TV Producer Has Question

Here's a request for help that I received today from a researcher at a TV production company:

I work in the Development Department for a Production Company called North One TV. We're currently working on an idea for a show that uses science to hoax people. Obviously there are many fantastic science based hoaxes that have been performed through out history. What we're thinking is we could use one or two of the more famous hoaxes to break up the show. The main crux being a presenter fooling people on the street or in a studio, by confounding them with science? Unfortunately this is where we are struggling slightly. Do you know of any simple, experiment based tricks, common misconceptions, science based tom-foolery that would fit the bill. It could be things that are small and relatively simple to elaborate, but visual Science Hoaxes. Any input you guys at the museum might have would be greatly appreciated...

I get so many requests for research help from TV studios, I should probably start charging them consulting fees. But I'm a lousy businessman, so instead I give them all kinds of help for free. Anyway, does anyone have some ideas for this guy? I can't think of anything off the top of my head, though it sounds like what he's really interested in are science pranks.


Posted on Tue Feb 21, 2006


Start charging those consulting fees, Alex. No doubt your degree wasn't cheap, and it is time for you to start collecting. You can pay the rest of us back by buying a pint or two in Edinburgh.
Posted by BugbearSloth  in  earth, 3rd planet, sol system  on  Tue Feb 21, 2006  at  10:10 PM
If you want to see the depths of scientific ignorance in America, then go to an airport. Here you will find a never ending stream of people believing in their hearts an x-ray machine will damage a digital camera, a metal detector is an x-ray machine, and while it is okay to send your laptop through the machine, your CDs and iPod will be deleted and perhaps even warped.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  12:18 AM
How about the classic 'water into wine' trick that we use in Chemistry to impress the kids starting out in science? It is very simple, quite visually impressive and can be done on the street. So...

Take a glass with water. Add a few drops of sodium hydroxide solution to make it basic.

Next, prepare a second glass (more impressive to use a wine glass) with a drop or two of phenolphthalein solution. We use this as an is colorless in acid and neutral solution but deep wine red in basic solution.

Finally, in a third glass, add a few drops of a concentrated acid.

Now for the trick..

Pour the alkaline water into the apparently empty wine glass, which will magically transform into 'wine' (don't drink it!).

After the oooh's and aaaas's have died down, pour the 'wine' into the third (also seemingly empty glass to convert it back to water. The acid will neutralize the basic solution and the indicator will revert to being colourless.

A pretty simple piece of experimental hocus-pocus, but still looks pretty good!
Posted by doctorpsi  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  02:41 AM
Dennis Lee offers "free energy" demonstration seminars, and then offers to provide his free energy devices (once they are fully developed) to his audience members for a few thousand dollars investment up front. The demonstration I saw included a "Hummingbird Motor" that uses magnets to produce more energy than it uses, as well as a "Brown's Gas" motor that he wasn't able to get running at the time. His entire demonstration is scientifically presented with big words and demonstrations to prove his scientific claims. (There was a lot of talk amongst the attendees after "the show" about whether it is a hoax and he's out to fleece as much money as he can from his attendees, or whether he actually has some true "lost science" or "new science" and he's just having trouble getting his products developed or is being suppressed by "whomever". I attended about 7 years ago, and the people I saw who "invested" in his technology have yet to see a return, either in money or the devices they were promised. I'm no scientist, and I try not to be too much of a skeptic -- but something about it just didn't feel right to me. The demonstration was quite fun, however, and the guy is very charismatic. Type "hummigbird motor" or "brown's gas" into google and you'll see what I mean, every other site either slams him as a scam artist or praises him as a genius. It sounds like just the thing your television station is looking for, and they can "invest" in his scientific marvels by going to his site at freelectricity, dot com, of course.
Posted by Paul  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  09:38 AM
A "Hero's Fountain" is a scientific hoax. Basically it is a series of scientific bottles and tubes. When you pour water in the top bowl, it starts to drain out of the tubes, and the end of the line is a "fountain" spigot that spouts the water right back into the top bowl. It looks as it if would run forever (and if you built it right it would run for hours.) If you do a search on the web, you'll see that there are ugly (but fuctional) versions using two liter soda pop bottles and plastic tubing. But the one I saw was incredible. It was all of the expensive looking scientific equipment all linked together, with colored liquid, and was very impressive. If you are searching on google, just keep looking until you find a good one. (I first read about it in an 1800's book for performing magicians.)
Posted by magic1  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  09:45 AM
How about this one: arrange a deck of cards so that the colors alternate (red-black-red-black) all the way through. Break the deck into halves so that the bottom cards are one red and one black. Now riffle shuffle the deck (once). Now, if you pull pairs of cards off the top of the deck, each pair will be composed of one red and one black card.

