Sunday, March 7, 2010

A visit to The Byrd Park Pump House "ghosts" capture event.

Richmond Skeptics visit the Byrd Park Pump House for a capture and containment of "ghost" event. Is it Real ScienceTM?

On March 6th, 2010, a couple of us from the Richmond Skeptics gathered along with perhaps 100 other curious onlookers to attend a live ghost capturing event put on by the Foundation for Paranormal Research. According to their own press release (available here and here) we were prepared to witness the "paranormal capture and containment of "ghosts" or foreign entity's within our personal world."

If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll make it to the end - but first, a quick note about this post. Please understand, if you are a member of the Foundation for Paranormal Research, I truly look forward to having a dialog with you about the event, and what conclusions and claims your organization will - I assume at some point - make about it. However, this blog post is not really trying to convince you of anything. I'm much more interested in reaching the people who weren't quite sure what they were going to see at the Pump House. The ones who might have gone hoping to see something fantastic and supernatural, and perhaps came away a little bit cold and mostly bored. Anyone who has not yet quite decided if "Ghost" hunting as an activity actually deals with real supernatural events. These are the people who motivate me to write about this experience, and to offer my thoughts on what I saw.

The venue for the event was The Bryd Park Pump House. It truly is a Richmond Treasure. It is an amazingly cool structure! The Pump House sits between the canal and the James River, just passed the tollbooths on the Nickel Bridge. Getting to take a look around this old building made the entire trip to the event well worthwhile. If you've never been for a visit, consider taking the time to seek it out (they do tours in the summer months) - you won't be sorry, and you'll come away with another uniquely Richmond experience.

The main room of the Pump House is where the event took place. It had been darkened for the event, by placing cardboard over all the windows (+1 for use of duct tape). This seemed to help offset the very atypical ghost hunting time selected for the event of 11am on a Saturday. Upon entering the main area, I was quickly struck by the overwhelming amount of technology present for this process. I was not expecting such an elaborate setup - it was pretty impressive and quite aesthetically pleasing. Here are a few excellent pictures of it that we took.

Unfortunately, this also present our first point of contention. Typically, Real ScienceTM, isn't very pretty. When I say Real ScienceTM, I'm talking about the kind done in controlled laboratory environments, which produce repeatable results. The outputs of Real ScienceTM are verifiable. Things like better treatment for cancer and AIDS, the clean drinking water in your house, and cool technology, like the stuff inside my phone and this laptop, which we know work, because you are reading this. Real ScienceTM creates Real ProgressTM that can help make life better, and teaches us something about the reality of the Universe we live in. When you are testing nature and looking for effects, what matters most is the data you produce and your ability to control for as many variables as possible. Making it look presentable and pretty is hardly on the list of things that matter, at all.

Now, this does not necessarily mean the demonstration team is not doing Real ScienceTM. It just means it that if they are doing Real ScienceTM, it also happens to look a bit like a stage show or a movie set. Perhaps a bit more than your average Real ScienceTM laboratory. Now let's take a closer look at some of the technology involved in this setup. Here's a partial list of the technology involved for the event - not including the main "Parabot" unit:

Apple iMac
Strobe lights
Auxiliary lighting
Dual Laser Levels
Tesla Coil
Handheld Fog Machine
Multiple Cameras, Boom Microphones and audio equipment (It really looks like someone is making a DVD or a Pilot TV show. There was some very serious effort being put forth on documenting this event)

Why the laser levels? I don't know. Perhaps the "ghosts" require a level containment unit. Strobe lights? At least they did add nicely to the ambiance - although, it did feel a little like a mall novelty shop. So at this point, maybe you could stop and ask yourself - is equipment for creating Real ScienceTM, or is it used for something else?

The actual "Parabot" unit had a separate control panel - complete with 1980's Ghost Theme Movie Containment handle

It was about 7 feet tall, and made out of what looked to be plexiglass. Why can "ghosts" travel through the thick stone walls of the Pump House with ease, but not manage to penetrate the clear plexiglass walls of the "Parabot" once trapped inside? I don't know.

