Monday, June 06, 2016

YouTube Skepticism: Cell phone popcorn

In late May, 2008, a set of videos were uploaded to YouTube that were soon to go viral. Each one appeared to be a handheld video capture of a group of enthusiastic twenty-somethings conducting a home-made experiment to see if cell phones could be used to pop popcorn.

The cell phones are arranged to focus their energy at the few kernels of popcorn. The phones are then simultaneously called, apparently by a second set of cell phones these casual friends happened to have on hand. After the phones begin to rattle and ring—but before they go silently to voicemail—pop go the kernels! Take a look.

Pop corn with cell phones (American)



Pop corn with cell phones (French)



Pop corn with cell phones (Japanese)



My award for the greatest display of enthusiasm goes to the Japanese video. The notion of popping popcorn with cell phone radiation swept the Internet's imagination, and people tried to repeat the experiment around the world.

They all failed. Without exception. But it had to be real, it was a video on the Internet! (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) Speculation arose that specific cell phone brands had to be used. Some thought there was a hidden heating element at work. Others correctly deduced video editing shenanigans.

The complete worldwide failure among those who tried to reproduce the demonstration speaks nicely to a key principle in science: reproducibility.

It was later revealed that the videos were a stealth marketing campaign produced by a manufacturer of Bluetooth headsets. The president of that company denied that the intent was to suggest that it might be smart to use a headset and keep the microwave cooker of a cell phone away from your brain. (Medical evidence suggesting cell phones cook brains is not compelling.)

Eventually, the Internet moved on to the next viral video. Was it Microsoft's Megawhoosh featuring even more bad physics? Mythbusters didn't even bother with cell phone popcorn, but Brainiac Science Abuse did.

It's worth remembering such hoaxes. Looking back, there are easy-to-spot tell-tale signs of hoaxterism. So of course, I wrote a quick YouTube Skepticism lesson to probe this set of videos and its raison d'ĂȘtre.

YouTube Skepticism: Pop Corn with Cell Phones

The larger point isn't that this particular hoax needs to be debunked but rather that there will always be a next one. If students can recognize fakery in classic hoaxes, they'll be prepared to cast doubt on new ones.

Hoaxers are nothing if not consummate recyclers. Copper bracelets become magnetic bracelets become hologram bracelets become aqueous titanium-infused necklaces and so on and so on.

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