To think it through, say the first card down on the riffle is the black--next either side (left or right) you release a card from is red. Strangely enough, the same is true for every card no matter how you shuffle them.

You can do the same with sets of 4 by ordering them say Clubs Hearts Spades Diamonds all the way through. But this time, you have to reverse one of the clumps that you shuffle. If you just deal off more or less half the cards, then riffle shuffle that--again, from the top every set of 4 will include one of each suit.

I got this from one of Martin Gardner's books.
Posted by Joe  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  10:06 AM
The whole erupting volcano is a classic.

Or how about dropping a few mentos into a 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola and stand back for the eruption. See the post on this site at

Or a raisin in a glass of sprite. They will sink and rise over and over.
Posted by dae dae  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  10:34 AM
Hey - The best place I've found on the net is this guy already has some science pranks (almost a devilish Bill Nye) and would probably be a great resource.

And hey - if they need music or an AFTRA narrator, have them contact me!
Posted by Bill  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  11:52 AM
One I remember liking from a high school physics class involves reaction time and gravity, and I won a couple of bar bets with it.

Hold a dollar bill (your choice of denomination, the higher the more impressive) hanging down long ways, and tell the other person to put their thumb and forefinger on either side and try to catch it when you let go, then let go. if they can catch the bill they can keep it. clearly it's crucial that you give no cue before letting go, the key is that they can't start trying to catch until after you let go.

because of the acceleration of gravity and length of the bill (yielding time before it falls through your fingers) you would need superhuman reflexes to catch it. the math is pretty easy.

I've never heard of anyone fast enough to catch it, though almost everyone who hasn't heard of the trick thinks they can.
Posted by joel  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  12:21 PM
Pretty much any magic trick is a scientific hoax. Although many rely on misdirection or subtlety, many rely in little known scientific principles. Just with cards, for example -- did you know that if you riffle shuffle a deck of cards perfectly 8 times it will return to its original order? Or that if you cut the deck (as many times as you want) it doesn't change the order of the cards, only the dealing start-point?

Any magician who has been performing for over a decade can tell you thousands.

Your TV requestors can email my buddy at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) if they'd like a resource who can tell them (and point them toward) a plethora of that kind of stuff.

BTW your site rocks!
Posted by relativelyspeaking  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  01:20 PM
Consulting fees are only good for the short term. Leverage your contacts to do bigger things instead of charging for just the short term cash.
Posted by David  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  04:25 PM
An ever-popular hoax is the "water pill" miracle energy source (also known by numerous other names). The hoaxer gets people to invest in his revolutionary invention by doing a simple demonstration. He (I've never heard of a woman doing this stunt) shows a car or truck and explains that he has made a few simple, inexpensive modifications to the engine so that it can run on plain tap water, with a small amount of a secret catalyst added to the water. With the audience watching, he then fills the car's fuel tank with water and adds a small pill, or a pinch of a special powder, or a few drops of a mysterious fluid, before replacing the fuel cap. Then he has the pigeons get in the car while he drives it a few hundred miles. If he presents the whole thing artfully enough, by the end of the ride his marks will be rabid to invest in this marvellous discovery, sure they will become instant millionaires.
This game has been around at least as long as gasoline engines have existed, but it seems to make a comeback every time the price of fuel gets high (such as now).

It's also been done with other kinds of engines (generators, furnaces, etc.) and with other fuels, such as coal.

