Top Physics

by Stan West

Jon Gamache of Kansas submitted a challenge for the $250,000 CFIIG Paranormal Prize at the end of July, 2019. In mid-August of 2019, he was assigned to Stan West, one of our CFIIG negotiators, and they began the process of negotiating a mutually acceptable testing protocol. Over the next year Mr. Gamache kept changing his claimed ability, forcing a new start to the negotiations with each new claim. Stan finally informed him that he needed to pick one ability and stick with it. Mr. Gamache then claimed to be able to circumvent Newton’s Laws of Motion. As evidence, he sent the following video:

Mr. Gamache starts the top spinning counterclockwise by blowing on it. It spins counterclockwise for a while, then stops, reverses to a clockwise direction, and completes two full 360° turns before stopping again, and then doing another 360° counterclockwise revolution. Mr. Gamache claimed that by infusing his consciousness into a spinning top, his glass tabletop, and his bathrobe (used to wipe the tabletop clean) over many months, he could cause the top to violate the laws of motion as shown in the video.  

At first blush, we wondered if without adding additional energy, this behavior would indeed violate the laws of motion in the same way that a pendulum, once set in motion, cannot reach its starting point again without adding energy to it.  We were a little worried because our understanding of how things worked only required the top to reverse direction and do a complete 360° one time, and here Mr. Gamache was showing us not just one 360° reversal but two!  We suspected our challenger to be adding more energy to the system, but how?

Our initial energies therefore were geared toward figuring out how Mr. Gamache was gaming the system as it were.  We ruled out his blowing on the top without our knowledge by asking for a video of the phenomena with a glass bowl on top.  Though the glass bowl was not sealed to our satisfaction, the bowl still didn’t affect the result, so we asked that he step away at least ten feet – the top still managed additional turns.  Then we asked for a close up video of the top to make sure it did not have any hidden devices in it.  Our concern was that he could have embedded metal — which would allow an influence by hidden magnets — or mechanical devices within the top but we could see nothing on the video.  We then attempted to develop a protocol that did not include his table and spinning top.  He insisted he needed his own glass from the table and spinning top because of the “infused consciousness” mentioned above.

At this point we started to consider other possibilities why the top behaved as it did.  If he was willing to part with the wooden legs of the table – the last place where we felt he could be hiding some sort of mechanism – we had run out of ideas.  We could see through the glass top and spinning top, and so were reasonably sure there was no device buried in them.  So what was causing the top to behave as it did?

We decided to take a different approach.  What if our expectation of the top’s motion was flawed, and the spinning top’s behavior did not contradict currently accepted physics at all?  To prove this assumption however would require quite a bit of legwork. Remember, the CFIIG, with rare exception, is required to take all legitimate claimants.  To deny someone a test of their supposed paranormal ability requires a very high bar.  If someone for example, claims they can make a ball roll down a hill with their mind, we cannot simply say we won’t test them.  We have to explain how gravity works and that therefore a ball rolling down a hill is a natural phenomenon. We then have to show that anyone can do this, and therefore the challenger’s supposed power is not really a power at all. 

Our first bit of research involved a toy called a rattleback. A rattleback is an object of a particular shape that when spun in one direction will spin freely. When spun in the opposite direction, the rattleback – on its own – will stop, change direction, and spin in the opposite direction without any outside influence. Rattlebacks defy the expectations of most who see them in action.

So we moved on to consult with some folks who deal with physics. We sought to find scientists we were confident had an expert’s grasp of the laws of motion, because as knowledgeable as we were, we did not have the expertise to explain scientifically what was happening.  We needed to show them the video, ask them whether the behavior violated existing laws, and if not, explain in precise scientific terms, what was actually going on.  Second, we needed to get a top of our own, and see if we could duplicate Mr. Gamache’s feat.

After much searching, we found two scientists willing to take a look at our problem.  One is a retired Ph.D. astronomer who used to calculate orbital trajectories for various objects for Aerospace Corporation, the other has a Ph.D. in computational gravitational physics and used to work for the Max Plank Institute for Astrophysics.  Both are obviously intimately familiar with Newtonian physics.  

Second, we had a top fabricated that was, nearly as we could make it from only looking at the video, identical to the one Mr. Gamache used.  If we could duplicate what his top did, our suspicion that the phenomenon was well within the accepted laws of physics would be proved.  After all, we knew to a reasonable degree at least, that we possessed no special ability to “infuse our consciousness” into anything.

After reviewing the video, both scientists, in short, said there was nothing to see here.  Without going into too much detail, they explained that if the table had a slight tilt to it (as can be assumed by watching to top slow down at the same point in each 360° of its revolution in the video), and the top was perfectly round and balanced, then it would indeed reverse at the apex of its turn and not do a complete 360° in the other direction.  But, and this is a big but, what if the top is not perfectly round, and not perfectly balanced?  Then one has to factor in not only each 360° oscillation caused by the tilted table, but also the smaller oscillation caused by the top not having a completely symmetrical mass distribution, and the one caused by it having an ever so small ellipsoid instead of perfectly round shape. If those three do not match up perfectly at their apexes where kinetic energy is zero, the leftover kinetic energy of one, can get you past the apex of the other, causing the top to rotate 360° when your eyes tell you it should not happen.

When we spun our top, we were able to get it to reverse direction and do a full 360°, although not more than that.  The reduced performance of course can easily be explained by differences in the three characteristics explained earlier and the increased friction of a different top and glass surface.  Remember, we only had to get one reversal and 360° turn to prove our point.

Our at-home test of top-spinning dynamics at 1.5 speed.

We then told Mr. Gamache what the scientists had said and showed him the video we had made with our top.  We explained that because of these two things, his top’s behavior was a natural phenomenon, it was unlikely he had a true paranormal ability, and that we would not be testing him.  We let him know that if he had a different ability, he could submit another challenge in a year.

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