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Did My Daughter Solve the Riddle Posed by Cosmic Theorist Andrei Linde?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Russian-born physicist Andrei Linde, now at Stanford, has been in the news lately because of his contributions to inflation, a theory of our universe’s creation that has recently won support (although not from me). I’d like to tell a tale about Linde’s talent not for solving cosmic mysteries but for magic. The story also involves James “The Amazing” Randi, the famous magician and skeptic, and my daughter Skye, now 19.

Photo by James Randi shows how Andrei Linde might have performed jumping-match trick, but Skye Horgan has proposed an alternative method.

The tale begins in 1990, when Scientific American sent me to a remote resort in northern Sweden to attend a symposium on “The Birth and Early Evolution of Our Universe.” I was the only journalist there, along with 30 of the world’s leading imaginers of how the cosmos came to be. They included “The Simpsons” guest star Stephen Hawking; Jim Peebles, one of cosmology’s wisest wise men; Sidney Coleman, once described as a cross between Einstein and Woody Allen; Michael Turner, arguably cosmology’s leading cartoonist; John Ellis, hirsute coiner of the term “theory of everything”; Alan Guth, mop-topped inflation pioneer; Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer; and Linde, the flamboyant Russian physicist, who was fond of invoking “kvantum fluctuation” as a solution to nature’s mysteries.

One evening, the symposium organizers flew us by helicopter to a remote mountain lake, where everyone began imbibing a potent local brew called Wolf’s Blood. The following scene ensued, which I describe in my 1996 book The End of Science:

“After imbibing a drink or two…Linde snapped a rock in half with a karate chop. He stood on his hands and then flipped himself backwards and landed on his feet. He pulled a box of wooden matches out of his pocket and placed two of them, forming a cross, on his hand. While Linde kept his hand–at least seemingly–perfectly still, the top match trembled and hopped as if jerked by an invisible string. The trick maddened his colleagues. Before long, matches and curses were flying every which way as a dozen or so of the world’s most prominent cosmologists sought in vain to duplicate Linde’s feat. When they demanded to know how Linde did it, he smiled and growled, ‘Ees kvantum fluctuation.’”

As far as I know, none of the scientists at the meeting ever figured out how Linde did it. I certainly never did. Fast forward to June 2006, when I was chatting over dinner with my wife and kids. My 12-year-old son Mac mentioned a kid at school who could do backflips and other tricks, and I recalled Linde’s backflips and match trick. I even got a couple of matches to demonstrate the trick.

Skye, who was 11 then, took a match, put it in her palm, and said, “Maybe he did it this way.” She blew on the match—just a little puff—and it twitched, exactly as I remember the matches twitching in Linde’s palm.

“That’s it!” I yelled. I remembered Linde leaning his face toward the matches, staring at them intently, pretending that he was focusing his brain waves. Obviously he had learned how to blow on the matches without any detectable sound or movement of his mouth.

I wrote about Skye’s feat in a post (on a now-defunct blog) that I titled, “My Daughter: Smarter than World Famous Scientists.” To my surprise, I soon received an email from Randi, who said: “That is NOT the way the ‘jumping match’ trick is done.” He added, “It’s very complicated to explain, though very easy to do.” Randi sent me a photograph, re-printed here, along with the following explanation:

The trick either produces a rattling/trembling of the loose match, or the loose match jumps up into the air. It depends on how you do it, and also on the dryness of the fingernails, and your skill… Examine the photo attached.

There are two matches used, the operating match –”O”–and the moving match—”M.” My right thumb is pushing hard against the head of “O” in the direction “A.” (The head of “O” can just be seen peeking out at the tip of the “A” arrow.) My right index finger pushes hard the opposite way, in direction “B” against “O”. This produces force “F” against the nail of my middle finger at position “X.”

Match “M” rests freely on the end of “O.” To make “M” move, I allow “O” to slide up along the fingernail at “X” in VERY small jumps – perhaps a hundredth of an inch at a “jump.” Since the fingernail is rough, it doesn’t allow it to slide, but makes it go in a jerky fashion. The force “F” on “O” is re-directed upward along the surface of the fingernail. The very small movements of “O” can’t be seen, but the resulting movement of “M” is very obvious. A strong though tiny upward “bump” against “M” either throws it up into the air violently, or makes it jump up and down in tiny increments – a “tremble.” I can get about 8 or 10 “jumps” while the match “O” moves only about a total of an eighth-inch up the fingernail, then I re-set it for another sequence of jumps. Try it… But you may find it works better for you with really strong tooth-picks…

As far as I know, Linde has never revealed the secret of his trick; he is probably sticking with his “kvantum fluctuation” explanation. Maybe–okay, probably–he made the matches jump with Randi’s method, not Skye’s. But I hold by my statement that Skye—measured by her ability to make a match jump, as if by magic–is smarter than world-famous scientists.

