Video: Channeling Chaplin: Can you hear me now?

  1. Transcript of: Channeling Chaplin: Can you hear me now?

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There is a rumor fueled Internet fracas going on -- there always is -- over a short clip this time of some old black and white film dating back to 1928 . An Irish filmmaker who saw this clip on a DVD extra from Charlie Chaplin 's film " The Circus " thinks it's a cell phone. He focused on the woman walking in the background. Then came the theory she was somehow a time traveler, in the film talking on a cell phone. Of course, no such thing back in '28. One guess is that she is using a kind of early version of a portable big box hearing aid available at the

updated 10/28/2010 7:10:06 PM ET 2010-10-28T23:10:06

Speculation about a supposed time traveler talking on her cell phone at a 1928 Hollywood film premiere has sped across the Internet faster than a DeLorean time machine. But a less mind-bending possibility is that she was just hard of hearing, experts say.

The story first surfaced in a YouTube video that includes film footage showing the 1928 premiere of the Charlie Chaplin film "The Circus" at Manns Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Irish filmmaker George Clarke points out a woman in the old footage holding what he describes as a cell phone against her ear. The shape implies the woman is a time traveler using a modern mobile device rather than an ear trumpet, Clarke said.

What Clarke didn't consider was that a simple ear trumpet could still explain it all, said hearing device historians, who provided LiveScience with images of sample ear trumpets for comparison. [ See the ear trumpets ]

  1. Most popular

"As you can tell from these, old-fashioned mechanical or resonating hearing aids were not necessarily long and rounded," said Philip Skroska, an archivist at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. "Short, compact rectangular forms were not unusual."

In other words, they could look something like a cell phone to imaginative YouTube viewers in the 21st century. [ Time Travel Machine Outlined ]

Listen to this
Nineteen-century resonator hearing aids such as ear trumpets were still made in large numbers well into the first decades of the 20th century, Skroska explained, and the basic designs didn't change much aside from incorporating newer, plastic-like materials.

"Besides, I would expect this woman to be over 50 years old, so using a late 19th century design in 1928 would not be a stretch I think," Skroska said.

Electronic hearing aids also existed before World War II, but in fewer numbers.

"Now, I can't really explain why the woman appears to be talking (other than yelling at the man who quickened his pace ahead of her)," Skroska said in an e-mail. "But I think it's fair to say it would be a hasty judgment to dismiss the possibility that it was a hearing aid she was holding up to her ear."

This explanation might be less exciting than the time travel theory, but it avoids a huge number of theoretical and practical problems associated with sending someone into the past.

Time travel issues
Theorists have kicked around a few scenarios for how people might travel to the past, said Brian Greene, author of the bestseller, "The Elegant Universe" (Vintage Books, 2000) and a physicist at Columbia University, during a past LiveScience interview. "And almost all of them, if you look at them closely, brush up right at the edge of physics as we understand it. Most of us think that almost all of them can be ruled out."

One theory focuses on wormholes — hypothetical tunnels that connect two regions of space-time that could represent two parts of the same universe, or even completely different universes.

  1. Science news from
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

But creating a wormhole that punches through space-time looks far beyond anything humans can accomplish with today's technology, said Michio Kaku, author of "Hyperspace" (Anchor, 1995) and "Parallel Worlds" (Anchor, 2006), and a physicist at the City University of New York, in a past interview.

Humans would need to somehow harness the energy of a star or possibly matter with negative energy density – an exotic and hypothetical form of matter with the energy of less than nothing. Even if such matter exists, there would likely not be enough of it for a time machine to harness.

Another time travel theory relies upon cosmic strings — narrow tubes of energy that span the entire length of the expanding universe. Predictions suggest that such regions could contain huge amounts of mass and warp space-time in a way that allows for time travel.

The cosmic strings either run on infinitely or form loops "like spaghetti or SpaghettiO's," said Richard Gott, author of "Time Travel in Einstein's Universe" (Mariner Books, 2002) and an astrophysicist at Princeton University. Two such strings parallel to one another could perhaps bend space-time enough to make time travel possible — but it's a challenge that only a "super civilization" might try, Gott explained in a past interview.

© 2012 All rights reserved.

Explainer: The 2010 Weird Science Awards

  • Atala et al., PNAS / WFUBMC
    A researcher injects cells from a rabbit's penile erectile tissue into a scaffold (top photo), a procedure which results in a functional rabbit penis (bottom photo).

    That's one small step for rabbit penises, and potentially one giant hop for restorative surgery. An experiment that gave rabbits lab-grown penises capable of fathering offspring won the most votes in's 2010 Weird Science Awards contest. Cells of penile tissue were grown on scaffolds of cartilage. When the creations took on the right shape, they were grafted onto rabbits that had their penises removed. After the transplants, the rabbits were able to breed ... like rabbits. The procedure could someday be used to heal humans as well. The photos at right show an experimenter working on the penile tissue, and an X-ray image of the restored penis.

