How to play chess anywhere

The other day a colleague and I had been booked to give talks at the same conference. We met the night before in a hotel close to the venue, and discovered that:
1) We both liked chess
2) We both really wanted to play a game there and then
3) Neither of us had a chess set with us
4) The hotel didn’t have one either
However, about an hour later we had solved the problem. Our answer allows you to construct a chess set anywhere, anytime.

We noticed that there was a supermarket across the street, and I had an idea. How about we buy some Battenberg cake, and slice it up to make a chessboard. Then, we could invest in some cocktail sticks, marshmallows and Flumps, and use various combinations to create a confectionery chess board.

An hour later we had this….



It actually worked really well, and we got two games in before a another hotel guest scoffed my king. In addition, to solving a practical problem, it occurs to me that this could be a cost-effective birthday gift for someone who is both bright and has a sweet tooth. Anyway, what do you think? Genius lateral thinking or soooo sad? Vote now.

‘Hauntings’ results out

castleinset1We have just announced the initial results of our project into ‘ghostly’ photographs.

The findings will be discussed in depth at Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts on 4th April at Edinburgh Science Festival. However, we have some initial results on the Hauntings website, including the top ten ‘ghost’ pics from the study (click the link above, and then the ‘experiments’ tab).

In terms of print and web, the story has been featured all over the place, including The Times, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman, The Daily Express, The Sun, The Metro, BBC, CNN, Yahoo, Sky News, The Guardian, and Fox News.

TV and radio has included R4’s Today Programme (at 8.55), GMTV, BBC Breakfast News and CNN. AOL have a video about the story here.

Sky News clip below:

And thanks to the nice people over at Derren Brown’s blog for posting another link to this blog.

Feel free to post comments about the pic. Back on Monday.

Genuine Flea Circus

meA few years ago I became interested in flea circuses (see old, and somewhat embarrassing, photo on left).

I ended up putting together a talk about the topic, performing with a mechanical circus, and writing an article on the history of them (click the ‘history’ tab).

The original Victorian circuses used genuine fleas, but the art form has all but died out because of a lack of performers (mainly caused by improvements in hygiene over the years).

So, imagine how excited I was to discover that some people were once again staging genuine flea circuses. There is a video of their activities after the break and the footage of their performing insects is amazing (thanks Sid)!

Big Announcement!

dedTime to announce a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity!

I have just finished writing my new book (out in the UK in July). I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it follows in the quirky footsteps of The Luck Factor and Quirkology, with part of it looking at the scientific basis for quick and effective ways to change your life.

So here is my idea – I thought that it would be fun to offer up a unique opportunity to write the book’s dedication (the bit right at the start that reads, for example, ‘This book dedicated to xx’).

If you are the chosen one, you will be free to write any dedication you like! You might decide to dedicate it to yourself, your friends, a loved one, a family member or pet.

All you have to do is email me at with:

1) The single sentence that has proved most helpful in your life. It might be something that a friend or family member has said to you, something you have figured out yourself, or something you have read in a book or heard in a film. Either way, send in the piece of life advice that you believe everyone should know.

2) Your dedication

So, for example you might go with ‘Live every day as if it is your last’ and ‘To Eric’.

A panel of judges will then look at the ‘life advice’ sentences, and either choose a winner, or  produce a short-list that will then go to a public vote! The winner will then get their dedication printed in the book.

The rules are here. Have fun, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Science of ghosts: New Research


Yesterday was a bit of a busy one because we launched two new online studies into the psychology of ghosts.

We are conducting the first international survey into alleged ghostly experiences, and also hunting for ghost photographs.  The photo on the left shows the first image on the site, and was taken in 1993 when i was researching in India.  There is a strange purple glow around the group.  More importantly, my choice of shorts, shoes and socks defy rational explanation.

Lots of media covered the story (including Channel 4, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Metro, and The Daily Mail), but probably the most comprehensive piece is this feature in The Scotsman.

The ‘ghost’ photograph site has already had about forty thousand views from all around the world, and people have sent in lots of new photos for the site, so looks like the project has caught the public imagination.

The results of both studies will be announced at ‘Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts‘ on the 4th April. Very excited about the day. PA release about the project after the break.

Update: TV clip about it here.

It’s the Monday Puzzle!

nine-dots-puzzleStarting from any point and without lifting your pen from the page, can you draw 4 straight lines, such that each of the nine dots has at least one line running through it?

Yes, it’s the old ‘nine dot’ problem, first popularized by Sam Loyd around the turn of the last century, and used in pretty much every creativity training session since.

The answer is well-known. However, there are several other lesser known variants of the puzzle. For example, how about….

Starting from any point and without lifting your pen from the page, can you draw 3 straight lines, such that each of the nine dots has at least one line running through it?

and how about….

Starting from any point and without lifting your pen from the page, can you draw 1 straight line, such that each of the nine dots has the line running through it?

The answer to this puzzle, and 100 others,  can be found in a new kindle ebook called PUZZLED, and is available in the UK here and USA here.

Test your intuition…..

newYesterday was rather exciting. The Darwin Day illusion caused an especially large number of views and comments (thanks to everyone who linked to the site and Stephen Fry for the twitter-plug).

Also, the work that Rob Jenkins and I have been carrying out into facial appearance and personality made it onto the front cover of New Scientist. The research provides tentative and tantalizing evidence that religiosity may be reflected in facial features (at least in female faces). But can you spot a religious face?