On top of the "Parabot", there was a Jacob's ladder, two laser projectors - which created red swirly patterns on the walls (well, mostly one of them did - the other was only turned on briefly), and a Clock.

The doors to the "Parabot" unit were open for all of the pre-show. They also opened and closed several times during the demonstration. Inside the unit, were a couple of green neon lights mounted in two of the corners and another Tesla Coil. The doors also had thermometers mounted on them - which we were later told, allowed the team to measure the tempurature inside the "Parabot" chamber and the outside air temperature simultaneously. Perhaps not my precise definition of "cutting edge" technology as mentioned in the press release - but the temperature differentials did seem to provide moments of great excitement to the team, during the demonstration.

The bottom of the unit had inflatable tires for transportation purposes, and another fog machine - because, as we were later told during the introduction - having a "medium" for the ghosts to use is a requirement for the successful ghost capture and containment process. Obviously.

After a few minutes with several of the auxiliary lights turned off to allow our eyes to adjust we were finally ready to begin the show. There were brief introductions, warnings that some of the equipment could be dangerous - a quick overview of where the exits were located (in case anything 'unexpected' were to happen) and finally, a somewhat conflicting reassurance that the demonstration would be completely safe. A few request for copies of any video or pictures which are later found to have any sort of 'odd' or 'unexplained' objects in them were then made.

The request for video and pictures is very important. In the perhaps millions of frames of video, and thousands of pictures that were taken during this event - what are the chances that more than just a few of them, will end up with some sort of odd looking phenomenon? I'd say they are pretty good, really. I'd be more impressed if there wasn't a single thing that looked odd in any of the pictures!

Consider some of the understood processes that might create some of these effects. Lens Flares (If you do not know what that is, please, watch this for an excellent and entertaining overview), odd reflections from sunlight creeping into a fog filled environment, and movement of a camera while taking pictures in a low-light environment will all create artifacts on pictures which were not actually visible to those in the room. This is because the physical act of taking the picture is what creates the oddity on the photo. This is why watching the collection process, gets very boring, very quickly - there really is nothing to see. Will they capture something that falls outside of these well known effects? Perhaps. However, we must first consider using all the available ideas and concepts we already know about, before we can reasonably move onto explanations that involve invoking the unknown*.

It was time to get started. All the video cameras were rolling - and almost everyone who brought a camera was using it. But PLEASE - NO CELL PHONE RINGERS! Surely this request was made to be polite - not because it has some meaningful impact on the collection process. Right?

I was expecting an impressive display. Tesla coils are cool - nature is really cool - and thousands of volts of electricity flying through the air in random fractal forms can be quite mesmerizing. Then, with a subtle thunk, the machines turned on. It was OK.

The Tesla coil behind the "Parabot" flickered up into the air - and the two strobe lights on either side of the massive old pipe behind the whole setup - flickered about with seizure inducing zeal. There was a rhythmic pulse to the zapping of the two Tesla Coils during the demonstration, which was a bit reenforced by the didgeridoo heavy drum circle-like background music that was provided.

Truthfully, I was hoping for something a little - bigger. The pre-demo setup had been so nice looking. It was such an amazingly perfect venue. So many electronic toys had been brought along to record and monitor everything that happened. But the actual operation of the setup, was - well, a bit underwhelming. It zaps, and the fog machines did their thing. After a few minutes, they turned off the two main Tesla coils. Approached the "Parabot" - made some adjustments, then restored operation of the two Tesla coils.

This process pretty much looked like this:

Use the Fog Machine
Turn off "Parabot"
Add more Fog
Turn on "Parabot"
Add more Fog
Turn off "Parabot"
Add more Fog
Make adjustment to "Parabot"
Add more Fog
Turn on "Parabot"
Add more Fog

About 20 minutes into the demo, the doors were finally closed on the unit. Success! A Capture! Oh wait, they just opened them back up again. What happened?!? I thought we were going to seal this puppy up and head back to the old firehouse?