    Click "Next" to see the nine other Weird award-winners for 2009-2010, and click on the highlighted links to learn more.

  • Fruit bats get kinky

    Image: Fruit bat sex
    Tan et al. / PLoS ONE

    Researchers report that female Chinese fruit bats use oral sex to prolong the pleasure for their partners. The study suggests that there may be an evolutionary advantage to at least some types of kinky sex in the animal world. But can you imagine being the researcher with the job of watching bat porn?

  • Is the future trying to avert our doom?

    Image: LHC
    Martial Trezzini  /  AP

    Why did it take so long to get the world's most powerful particle-smasher up and running? Two scientists suggested it might be because the Large Hadron Collider was about to create phenomena so catastrophic that the future sent a cosmos-altering signal back in time to disrupt its operation. The research wasn't taken all that seriously when it came out, and since then the LHC was restarted without incident.

  • Octopus builds mobile home

    Image: Octopus
    R. Steene

    It sounds like a spin-off from "The Little Mermaid" or "Spongebob Squarepants": An octopus builds a mobile home under the sea by stacking up coconut shells. It moves in ... and then it carries the whole heap across the seafloor. "It was an extremely comical sight," said marine biologist Julian Finn, who spotted the behavior off the Indonesian coast. "I never laughed so hard underwater." Let's just hope those clever cephalopods don't develop opposable thumbs. That won't be such a laughing matter.

  • Researchers clone dogs that glow

    Image: Dog
    Seoul National University  /  AP

    Awww, how cute! South Korean scientists cloned a litter of genetically engineered dogs that glow red under ultraviolet light. Like an earlier experiment involving glowing cats, this isn't aimed at creating glow-in-the-dark pets. Rather, it's a proof of concept for procedures that could help develop treatments for genetic diseases in humans. If you can add the coding to make fluorescent protein, maybe you can add the coding to fix a genetic flaw.

  • Gay penguins make good dads

    Image: Penguins
    Focke Strangmann  /  AP

    German zookeepers in Bremerhaven had a problem on their hands when penguin parents rejected one of their eggs. To solve it, they placed the egg in a nest shared by two male penguins. The pair is one of three same-sex couples that have tried to mate at the zoo. The males incubated the egg for 30 days and continued to care for the chick after it hatched. Homosexual behavior has been documented in many animal species. "Sex and coupling in our world don't always have something to do with reproduction," the zoo said.

    Video:'s Dara Brown reports on the gay penguin parents.

  • Huge blob lies deep beneath Nevada

    Image: Crossing the Great Basin
    J.D. West / Silverheels Photography

    You wouldn't know it by driving through the Great Basin in Nevada, but researchers have detected a huge blob of highly compressed rock that is dripping like honey, extending from a depth of about 47 miles to at least 310 miles beneath the surface. The blob is 30 to 60 miles across, scientists say. But don't worry, Nevadans: This blob isn't expected to cause earthquakes - or rise up and destroy Las Vegas.

  • Nude 'Mona Lisa' surfaces

    Image: Mona Lisa
    Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci

    Art historians have long suspected Leonardo da Vinci painted more than one version of his famous "Mona Lisa," and now a painting with much more Mona has surfaced. The painting, which portrays its subject nude from the waist up, had been hidden for almost a century within the wooden walls of a French cardinal's library. Experts are looking into whether this particular work, now on display in the Tuscan town of Vinci, was actually painted by the master.

  • Galileo's fingers and tooth found

    Image: Galileo's finger

    Was that any way to treat a genius? Back in 1737, Galileo Galilei's admirers removed three fingers, a vertebra and a tooth from the astronomer's body when his corpse was being moved to a new tomb. The vertebra and one of the fingers were recovered soon afterward, but the whereabouts of the tooth and the other two fingers were a mystery. Recently, however, the relics turned up in a container that was auctioned off to a private collector. Now the Galilean body parts, including the finger shown at right, will be put on display at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

  • Fragrances pay tribute to dead celebs' DNA

    Spotlight On Marilyn
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images file

    Let's get one thing straight: MyDNAFragrance's "Antiquity" line of perfumery will not make you smell like Marilyn Monroe did when she was alive, and certainly not like her mortal remains. Rather, the "Marilyn" fragrance is mixed up from ingredients that are coded to capture the "essence" of the movie star's mitochondrial DNA. Other scents pay tribute to Albert Einstein, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. The company behind the scents says the process is "very scientific," but others might well conclude that the whole exercise smells like a gimmick.

    Click here for the 2009 Weird Science Awards


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments