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 June 2002
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Fact or Fiction
Don’t believe everything you see, hear, or read

While some researchers pore over the works of the great intellects of our time—people like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein—others work the margins. They’re examining theories postulated by lesser lights. Homespun philosophers. Armchair inventors. To put it bluntly, crackpots.

Like, for instance, the late Charles K. Johnson of Lancaster, California, who devoted much of his life to exposing the “conspiracy” that the earth is round. “I’d say the dome of heaven is about 4,000 miles away, and the stars are about as far as San Francisco is from Boston,” he told a writer from Science Digest. Or the “experts” consulted for a television special that exposed the “truth” behind the “moon landing hoax.” They concluded—despite reams of evidence to the contrary—that the space program was faked in Hollywood.

Putting a stop to perpetual motion machines, turning off water engines, and hanging up on long-distance calls from the afterlife are debunkers like Pitt Chemistry Professor Emeritus Robert Wolke [*]There’s nothing new about quackery, he says.

“The quacks, the spiritualists, the fakers, these days clothe their pitches in pseudoscientific jargon, words like ‘electromagnetic vibrations,’” says Wolke, author of, What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions, and What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, and who is a columnist for the Washington Post. “They don’t know what it means, but it sounds very scientific.”

He maintains a “BS file” full of articles and advertisements with dubious claims, like the one for a “stunning silver pendant” that “magnifies” the wearer’s “energy field.” “It says it was developed by a physicist,” Wolke says, adding wryly, “well, I’ve known a couple of nutty physicists in my time.”

Scientific frauds aren’t always hoaxes, or perpetrated by nutty scientists. Sometimes they fall into the category of “bad science”—misinterpreting scientific principles and reaching false conclusions. One of the best known was the polywater theory of the 1960s. Two Soviet scientists claimed to have discovered a radical liquid with the same chemical composition as water, but which became solid at room temperature. Nervous chemists wondered if polywater escaped from the laboratory, would it turn the oceans solid? It turned out the Russians hadn’t properly cleaned their lab equipment. “Polywater” was an agglomeration of chemical goo, and many respectable people were left wiping it off their faces.

Still, it took weeks for the polywater flop to spread around the globe. These days, distributing hoaxes takes only the click of a mouse. And not all of them are based on scientific principles—some key into popular culture or news events. After last September 11, many people opened their e-mail to find a photo that purportedly showed a smiling tourist atop one of the World Trade Center towers, unaware an airplane was bearing down on the building from behind him. Though the image was a fraud—skeptics quickly pointed out inconsistencies, like the tourist’s winter clothing—it had a life of its own for several days.

Other hoaxes that circulated on the Internet following the terrorist attacks included the myth that someone “surfed” one of the collapsing WTC towers to safety. The public’s fascination with these urban legends intrigues Jonathan Sterne, a communications professor at Pitt who studies how technology affects popular culture, and vice versa. The Internet is not to blame for hoaxes, he points out.

“Whenever information can travel more quickly, ideas can spread more quickly, but media conduits don’t distinguish between truth and lies, people do,” Sterne says. In earlier times, hoaxes were distributed via mail, newspapers, or radio—like the War of the Worlds scare in 1938. “We’re always going to be fooled by something, one way or the other,” he says.

Wolke says folks should suspect baloney when they see or hear certain phrases, including “I’m the only one who knows this” and “it’s a secret given to me,” along with the ever-popular “studies show” and “scientists say.” Other clues, he says, are claims loaded with jargon that’s meaningful only to insiders.
—Jason Togyer


Best Kept Secrets
Soviet archives allow rare glimpse into Communist politics

When it comes to some government information, secrets are just that—secret—until the day they’re disclosed publicly. Then the information can be many things, but it really can’t be secret anymore. In Russia, however, information that has been made public can be withdrawn. In the parlance of the Russian government, it can be “resecretized.” The term is often used when recently restricted materials are requested from the Communist Party archives in Moscow.

To hear Pitt history professor William Chase tell the story, the archives’ staff is most polite and helpful. Even when telling you that you can’t have a document that had been given to you earlier. During the 1990s, Chase made many trips to Moscow to scour these archives while researching his new book, Enemies Within the Gates? The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934-1939.

Comintern was a Moscow-based committee that promoted communism outside the Soviet Union. Chase’s research targeted the smear campaigns and other repressive tactics that were used against Comintern members during a period of Soviet history known as the Great Terror.

The book was commissioned as part of Yale University’s Annals of Communism series, which was launched in 1992, not long after the Communist Party archives were opened for public inspection.

“The Soviet Union collapsed,” Gates says. “The archives opened up. Both individuals and groups were moving to take advantage of the new
openness.”

At the time, the Annals of Communism[*] series was a bit of a coup for Yale. The series promised unrestricted access to the archives for Yale researchers under the agreement that all materials be published simultaneously in English and Russian. However, the Russian government’s policy to throw open the archives was eventually modified, and restrictions were placed on certain collections. The government line was that the materials were being “reconsidered by the State Resecretization Committee.”

“The place was flooded with foreigners after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there was a general backlash against them,” says Chase. “They didn’t need what they saw as a scandal about historical issues.”

The result is that Chase’s book contains some of the few public disclosures of certain Soviet-era documents that with the new restrictions are resecretized.
—Tim J. Fitzgerald

Breakthroughs in the Making

Engineering professor Marlin Mickle dreams of a world with no supermarket checkout lines. The dream moved closer to reality after Mickle and his research team discovered a way to fabricate an antenna as part of a tiny silicon chip. The chip holds data such as product price and model number, and the antenna transmits the information to the register while updating the store’s inventory record. The device may one day replace product bar codes, which Mickle says would result in the disappearance of checkout lines.

Sonic Flashlight: The days of studying X-ray film and other scans to find out what’s going on inside the human body may be numbered. George Stetten, a physician and assistant professor of bioengineering in Pitt’s School of Engineering, has developed a “sonic flashlight,” which allows doctors to “see” inside the human body without the use of X-rays. Stetten’s prototype combines surface and ultrasound images to create real-time views of inner anatomy. For more information about the sonic flashlight, visit http://www.stetten.com[*].

Restless Nights: Astronauts may need lots of black coffee on long-distance space trips to stay awake, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found. Restful sleep becomes harder after about three months away from the natural time cues on Earth, says Psychiatry Professor Timothy H. Monk, who led the study. Long-distance space travel seems to disrupt part of the brain that controls the body’s cycle of sleep, wakefulness, and alertness.

*—Denotes an external link. Links to external Web sites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.


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