It seems there was a problem, so containment was aborted. Or perhaps this was also an important part of the process. It's hard to tell. For everything the main Pump House room had in character and ghosty charm, the acoustics were awful. The team seemed to chatter back and forth a bit, undeterred that Slimer had escaped. Perhaps their recordings will provide insight into the dialog that transpired during the demonstration - it was impossible to determine what they were trying to do from where I was standing. The doors closed and opened quite a few more times. In between, obviously, more fog was added.

Ok, enough about the fog, Mr. Skeptic! What's the deal with the Fog? I'm glad you asked.

Since we are dealing with professionals here, I'll assume the fog machines they used, were of the Propylene Glycol variety. I think someone needs to update the Wikipedia page, as it appears the Application of Propylene Glycol as a 'Medium for "ghosts" or foreign entity's within our personal world" is missing. It can, however, make you smell better and de-ice aircraft wings.

One does wonder, why is it that the use of the fog is such a critical part of this process. Is there something about the chemical properties of the fog that lend it to high performance for inter-dimensional foreign entity mediumship? Which properties make it work so well? How did they figure out which type of Fog to use? What methods did they use to determine that Propylene Glycol works better than, say, Dry Ice and Water? If they both work the same - how is it that such a different chemical structure can work the same. And if the chemical structure doesn't matter - what does? I want answers! My answer, is that I think the Fog just looked neat, and added to the show - so perhaps the other properties don't really matter. I could be wrong.

There seemed to be a lot of fuse about the clock on top of the "Parabot" during the demonstration. It might have even been one of the first things to be talked about by the team. The Clock looked like it might possibly be one of the radio based atomic variety - kinda like this.

From where I was, I had no way to hear what they were actually saying about this. I'm sure this could be explained as disruptions from spirits that were angry with the testing. It appears they were busy making Potholes, too - so perhaps they also created a temporary deafness in yours truly? Although, the acousitical properties of the room, did seem to precede the testing - so maybe I'm overstating the ability of the spirits to cause hearing trouble. It does, somehow, seem pretty convenient that any announcements about what they were doing, and claims the team were making, were difficult to discern. But, I don't think they did that deliberately. This, is perhaps unlike their flat denial after the demonstration that there was going to be a great secret revealed. This one:

"Last but not least, there will be an announcement by the founder referencing to his personal involvement with the paranormal - a kept secret that NO ONE has known about him - a sworn secret that he now has been given permission to be announced to the world."

Yeah, the one right there in the press release. The members of the group I spoke with after the demonstration claimed they had no idea where the rumors about the secret even came from. I admit, I did briefly leave the demonstration at the very end, to get up and out into the sunlight and warm up a bit - so it's possible I missed it, and the member I spoke to just didn't know about it. If someone else did hear the big announcement, please let me know. After all, I couldn't hear very well, so maybe I just missed it. Back to the Clock...

I could not see what the clock was doing. I also could not hear what claims were being made about the Clocks behavior - other than to hear the word "clock" and see some pointing in the general direction of the Clock. It was clear there was something unusual about what it was doing. Not knowing the specific claim, I will just have to make this general observation. I don't think it's overly presumptuous of me to assume the discharge of perhaps several thousand volts of electricity in close proximity to any electronic device might result in some unexpected behavior. I believe this concept is called "Electromagnetic interference" and according to Wikipedia "Anywhere electrical power is being turned off and on rapidly is a potential source." Perhaps the constant, pulsing, discharge of electricity into the air and against the walls of the "Parabot" from the Telsa Coil - no more than 4 or 5 feet away from the clock - could be considered a potential source? In addition, it would appear this concept - that EMI can produce unexpected results in all things electronic - has eluded this team in the past.