(I'm sure I don't need to explain this, but the tank that gets filled with water (what would be the gas tank on a normal car) is not connected to the engine. There is another, hidden fuel tank powering the car. The prospective investors aren't told about the secret tank.)
Posted by Big Gary, on another quail hunt  on  Wed Feb 22, 2006  at  04:34 PM
Charge them!! (with fees that is).
And send them to Penn and Teller, I
Posted by Beasjt  on  Thu Feb 23, 2006  at  11:01 AM
"Finally, in a third glass, add a few drops of a concentrated acid.

Now for the trick..

Pour the alkaline water into the apparently empty wine glass, which will magically transform into 'wine' (don't drink it!).

Posted by doctorpsi on Wed Feb 22, 2006 at 04:41 AM

Just be sure to practice that a few times beforehand, starting with very small amounts, unless you're willing to risk going through the next few weeks without any eyebrows!
Posted by Accipiter  on  Thu Feb 23, 2006  at  12:53 PM
Just be sure to practice that a few times beforehand, starting with very small amounts, unless you're willing to risk going through the next few weeks without any eyebrows!
Posted by Accipiter in the Northern Hemisphere on Thu Feb 23, 2006 at 11:53 AM

..I presume that John Q TV Producer isn't going to be able to lay his hands on 10M HCl, so concentrated acid in this case is going to be 1M at chance of a huge exotherm!
Posted by doctorpsi  on  Thu Feb 23, 2006  at  03:26 PM
...The rubber pencil?? That's the only trick I really know.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Thu Feb 23, 2006  at  08:43 PM
I think that 10M HCl would lead to a very interesting display, though, Doctorpsi.

Presenter: "Watch as I turn this water into. . .wine!"

Audience: "Oooooooo! Aaaaaaah!"

Presenter: "And now, I shall turn this wine into. . .a raging volcano of destruction aaaaaaa get it off get it off me aaaaaaaa bubble gurgle arrrrrrrgh. . .!"

Audience: "Oooooooo! Aaaaaaah!"

It would then be a trick played on both the audience and the presenter, or on whatever was left of the presenter at the end of it. That would beat boring ol' water to wine to water any time! I wonder, though, what their definition of "science based" is? That can actually be an incredibly wide-ranging description. After all, some people consider things like economics to be science. So would staging a fake Great Depression count? Or are they looking only for the more "traditional" sciences: physics, chemistry, and biology?
Posted by Accipiter  on  Thu Feb 23, 2006  at  09:37 PM
..Hahahaha! I like that idea Accipiter!
Posted by doctorpsi  on  Fri Feb 24, 2006  at  12:59 AM
Tricks of this nature rely on assumptions people make about science. Some on-the-street segments that might be fun:

* A lot of people think only diamonds (of 'clear gems') can scratch glass, but silica glass is actually very soft. They could do something with (very common) quartz crystals, claiming they've discovered a diamond mine.

* Burning water: put a small amount of lighter fluid in an erlenmeyer flask, not enough to be noticable if you move it around (the shape of the flask hides it well). Go to a faucet and fill it almost to the top with water, and light it. The lighter 'lighter fluid' (heh) will float and burn for a minute or so. This could be worked into a "Your city's water is so polluted that it will burn" segment.
Posted by Splarka  on  Fri Feb 24, 2006  at  01:59 AM

* You might also look on (and ask on) for some great possible tricks.

* Also Theodore Grey ( has a nifty trick: He has spoons made of gallium, indium, and tin that melt in warm water. A segment of "Did you know, if you heat nutrasweet/coke/pepsi/whatever above 100 degrees it will dissolve stainless steel?".
Posted by Splarka  on  Fri Feb 24, 2006  at  02:07 AM
so basicly this show is a "street magician" type thing?
Posted by Sam  on  Mon Mar 13, 2006  at  03:21 AM
Do the old Dihydrogen Monoxide scare trick.

Way back when (some years back)

A kid did a science project on the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide...

Less than a teaspoon could kill you... it can eat through metal, and it's been found in great quantities in numerous major american reservoirs, lakes, and rivers yet the government refuses to take action. Sign this petition if you would like to protect your environment.
Posted by Patrick  on  Thu Apr 13, 2006  at  01:41 PM
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