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Fringe: Setting People on Fire With Your Brain

Science Not Fiction
By Eric Wolff
May 7, 2009 9:19 PMNov 5, 2019 12:51 AM


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OK, I kind of loved it when, in this week's episode of Fringe, Emmanuel Grayson basically reveals the plot of the Star Trek movie in his spiel. Does this mean that the Star Trek universe and the Fringe universe are the same? Maybe Emmanuel Grayson *is* Spock. Or is it just that both the show and the movie exist in J.J. Abrams' head? Hard to say. But mostly I want to talk about pyrokinesis. And if you're curious about that, you gotta click the jump, to avoid pesky spoilers from last night's episode. Whatever one wants to say about Fringe's science, we should at least concede that they know their science fiction. The word pyrokinesis was indeed, as Walter tells us, invented by Stephen King though he certainly didn't come up with the idea of people starting fires with their brains (King himself has admitted his indebtedness to previous sci-fi stories). But can it be done? Well, technically, no. Brain waves generate hardly any energy, not even enough to light a light bulb. The ignition point of a piece of wood is about 307º F, and the ignition temperature of human fat is 480º F. Lighting them on fire would require far more than thought. (Thought plus gasoline and a match would do the trick. But I digress.) For pyrokinesis believers, the theory is that people with the ability to set fires with their minds rely on a subatomic particle called a pyrotron. But while this idea gets some attention in the, ahem, alternative lifestyles press, it gets no attention from Google Scholar. Well, no attention, except for the fact that the term is widely used to describe certain pieces of scientific equipment. Oh, and the Australian government calls its fire-wind tunnel simulator a pyrotron, too. There have, of course, been any number of reported cases of people with the pyrotechnics ability. I read several, and they were generally magicians' tricks, but the best has to be A.W. Underwood, from all the way back in 1882. (Confession: I found his tale through Wikipedia.) Underwood managed to convince everyone in the town of Paw Paw, Michigan, that he had the ability to start fires with his thoughts. Dr. L.C. Woodman, a physician from the area, examined Underwood and came away convinced the phenomenon was real, and he even wrote his study up for Scientific American. The controversy about Underwood raged until Dr. R. Thomas, writing in The Medical Age, in 1883, revealed a possible method for the trick, one he had performed himself. First, he would store phosphorus in his mouth, near a gum. When he wanted to perform, he would hold a hanky to his mouth ("Seldom my own," he writes) and spit the phosphorus into it. Then he'd rub the hanky in his hands. Bam! Houston, we have hanky ignition. Since phosphorus combusts at a temperature near that of the body, the extra friction was all that was needed to cause it to ignite. Thomas thought Underwood had to be using the same technique. While that trick would certainly still work, I postulate another way to perform pyrokinesis. Given that we now have the ability to use a toy to move objects with brain waves alone, couldn't those brain waves just as easily trigger a computer that then flicked on a lighter? You might call that cheating. And I might set you on fire with my brain—with an assist to my trusty pyro-bot.

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