Then there's the issue of temperature. Several of the team members were very excited by the temperature measurements recorded during the demonstration. Also, I was told the results from the thermal imaging camera were like "nothing they had ever seen before." So this is the best evidence generated by the demonstration for "the real existence of ghosts"? The best they can do is make claims of "unexplained" temperature differences? Well, by definition - if they are truly not able to be explain these temperature difference using the well understood laws of thermodynamics, I have GREAT NEWS! I know where you can get 1 Million Dollars. Just violate the laws of thermodynamics, and you will become a Millionaire. It's that easy. It's important to note, that you can legally win the challenge - even WITH THE HELP OF THE PARANORMAL. In fact, that's really the point - if you can detect the paranormal (this paranormal...or any other paranormal - they all qualify), you win. The money is real, the test is real...the demonstration of any verifiable paranormal....well, we're still waiting for that.

Of course, to do a proper test for this, we would need make very careful measurements. Perhaps, with careful measurements, one could account for all the heat that was generated by the equipment inside the enclosure of the "Parabot" - and see that the laws of thermodynamics had not, in fact, actually been overturned. My money is on bad measurement, rather than assuming that the temperature changes are proof of "foreign entity's within our personal world."

However, if you are able turn the world of physics on it's head - I suspect your riches would not end with the first Million from the Randi Challenge. Think of all the new electronic toys that could be used for further research into ghost hunting with your newfound riches!

In Conclusion:

The entire process shown in the demonstration is setup to create random, chaotic events. Each strike of the Tesla coils, combinded with each flash of strobe lights, and the wiggle of the laser projectors - all combine to create a very, rapidly changing environment. Next, the photographs and video of these random events are looked at in great detail for the slightest oddity. I could not dream up a better scenario for the effects of Pareidolia to take hold. We Humans are pattern seeking animals - we want to make order out of chaos. Pareidolia puts Mother Terresa on grilled cheese sandwitches - and I suspect, it will also put claims of "ghosts" inside of the Byrd Park Pump House.

The folks from Foundation for Paranormal Research who I met at the event stuck me as very genuine. I think they very strongly believe in what they are doing. They have found a hobby they enjoy, and accordingly spend a lot of time and effort perusing it. I have no issues with any of that, and I would love nothing more than for them to discover a previously unknown phenomenon and change the way we all view the world. It would be an amazing discovery! Based on what I saw yesterday, I just don't think they've managed to do it yet - and while they pay tribute to some of the methods of Real ScienceTM in the process, I do not think they quite understand the level of rigor that is required by the Scientific Method.

I did very much enjoy the visit, and I'm glad they were so friendly and willing to allow folks to see what it is they were up to.

But someone, please, think of the Children! When we are shaping the minds of young people, we need to be careful, not to invent information or to acknowledge as fact, things which are at best, unverified speculation - and at worst, a horrible misunderstanding of natural phenomenon. We live in an amazing Universe and at an amazing time. Real mystery surrounds the human condition - there is much that we do not know. Unfortunately, nothing presented as evidence of "ghosts" so far is inconsistent with the explanations provided by the Real ScienceTM fields of Chemistry and Physics. Concepts like EMI, Pareidolia and Lens Flares** appear to be misunderstood or completely unfamiliar to the demonstration team executing the event. It's clear they prefer to embrace the results produced by these natural phenomenon. Rather than to taking steps to avoid the false positives created by these known natural effects, they actually go the other way. They put effort into to creating the very environment that most likely to produce these sorts of effects. Real ScienceTM and real scientists would be putting their effort into attempting to remove these factors from the testing environment.

What we all saw in the demonstration, was a very nice looking, chaos creating show - not Real ScienceTM. Will the team manage to pick out something that looks kind of ghost-like from the millions of frames of video and thousands of pictures? Of course they will! Is it proof of a "paranormal capture and containment of "ghosts" or foreign entity's within our personal world". No. Not even close.

I look forward to responding further directly to the evidence when it's presented. Until then, don't worry about "ghosts" - there are plenty of other genuine mysteries out there, and we need to get to work on those.

*This concept does not compute with some people. Have you met some of these people? I have.

**This list, is woefully incomplete.