Alpert: he has been an editor here for a decade, but in his spare time, he wrote a technothriller novel with lots of physics. The book, called Final Theory, came out this week. I spoke to him in his apartment in New York City.

Steve: [A] lot of the characters in your story read Scientific American.

Alpert: Yeah, and I put a lot of my Scientific American articles into the novel because you know that's what you do when you put everything that you have and you dump it all in there. And through the magazine, I've seen some interesting things like virtual reality combat systems and particle colliders and all this stuff is good stuff for thrillers.

Steve: When did you actually have the idea to write this; in fact let's back up because listeners don't know what the book is about. Give them the idea of what the book is about without giving too much away.

Alpert: Sure, sure. Well, it's based on the idea that Albert Einstein, in the second half of his life, was working on coming up with a theory of everything—a unified theory that'll explain all the forces of nature and one of the tragedies of his life is that all of his published attempts to do this didn't work and scientists are still struggling with coming up with an unified theory. Well the precise idea of the novel is Einstein didn't fail, he actually succeeded, but he realized that this theory was so powerful it would lead to weapons that are even worse than atom bombs, so he had to hide the theory. He parcels it out to his assistants and the thriller is about how that secret has started to come out.

Steve: Right it's coming out along with intestines and chunks of brain and…

Alpert: Well! There is a fairly brood[ing], old mercenary and the government is not too easy either. So there is science in this thriller, but it is also of the typical stuff that you read about in thrillers like car chases and gun battles and that sort of thing.

Steve: There is science in the plot, but there is extra science. For example, you have a character's rib breaking and rather than just say, the rib broke, you talk about the tensile strength of the rib had been violated.

Alpert: Right, right. Well! I tried to get inside the scientist's mind and that was part of the reason why they think in terms of centimeters and meters instead of feet, you know, I was trying to get inside their heads a little bit and seeing—at one point, in the very first chapter, this Professor Kleinman, he looks up, he is in a bathtub being drowned, and he sees these ripples on the surface and he thinks, "Oh! A Fourier series". That would occur to him I guess.

Steve: So, when did you get the idea that, you know, all the stuff I know about physics could turn into a novel?

Alpert: Well, it was when we were doing that special issue back in 2004 on Albert Einstein and I was reading a lot about his life then and I just got fascinated by the idea of, you know his efforts to get to create a unified theory. And so, I did a fair amount of research and read some biographies of Einstein and one of the funny things is I was looking into papers, there was one paper that was written by Gerard 't Hooft, a very renowned Dutch physicist who won the Nobel Prize, and he wrote a paper claiming that perhaps Einstein's approach to getting a theory of everything may have been the correct one; because Einstein believed in a classical, sort of, an older-fashioned approach using the equations of classical physics, whereas most physicists you know—most things like string theory and loop quantum gravity—these are quantum theories, their basis is quantum mechanics. But 't Hooft was saying, "Well, actually maybe Einstein was right, maybe a classical approach would work better". And anyway I was reading this paper, fascinated by it, and then I looked in the references and one of the references is a paper that I co-wrote with my professor at Princeton in astrophysics, you know, 20 years ago, and I thought this is amazing. I am a part of this quest somehow, so I have to write about it.

Steve: And your protagonist, David Swift, is the author in the book of a paper similar to the paper that you actually authored.

Alpert: Yeah! It's a complete rip-off of my real life. Yeah! This David Swift is like me in a way. He studied physics in college and wanted to be a physicist, but never actually became one and so now he is, sort of, on the periphery writing about it for a general audience.

Steve: You have an unusual background actually; I didn't know about it. You have a bachelor's in astrophysics from Princeton and then you went off and got a master's in poetry.

Alpert: In poetry, that's right. Well! You know I was impressionable as a young man and there were lots of girl[s] I liked and so I would write poems about them and it struck me, you know, it struck me that physics and poetry were really not that far apart, because you are trying to appreciate the wonders of the universe. And so I thought, okay, you know, after I finished Princeton and wrote that paper on relativity I thought, "Okay I'm going to try poetry for awhile." And then, of course, I got a masters in poetry, and then I needed to get a job, so, I went into journalism and here I am.

Steve: Was it John Keats who said that Newton had "destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by figuring out what it was?"

Alpert: Oh! He was crazy per se. I'd think you know—look the more you understand about the universe, the more beautiful it appears. I mean, look at all the things out there, dark matter and dark energy; what are these, if not poetic concepts?

Steve: Yeah, the more you learn, I think, the more you realize how much you don't know and how much more, you know, awe inspiring everything becomes.

Alpert: Right and the Final Theory is a good framework for this kind of search because this is the ultimate, you know, you are looking for the blueprints of creation, you know, God's handiwork, and that's what Einstein was after. He always wanted to know the secrets of the old one and the characters in my novel are also fascinated by it. I mean, there is practical reasons why they have [to] find the theory. They are being chased by, you know, horrible mercenaries and FBI agents, but at the same time, they are inspired by the idea maybe we can be the first to actually see this theory and they are very excited about that.

Steve: Well, the book is a real page-turner and as I was reading it, I was thinking because, I know you, I was thinking, how did all this stuff just kind of come out of his head?

Alpert: Well! Yeah, bet me part of it is when sitting down to write a novel at least for me, I, sort of, had most of the plot arranged, and I knew where I wanted to go; I knew I wanted it to be a chase novel, and I knew I wanted it to involve as much fun science as I could, so I knew I wanted to make a stop at the Robotics Institute, for example at Carnegie Mellon because that's a really cool place, and I knew I really wanted to end up at Fermi Lab and at the particle collider, the Tevatron, that is really cool; and then there are all sorts of stops on the way, you know, some of them are not related science; and I'm fascinated by West Virginia for example, and so there are some chapters in there and then I am also really interested in military technology, and so the characters all start going down to Fort Benning and doing the virtual reality combat there and so, I guess, yeah, for me, you know novel is you know, a collection of all the things that fascinate you.

