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.

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.