Pit ball: Psychics know the tricks



Q. A performing psychic invites a woman from the audience to the stage, where she feels his pulse beat slower and slower and finally stop as he "channels" in a spirit from the Beyond. Isn't this heart-stopping demo dangerous? –M. Sosostris

A. Only real danger is that the woman may have read Massimo Polidoro's Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims and tells everyone about the ping-pong- ball-under-the-armpit gambit. As the psychic slyly presses his arm down on the ball, blood flow to the hand slows, which an uninformed observer will generally interpret as a fading heartbeat. Magician/skeptic James Randi and colleague Jose Alvarez used this so effectively in fake spirit-channelings on Australian TV, says Polidoro, that "not even the physicians who examined Alvarez were able to guess how he did it."

Q. "Lithopedion" is a bizarre and tragic birth event. What's it all about? -M. Sanger

A. It's called a "stone baby," from a tubal, ovarian, or abdominal pregnancy where the fetus is never expelled and becomes calcified, says Jan Bondeson in The Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels. It may cause initial pain but go undiagnosed for years or even decades. Fetal age is hard to determine due to drying up and shrinking.

In a remarkable 1674 case in Germany, pregnant 48-year-old Anna Mullern went into labor, but the pains lasted seven weeks, says Bondeson. When they ceased, her belly remained swollen. Anna recovered, and though convinced she was still carrying her first unborn child, went on to bear two healthy children. When she died at age 94, a surgeon discovered in her belly "a hard mass of the form and size of a large Ninepin-Bowl." The lithopedion was taken before the Royal Society of London.

Q. When the shocked monks learned that Cellarer John had been stealing wine from the big 100-pint cask, he defended, "But I have taken only a pint per day for the month of June." "You thief, that's 30 pints!" "Not exactly, because each day I put back in a pint of water, to maintain the original level. If you can tell me exactly how much wine I have taken, I will deem my punishment just." Could the monks comply? –F.D. Assisi

A. What was the year and how much math did they know? After the first theft, explains H. E. Dudeney in The Canterbury Puzzles, obviously 99 pints of wine remained in 100 pints of liquid. The wine concentration was now .99. But then things got headier. After the second theft, the concentration was reduced again by a factor of .99, or .99 x .99 = .9801; after the third theft, .970299.

But if you try to do this for all 30 thefts, you will get a figure with nearly 60 decimal places! The monks would have needed heavenly intervention to do this without logarithms, calculators or computers. The exact quantity of wine stolen would be 26.029962661171957726998490... pints. It's likely they didn't even try to get the figure, says Dudeney, as one was overheard to say, "A man who would involve the monastery in a fraction of 58 decimals deserves severe punishment."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.