European Journalists Choose Magic over Physics

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Many Americans think of Europe as something of a magical realm. The food is tastier, the people are sexier, and some parts of Poland don’t experience gravity. Wait, what?

European Journal, a fairly good television program produced by DW-TV, investigated what looks to be an “anti-gravity” spot in Poland. (See video beginning at the 21:00 mark.) On a road out in the Polish countryside, things appear to roll uphill, including bottles of water and even entire cars. What’s going on? The people of Europe demand an answer for this very strange physical phenomenon.

Now, bear in mind that European Journal recently reported that radio waves were causing cancer in Sicily, so our expectations for the program’s scientific acumen shouldn’t be terribly high.

The opening of the segment offered little hope. The host, Nina Haase, said:

“There are places where people have observed seemingly supernatural phenomena for centuries: wandering rocks in deserts, for example, or permanent lightning storms. Scientists are often at a loss for an explanation, and that’s also true for a place in Poland, where our reporter has also discovered a fascinating phenomenon.”

Off the bat, the host is misleading the audience. Physicists are not at a loss for an explanation of anti-gravity spots. But, let’s give the segment a chance.

The reporter says that “the laws of physics don’t work quite right here,” and the segment portrays gullible elementary school kids placing bottles of water on a road. To their astonishment, the bottles roll uphill. What did they think was going on? One child was convinced a meteorite landed there, creating a magnetic field. Another student suggested UFOs. A third suggested witches.

The reporter then turned to Mariusz Dąbrowski, professor of physics at the University of Szczecin:

“It’s a magical place, a truly odd hill. We suspect a gravitational anomaly. Ore deposits create a magnetic field, and the earth’s gravitational pull works differently from what we’re used to. Or, it’s an optical illusion. This is the Polish Loch Ness. The monster we’re looking for here is an explanation.”

Finally, the credulous reporter gets the help of a water diviner. Together, hand-in-hand, they use a divining rod to detect the presence of a water current under the ground. Indeed, the water diviner senses something. Exactly what, nobody knows. But this magical place gives him a headache, and he cautioned that if anybody built a house in the area, they would be dead within a year. Real estate agents, you’ve been warned.

To summarize, the report offers several explanations:

-Magnetic field from a meteorite
-Magnetic field from an ore deposit distorts earth’s gravitational field
-Optical illusion
-Water current

Since we live in the 21st Century, we can automatically rule out UFOs, witches and headache-inducing water currents. Magnetic fields got two votes, from a small child and from a physics professor. Is it possible for an electomagnetic field to distort gravity?

Yes, in theory. According to physics professor Charles Torre, who writes in Scientific American:

“The difficulty is that the gravitational field produced by a typical electromagnetic field you can produce in a laboratory is predicted to be very, very weak. A better place to look for gravitational effects due to electromagnetic fields would be in astrophysical objects carrying a significant net electric charge.”

In other words, an ore deposit is probably not anywhere near large enough to distort a gravitational field.

So, that leaves only one answer: Optical illusion. And, that’s the correct answer. According to Science Daily:

“At several hilly locations around the U.S., know [sic] as “gravity hills,” objects such as cars left on neutral supposedly roll uphill, driven by unknown forces and against the force of gravity. Physicists say — and GPS measurements confirm — that the effects are illusions caused by the landscape. The position of trees and slopes of nearby scenery, or a curvy horizon line, can blend to trick the eye so that what looks uphill is actually downhill.”

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the European Journal reporter concluded: “We just don’t know why gravity works differently here, but it does. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve seen it with our own eyes.”