Marko Drobnjakovic / AP
David Petrovic, 4, stands in his garden as silverware sticks on his chest in Gornji Milanovac, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Belgrade, Serbia.
After at least two episodes involving supposedly "magnetic" children in the Balkans who can hang spoons and forks from their chests, you'd think we'd wise up. But no. Yet another story about the phenomenon is going viral today: a report from Serbia about two kids with seemingly magnetic powers.
Four-year-old David Petrovic and his cousin, 6-year-old Luka Lukic, showed off the cutlery trick for journalists and doctors, and the doctors confessed that they were flummoxed.
"As far as I know, there is no medical or scientific explanation," The Associated Press quoted radiologist Mihajlo Dodic as saying.
"Nobody can tell us why this is happening," said Luka's father, Slavisa Lukic.
Benjamin Radford could tell them. He's the author or "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," and he's already explained the "magnetic" powers exhibited by another Serbian boy named Bogdan as well as a Croatian boy named Ivan.
"They just crank 'em out over there, don't they?" Radford said today when told about the latest case.
The explanation is that kids are particularly good at attaching things to their bodies, because you have one smooth, sticky surface (hairless skin, with a slight sheen of sweat) adhering to another smooth surface.
"When you look at the things involved in these cases, they're all smooth," Radford said. "They're glass, they're plates, they're metal. You don't see rough surfaces. You don't see steel wool."
The trick may also involve a slight backward lean, to keep the spoon from falling off the chest or the nose. Or you can set the cutlery along the collar bones, as David is doing in the photo above.
One tip-off that the magnetic claims are bogus: The effect can be done with smooth, non-magnetic items such as plates or glasses. Another tip-off: The trick works only on bare, sticky skin, and it's spoiled if talcum powder is used or the kid puts on a shirt.
The AP story quotes Patrick Regan, a physics professor at the University of Surrey in Britain, as saying "humans are made of the wrong material to be magnetic." Even surgical implants tend to be made out of non-magnetic materials, such as titanium. Otherwise, they'd cause problems for MRI scans.
It is possible to levitate small animals by taking advantage of water's diamagnetic properties, provided you have a super-strong magnet. But that's definitely not what's going on in Serbia.
20th Century Fox
Ian McKellen played Magneto, a character who could wield magnetic powers, in three "X-Men" movies.
The real question may very well be: Why are parents and the public magnetically attracted to stories like this? There's a special allure to the idea that some humans may well have special powers, whether it's Magneto in the "X-Men" saga or the German in the "Heroes" TV series. Both those characters were known for being able to control materials with magnetism.
Are the kids or the parents bent on perpetrating a hoax? Radford said that's not necessarily the case. "It's easy to overlook the fact that you can fool yourself. ... There are people who sincerely just don't think critically about this," he said. When amazing feats are reported in regions far removed from the global media infrastructure — the Balkan countryside, for instance — it can be easier to just go with the folk tale and dial down the skepticism.
So the tale of Serbia's magnetic boys makes for a good late-summer yarn. But an unexplained scientific mystery? Not so fast.
More 'unexplained' mysteries:
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First published September 16 2011, 11:02 AM