31 October 2006

Halloween myths beware of science

Cosmos Online
Children don't have to be scared this Halloween because – according to a U.S. physicist – ghosts and vampires don't stand up to scientific tests.
Halloween myths beware of science

Count Orlock, a vampire from the 1922 film Nosferatu. A new study shows that vampires, had they existed, would have ruled the Earth within a couple of years. Credit: Wikipedia

SYDNEY: Children don’t have to be scared this Halloween because – according to a U.S. physicist – ghosts and vampires don’t stand up to scientific tests.

Costas Efthimiou, a physics professor from the University of Central Florida, used the laws of physics and maths to debunk popular paranormal myths. His paper was published online in arXiv, an open archive of scientific studies.

“These popular myths make for a lot of Halloween fun and great movies with special effects, but they just don’t hold up to the strict tests of science,” said Efthimiou.

We’d all be vampires by now

Vampires, the fanged creatures that feast on human blood, would have obliterated the human population soon after the first vampire appeared, according to the paper.

Each time a vampire feeds, “The human population decreases by one and the vampire population increases by one,” said the paper. The study assumed that the first vampire appeared on 1 January 1600, when the world’s human population was 536,870,911. Vampires were assumed to feed once every month.

In February 1600, one human would have died and one vampire would therefore have been born. This would have resulted in two vampires and 536,870,910 humans. Each month the number of vampires would have doubled – in mathematics, this is known as a geometric progression.

As the number of vampires increased geometrically, the number of humans would have decreased geometrically. For example, after 10 months, there would have been 512 vampires and 536,870,400 humans.

After only two and a half years, the human population would therefore have dwindled to zero, and vampires would have ruled the Earth, said Efthimiou.

The study did not account for natural human mortality rates, which would have sped up the rate of humanity’s demise. Birth rates were not considered either, but would not have affected the final outcome: the human population would have to have doubled each month to have survived, which is “beyond the human capacity of reproduction,” said the paper.

Tetrodotoxin – not zombies

Zombies, the vampire’s paranormal brethren, live in the Caribbean, where some follow the legend of ‘voodoo zombiefication’. According to the paper, zombiefication occurs when a sorcerer places a voodoo hex on an enemy.

Efthimiou examined the case of Wilfred Doricent, a Haitian teenager, who experienced convulsions and died soon afterwards. According to the paper, Doricent’s body appeared bloated and gave off “the stench of death.”

However, soon after his burial, the teenager dug himself out of his grave and appeared at a community event as a zombie, shocking the villagers. His family verified the zombie’s true identity when they noticed that it bore the same scars as their son.

Efthimiou suggests that the boy was not a victim of voodoo, rather of tetrodotoxin (TTX), a highly toxic chemical found in sea creatures such as puffer fish. If a precise nonlethal dose is given, the victim’s symptoms will mimic death as their vitals “slow to an immeasurable rate”, said the paper. According to Efthimiou, the boy likely suffered brain damage which led to his zombie-like appearance.

Ghosts betray Newton’s laws of motion

The paper also examines the popular notion that ghosts are material-less. In Hollywood films like Ghost, they are able to walk around by touching their feet to the ground, yet are unable to grasp objects and can walk through walls.

According to Efthimiou, this portrayal defies Newton’s first and third Laws of Motion. The first law says that a body will remain at rest until an external force acts upon it; the third law holds that when one object exerts a force on another, that object exerts an equal force in the opposite direction.

For a ghost to walk, it must exert a force on the floor (according to Newton’s laws), meaning that it has an effect on the physical world, said Efthimiou. However, the concept of a ghost walking contradicts the idea that ghosts are material-less: ghosts must be material to walk, but material-less to walk through walls.

Efthimiou said he wrote the paper as an extension of a course he teaches called ‘Physics in Films’.

“The goal is to make the public see these topics as silly, as they cannot stand against critical thinking,” said Efthimiou. “It is part of a general effort to increase science literacy within the public and attack pseudoscientific beliefs.”


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