Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The stone tape projector; what is it?

This post is an eye-witness account of what was said and seen during a demonstration of Richard Felix's stone tape projector at Ghostfest 2012, followed by my opinion of it. It follows on from my assessment of the theory behind the device.

The device

At the core of the stone tape projector is a large box, approximately 50cm at each side. It was reported that the box contained a police scanner and that various components were made of Bakelite, due to its high silica content. There was a blue light, which was emitted from the top of the box. Next to the box was a plasma globe, which was described as a Van de Graaff generator. A cable ran off the stage and was attached to the stone of the prison building. A smoke machine was arranged so that its stream passed through the blue light. We were told that this was no ordinary smoke machine. It allegedly emits special ‘high-silica’ dry ice. The sketch below should give an idea of the arrangement of the components which make up the projector.

Diagram of the Stone Tape Projector

The machine was started up and the beam from the blue light illuminated the stream from the smoke machine. Images of spirits would be displayed on the smoke. The audience were encouraged to take photographs of the smoke and if anything interesting appeared, to come to the front to show everyone. There were a few dozen people who came forward, and some of the pictures they had taken did have reasonable facsimiles of faces in them. Here is an example taken by York Skeptics that night. Unfortunately none of our photos contained such a face.

The Stone Tape Projector in action

An engineer’s perspective

In my opinion the entire machine is a prop. The plasma globe and blue light seem to be there only to make it look scientific. I don’t believe the box contained any kind of scanner, or any Bakelite. Even if it did I struggle to see what difference it would've made. The claim about Bakelite being high in silica is also incorrect; it contains none. If the smoke did contain a quantity of silica then breathing apparatus would be required by the audience and crew. In addition to this the same smoke machine had been used earlier on in the show. If the smoke machine was so special it seems very unlikely that it would be used for stage effects.

I think that a better name for this device would be a pareidolia generator. As far as I could tell, the only essential components of the machine were the smoke machine and the audience’s cameras. If one was to take repeated pictures of any cloud, be it dry ice, water, or smoke from a fire, one would be able to identify all sorts of objects in the images.

In conclusion the stone tape projector is, as far as I can tell,  a gimmick. It is based on scientifically flawed concepts, and is poorly implemented. Even the name does not seem to be original. The BBC made a drama in 1972 about a haunted house, where the haunting was the replaying of events which had happened in the past which were stored in the fabric of the building. This programme was entitled The Stone Tape.

The theory behind the stone tape projector

This post is the first of two that will form a report based on Richard Felix’s presentation and demonstration of the stone tape projector which took place on Saturday 15th September 2012 in York as a part of Ghostfest 2012. This first part is an explanation of the theory he described, followed by my opinions of it. I will follow with a post about the device itself.

Richard Felix


Richard Felix is an historian who has appeared with the psychic Derek Acorah on the TV series Most Haunted, where they visited locations which were allegedly haunted and attempt to gather evidence of the hauntings and information about the spirits involved. Derek would converse with the spirits (through his spirit guide) and obtain details of the spirits and happenings of the time. Richard would then comment on the known history of the location and show consistencies with Derek’s report.

He currently runs Derby Gaol and arranges ghost walks in the Derby area. His new book What is a ghost  deals, according to him, 'with the realities of ghosts rather than the Scooby Doo side of things.'

The theory


Richard Felix believes that only 40% of hauntings and apparitions are actual spiritual intelligences; the remainder are the replay of events which have occurred in the past. This explains why in some ghost reports the spirits are said to not respond to viewers. The ghostly woman walking along the corridors of a stately home retracing the steps she took in life, and the roman soldiers marching blindly through a building which didn’t exist in their time are examples of this phenomenon. These images are stored in the fabric of the building and replayed later; the more powerful the event, the stronger the images. How could these images be stored?

Here's how Felix thinks this could happen: Many buildings are made of stone. Stone contains large quantities of silica, which is primarily composed of silicon. The integrated circuits (ICs, or chips) of computers are also made of silicon, and they store information. Therefore stones are capable of storing information. Certain stones (such as sandstone) also contain significant amounts of iron oxides. The tape within audio and video cassettes is nothing more than iron oxide spread on an acetate tape. Acetate is also claimed to be high in silica (which it is not). All is needed is a suitable device to extract this information and display it somehow. This device is the stone tape projector.

The science


I cannot comment on the nature of ghosts, or whether images are stored in the fabric of buildings. I can, however, discuss the science behind the proposed mechanism.

