Houdini escapes skeptics on Halloween

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2009 12:00 pm

On Halloween, Justin Robert Young and my friend Andrew Mayne tried to raise the spirit of Harry Houdini in a seance at the James Randi Educational Foundation HQ in Florida. The event was live on the intertubez and and the recorded stream is on UStream. The whole thing is over an hour long, but well worth your time! A bunch of people (including Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Michael Shermer, and me) were asked to send in secret words for Houdini to divine at the seance. This wasn’t a foolproof scientific experiment, but it’s fun.

Here’s the show below. Note: some NSFW language.

They picked my word starting at about 39 minutes into the video. And what was my word? Well, at the risk of generating the ire of Houdini’s shade, it was floccinaucinihilipilification, a word I remembered from when I was a kid and read the Guinness Book of World Records (it was in the list for, duh, longest words). It means "the act of estimating something as being worthless". I didn’t realize they were using a Ouija board at the seance, though, so perhaps choosing a word that’s about 30 letters long may have been a little irritating. However, I really wanted to make sure they wouldn’t pick it by chance. Infinite monkeys, and all that.

The Denver Skeptics divined my word as "shor". I have to count that as a definite hit.

I should have picked pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Humor, JREF, Skepticism

Comments (20)

  1. Alareth

    Really Phil? Not Raxacoricofallapatorius?

  2. On Friday one of my students asked about “those people on TV that can talk to your dead relatives.” I explained that it isn’t true, that it is really just a guessing game, that the people on TV are liars, then spent the next 20 minutes giving a demonstration. I “contacted” several deceased grandparents and even some dead pets. Later, at recess, I saw one of my students giving her own demonstration for her friends. I hope that none of my students will ever be taken in by one of these swindlers.

    The Skeptical Teacher


  3. Alareth

    They may not be taken in, but how many will get their own show someday? 😉

  4. Sili

    Well, it makes sense that you’re not in favour of antidisestablishmentarianism.

  5. I would think that a word that might have mattered to Mr. Ehrich Weiss might have been more appropriate. Perhaps “escapology,” “prestidigitation” or even “woo-woo.”

  6. Embigenification? 😛

  7. James Randi wasn’t there? No wonder Harry didn’t show!

  8. Given your recent trip to Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch would have been appropriate.

  9. Alareth

    “James Randi wasn’t there? No wonder Harry didn’t show!”

    Randi was there. Before the seance we was reading from a letter by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about Houdini.

  10. Erik Day

    Now, I’m a pretty skeptical guy, but it seems that skeptics running a seance (and not getting anything) is kinda like waiting to hear music from a radio without actually turning it on (then chuckling about how radios are so ridiculous). Considering the human psychological factors (and, I guess, post-human factors), there needs to be some controls for this experiment that account for the possibility of attenuation. Thinking a gaggle of rational-minded folk are suddenly going to be able to “tune in” to what would have to be a very difficult, emotional process would seem the equivalent of assuming that since you can throw a football, that you, too, could step into INVESCO stadium and lead the Broncos down the field.

    …Not that anybody else would’ve actually made it happen, but I’m just sayin’…

  11. Didn’t Houdini himself debunk fraudulent “spirit mediums”?

  12. Jason


    He did, the seance is a ‘tribute’ of sorts to him. Houdini utterly loathed psychics and did everything he could to debunk and prove them frauds. In fact, he was probably the biggest influence in destroying the mediums that were running horribly rampant at the time and sincerely need another beat-down now.

  13. IBY

    You should see the even longer words from the European languages. It is crazy.

  14. Chris

    I already decided that when I die and if there is an afterlife, I’m not coming back, seance or not.

  15. Triboelectrification

  16. StevoR

    I’d have chosen Arkushanangarushashutu – the longest star name. 😉 (Babylonian for Delta Cancris a.k.a. Asellus Australis.)

    Or maybe Shurnarkabtishashiltanu – Babylonian for Elnath (Beta Tauri) or perhaps Shurnarkabtishashutu – Babylonian for Al Hekka (Zeta Tauri) – or even just Zubeneschmali (Beta Librae) &/or Zubenelgenubi. (Alpha Librae.)

    All are good real star names. I kid you not. 8)

    Sources : see among other places James Kaler’s ‘Stars’ website

    & also

    Allen, Richard Hinckley, ‘Star Names; Their Lore and Meaning’, Dover, 1963.
    & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_Cancri

    For Arkushanangarushashutu.

    Lafferty, Peter, Science Facts – Space, Bramley Books, 1992.

    PS. You could also go to my ‘Einstein factor’ page :


    too although that’s just me quoting it! 😉

  17. StevoR

    In case you’re wondering :

    Arkushanangarushashutu means ‘the southeast star in the Crab’ in the ancient Babylonian tongue. (Allen, 1963.

    ‘Shurnarkabtishashiltanu’ and ‘Shurnarkabtishashutu’ mean respectively ‘star in the bull towards the north’ or alternatively ‘the northern star towards the chariot’ and ‘star in the bull towards the south’ or ‘the southern star towards the chariot.’ (Allen, 1963.)

    Incidentally, those stars (Beta & Zeta Tauri) mark the horns of the constellation Taurus & the crab nebula (M1) is located between them but close to Zeta (Shurnarkabtishashutu) which is also a slightly variable shell star.

    Thinking Taurus, its nearly time for the Taurid meteor shower too which peaks on Nov. 4th according to Collins Guide to Stars & Planets’ (Ridpath & Tirion 2007.) I recjkon this could be worth a separate ‘Taurids!’ blog post here BA! *Hint*, *hint* 😉

    ‘Zubeneschmali’ means the ‘Northern claw’ in Arabic – & it is a rare green star which is also located near Gliese 581 of exoplanetary system fame.

    ‘Zubenelgenubi’, again from Arabic, means the ‘Southern claw’ and is a binary star with A & F components. The ‘claw’ part of each name here refers to the fact that Libra was originally a part of the Scorpion & was only later split off from it.

  18. mike burkhart

    Like I’ve said senaces don’t work no one can talk to the dead the reason Houdini did not answer is hes booked on that big stage in the sky and has many escapes to perform .

  19. Gary Ansorge

    HAh! I Heard Houdini was hanging out and dancing at a Jerry Garcia show. That’s why he never responds when someone yells “Harry, talk to us.”

    Seems to make sense, since Jerry was one of the Gratefully Dead.

    As far as rationalists being unsuited for contact with the beyond, I expect if God, Houdini or Jerry Garcia really wanted to make a serious impression on the living, Rationalists are definitely the folk to communicate with.

    Gary 7

  20. Chris A.

    It all seems like so much hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianism to me.


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