Further reading: See my 1992 profile of Linde, an edited version of which I just posted on this blog.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. BookSpine 5:53 am 03/23/2014

    “Russian physicist Andrei Linde” is an American citizen.

    Link to this
  2. 2. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 10:56 am 03/23/2014

    See fix.

    Link to this
  3. 3. BookSpine 12:04 pm 03/23/2014

    Not big on attribution, are we? Ah well, at least the mistake was corrected.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff2 9:24 pm 03/23/2014

    Attribution of, or to, what? Notice the headlines that claim the Big Bang is proof of god? I assume the Big Bang was a big bang if it was, but am amazed that the press correlates any aspect of physics as ‘proof of god’.

    So, at what point are we reading hype in the media and what can we actually accept and trust?

    Link to this
  5. 5. rshoff2 9:27 pm 03/23/2014

    Ok, in my ignorance, I associate Inflation with the Big Bang. I assume Inflation was preceded, and caused by, the Big Bang. At least that the two are inextricably linked.

    Link to this
  6. 6. SoftLanding 6:21 am 03/24/2014

    rshoff2,

    The “Big Bang” creation story is the articulation from Science of the “ex nihilo” creation story of Theology.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rshoff2 2:31 pm 03/24/2014

    @Soft #6 – Well, nothing comes out of nothing. Everything is from something. We may not be able to understand it or perceive it, but things don’t just ‘appear’.

    Another way to look at it. I’m given a choice to believe two unprovable things:

    1 – The Universe was created from nothing, by a benevolent and humble being (that must have existed before existence itself…. now THAT is circular).

    OR

    2 – The Universe has always existed, at least the non sentient components have existed in varying forms of energy, particles, fields, forces, etc. which simply change and evolve over the eons. Even if there was a big bang, something existed prior, perhaps only the forces underlying the forces we see at work today.

    Although I cannot prove the second, it conforms to my day to day experience within the very same universe.

    I’ll believe number 2 until further notice. I admit it’s a belief, albeit a rational one given the alternative.

    And don’t tell me about the Higgs particle until you can tell me about the ‘Higgs Field’.

    Link to this
  8. 8. dadster 12:38 am 03/25/2014

    Look at a small rivulet flowing over rocky surface over pebbles and stones .You can see the turbulence, the whirls and pools and the chaotic way it flows. What’s the problem then in imagining universal cosmic energies rippling and buffeting against each of its own chaotic flowing sections creating matter, radiation and what not in the process. After all tremendous amounts of energy flows all around us , energies from the sun , fromblack holes , from the other stars in our galaxy and from galaxies beyond. We stand awash in cosmic energies but are unaware of it just like we are not even aware of the considerable amount of atmospheric pressure exerted on our heads ! Our mathematical imagination , logic and equations nets some of those energies but we piddly little earthlings cannot hope to net all the complex flows of cosmic energies swirling , tossing and buffeting us and the small portion of cosmos that’s ” visible” to our senses and imaginations. To be aware that Cosmos is of much much larger scale and dimensions does not require rocket science , but simple common sense. We must be thankful that we are given some awareness of cosmos viewing through the pinhole of our senses . What we see and sense is only a minuscule portion and aspects of cosmos. That we think we know what’s cosmos is all about is just hubris. Having said that, we will be always trying to satisfy our curiosity which is also an aspect of cosmos . But we must be modest and be aware of our limits of understanding . We can at best be a little aware of the projection of multidimensional cosmos on our limited dimensions and derive our satisfaction from that. Don’t indulge in mKing tall claims like , ” we know how to make a cosmos ” or ” how cosmos is made ” . We don’t even know how to make “life” in the lab from raw inorganic chemicals , though nature so prolifically makes it day in and day out. At best we can know how to dissect a frog or a flower ( its physical structure , its hard ware ) but don’t know how to assemble back the dissected sections and re- instill life in it , rekindle it with life , after removing all life from it or fragrance and growth into the dissected flower. Nature has been around for billions of years , our science has been here for the past 300 years or so . Give us and our science at least a million or so years more before venturing out to lay claims on any knowledge of natural energies at work in which we float around. Till then just bash on regardless , but just be humble and modest when nature reveals some of its secret to you.

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