Steve: You are a full-time editor at Scientific American. When did you write this?

Alpert: Whenever I could. You know, I also have kids too. So it's not like I can just, you know, come home and write at the time, but I found the time. One of the funniest moments was occasionally, you know, with young kids you always take them to birthday parties; anyone who has young kids knows about that and so while I took my daughter to one of these parties, you know, the kids are playing, they are doing, you know, eating cakes, or eating pizza or musical chairs and so I am in the corner, busy writing the novel; because I figured okay I have maybe half an hour here and you know maybe an hour and then some of the other parents come up to me and they say, "What are you doing? Are you taking notes on the birthday party? This is very strange," and I say, "No, no! Actually I'm writing a novel" and they go, "Tell me about it" and then I've completely lost all the time.

Steve: Right, right. There is a famous photo, maybe you've seen it, of Einstein at home with two young children working on his physics, while he is holding one of the kids.

Alpert: Yeah well! With Einstein of course, you know, his family relations were always a sour point. I mean, he had all the problems with Mileva, his first wife and his kids, you know, he was separated from them after they divorced.

Steve: And it's all in the book, too.

Alpert: Yeah, yeah! I put through some of them because it is interesting to go into his personal life. I mean, in some ways in his personal life, you could see him [as] very cold because he was so focused on the physics to the exclusion of everything else, but on the other hand he could be an incredibly charming man and his feelings for humanity in general were incredibly idealistic, so—[a] fascinating guy.

Steve: Now, a lot of people have this dream of writing a novel and you've actually now written one that has been published, but just for the people who, you know, maybe don't stick with it a lot, tell everybody how many books, how many novels you've actually written?

Alpert: Well, this is the fifth novel I've written; I had four before this, that didn't sell and, well, I have to say, two of them were not very good anyway; but you know, you got to just keep at it, I mean, and also you've got to love it, because you know the chances of getting published frankly are, it's an incredibly tough, high hurdle to cross, and so you really have to enjoy the process. So I had a lot of fun reading Final Theory, you know, I had no idea whether it will get published or not, it's a total crapshoot.

Steve: You just said reading it; did you mean writing it?

Alpert: I mean writing, sorry. I had a lot of fun writing Final Theory, even though I knew getting published would be you know, a total crapshoot, I thought, you know, I am not going to write anything here unless I'm having fun doing it because that's what keeps you going.

Steve: So just remember, if you are working on that third unpublished novel, you know, Mark went through four before he hit the fifth that actually got printed.

Alpert: I think people just keep at it. I mean I always took it, when people told me, "Just keep at it, just keep at it," I thought they are just telling me that, you know, I didn't quite believe it, but you know, I kept at it anyway, so.

Steve: So Final Theory. Why don't you read just the first paragraph of the book?

Alpert: Hans Walter Kleinman, one of the great theoretical physicists of our time was drowning in his bathtub. A stranger with long sinewy arms had pinned Hans' shoulders to the porcelain bottom.

Steve: So, after that you've got to keep reading.

Alpert: Exactly!

Steve: Now its time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS

Story number 1: According to a study of over 100,000 people, most injuries related to bunk beds involved people between 18 and 21 years of age.

Story number 2: Starting this week, astronauts will attempt to fix a broken toilet on the international space station.

Story number 3: Researchers have a new estimate for the mass of the Milky Way and it's about a trillion times that of our sun.

And story number 4: Movie star Hedy Lamarr invented and patented signal technology that is used today in cell phones.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Hedy Lamarr invented a way to continuously change radiofrequencies. The intent at the time was to make radio-guided weapons, less open to detection, but the technology has become useful in numerous wireless transmission systems. For more, check out the June 3 article on our Web site called, "Hedy Lamarr: Not just a Pretty Face".

Gov. LePetomaine: "Thank you, thank you, Hedy, thank you."
Hedley Lamarr: "It's not Hedy, its Hedley. Hedley Lamarr."

Gov. LePetomaine: "What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874! You'll be able to sue her!"

Story number 3 is true. The Milky Way weighs in about a trillion solar masses according to research that will be published in The Astrophysical journal. One of the researchers are[is] quoted in an article at http://www.space.com as saying that the Milky Way is slimmer than previously thought; that's because the Milky Way has less chocolate, I mean, less dark matter.

And number story 2 is true. The liquid waste toilet on the space station has been out of commission for weeks, and by the time you hear this, astronauts will have commenced to command the commode. In space no one can hear you flush.

All of which means that story number 1, about most bunk bed injuries happening to people between 18 and 21 is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But what is true is that 18-to-21-year-olds form a second smaller clustering of bank bed injury victims, the big group being kids under 10. The study appears in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics. The authors could not pinpoint a reason for the injury rate among the 18-to-21-year-olds. When I was a little kid, I slept in the top bunk with my brother in the bottom bunk; he was ten years older. So, I know from personal experience that a potential cause of the injury rate for the older kids is younger kids swooping down on them from the upper bunk.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit http://www.sciam.com for the latest science news, videos, and slide shows and sign up for the daily digest at http://www.sciam.com/daily. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Hedley Lamarr: Meeting is adjourned.
Gov. LePetomaine: It is?
Hedley Lamarr: No, you say that, governor.
Gov. LePetomaine: What?
Hedley Lamarr: Meeting is adjourned.
Gov. LePetomaine: It is?
Hedley Lamarr: Here, sir; play with this.
Gov. LePetomaine: Well, thank you Hedy.
Hedley Lamarr: No, it's Hedley.
Gov. LePetomaine: It is.

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