Put simply there is none.

Stone does contain silica, and integrated circuits do contain silicon, but there the similarity ends. The circuitry inside an IC is made by building up many layers of silicon and other compounds to make transistors, which in turn are arranged into logic gates, some of which can be used to store data. The arrangement of crystals within a rock is simply too random to allow it to function even as a crude diode, never mind even a single byte of memory.

Some rock does contain oxides of iron, but again the arrangement of these is random. The only reason that audio tape stores anything is because it has been exposed to a specific magnetic field by the recorder. Even if a person emitted a massive magnetic field when they died (which I doubt) it would not be able to affect the iron oxide molecules in the rock. The orientations of these molecules are used by scientists to deduce the state of the Earth’s magnetic field when the rock sedimented; this would be impossible if anything dying in the vicinity affected it. Also, audio tape works because it is continually moving under the write/read head. If it were to stay still there would be no way of discriminating between the different sounds recorded as time progressed.

I hope this post sums up the theory behind the ghost tape projector. I’ll follow it up with a post discussing the device itself.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Explaining the importance of the scientific method

The first time I ever came into contact with the Skeptics Community was when I attended the talk of my very good friend Doctor Tom Williamson in Leeds (please check out his excellent blog at His talk was entitled ‘The Scientific Method – Uses and Abuses’; and provided excellent explanations of various pieces of scientific jargon and some very clear examples of how the Scientific Method has been correctly and incorrectly used.

I was extremely happy to see this talk, because for my money the Scientific Method is one of the great accomplishments of the human mind. As a result I made a conscious effort to come up with as clear and concise a way as I possibly could for explaining both the method and its importance to others, whether in discussion or debate.

The method I came up with was to point out that there are essentially two approaches to exploring and guiding ourselves through the reality in which we find ourselves. The first is that we can base judgements on no evidence, or ‘on faith’; and the second approach is to actually use evidence as a foundation for all our thoughts, opinions, theories etc.

What the Scientific Method has been developed for is quite simple – to produce the highest quality of evidence possible, on the basis of current human understanding; and that is, again to the best of our current understanding, what it does. The evidence to support this claim comes from the phenomenal success rate of accurate future predictions that have been made; based on scientific evidence, compared to any other attempts to make such predictions.

This method of explanation has worked suitably well for me so far, but there is one thing that puzzles me; and that is why have I never come across anyone else referring directly to the quality of evidence produced by scientific research. I’m not making this point from a position of considering my own explanation to be superior to what has gone before; rather I am genuinely concerned that I might be missing something obvious, which is common knowledge but that I have somehow managed to keep on missing.

I can see that there are various reasons as to why this approach might be a bad idea. For instance, the use of an absolute statement (‘science DOES produce the highest quality evidence as far as we understand’) could be setting yourself up for a rather large fall, especially if you find yourself not having the relevant evidence on a particular topic to hand! It would seem to me to be rather embarrassing to find myself in conversation uttering something along the lines of, “Well Science has produced the highest quality evidence with regards to this matter…but unfortunately I don’t know what it is!”

However, what concerns me more is another practical problem with using such a bold factual claim, which is that it might actually seem rather arrogant. From my own personal experience the perceived arrogance of science and scientists is one of the two main objections that people have expressed to me as to why they hold a negative view of the subject. This strikes me as yet another case of evaluation by what has been said being based on who has spoken and not an attempt to evaluate the words themselves (One of the most common, and in my view, annoying of all human traits). Bearing that point in mind though, I presume I have to remember one of the lines from my own Skeptics talk, namely, “Perception is a two-way process”. In other words it doesn’t matter what I might know and understand compared to others, that doesn’t mean that from a practical point of view, others will simply change, or are in any way obliged to change, their negative opinions about science.

Therefore, regardless of what I think about the validity of my explanation, I may be able to persuade more people of science’s importance simply by not including a statement that could be perceived as being so overtly arrogant. I’m sure that my positive energy levels and natural enthusiasm will try and dismiss this as pure fiction, but only time will tell! However, I have only used my explanation in discussion with others and never in a debate. I have a feeling that could make a difference and I will be interested to find out what happens in this regard in the future.

So, what, if anything, am I missing? Do the points I have mentioned above hit the nail on the head, but I just haven’t realised until now? Or, am I missing something else entirely?  I would be very grateful to hear others views; especially those from people who have had greater experience of communicating the scientific method; or using scientific evidence in any kind of debate/argument against non-scientific evidence than I have.