Martial Arts & the Laws of Physics

What Is Science to Do When the ‘Impossible’ Happens?

Are the incredible feats of some martial artists a challenge to the standard model of physics? Is their brick-breaking, for example, evidence that some of them can control a mysterious primal energy? And martial artists are not alone; throughout history people have done things that would seem impossible for mere flesh and blood.

Modern physics is having problems to begin with, resting uneasily on the twin pillars of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. There has been a problem all along with reconciling quantum gravity with relativistic gravity, and grand unified theories (GUTs) have tried and generally failed to bridge the gap. The current favorite is string theory, already morphing into membrane theory, which, unfortunately, cannot be tested either to prove or disprove it. Then there are problems like the missing solar neutrinos, the controversy over dark matter and now dark energy as well, the lack of any single and credible explanation for the magnetic fields of celestial bodies, and the problem of explaining all the internal heat of planets, especially the outer planets of our own solar system. A lot of people believe that the famous Michelson-Morley experiment in the late nineteenth century proved that there is no luminiferous ether, but it is impossible to prove a negative proposition (like proving that God, Santa Claus, or Bigfoot do not exist). Michelson and Morley never made such a claim; they were simply unable to detect an ether, and Michelson, years later, stated that he suspected that there was some kind of ether filling all of space. Einstein also admitted that relativity actually required an ether. And, in recent years, with little publicity, a handful of trained physicists and astronomers have challenged many of the assumptions of the standard model and the “big bang.”

As stated above, it is not just martial artists who present a challenge. In Atlantis Rising (#70), Len Kasten’s article “The Superhero Factor” suggested (as many of us have suspected over the years) that some stage magicians, rather than making mere tricks look paranormal, may actually have some paranormal powers which they pretend are just tricks. Kasten gave the example of David Copperfield, who seemingly levitated over the Grand Canyon, walked through the Great Wall of China, and made the Statue of Liberty disappear. David Blaine supposedly held his breath for 17 minutes (the world record, without breathing oxygen to prepare for the feat, is officially eight minutes and 58 seconds). Blaine also was publicly encased in ice for 63 hours, 42 minutes, and 15 seconds. Magician Criss Angel has repeatedly levitated in public, once floating some 200 feet from one roof to another and, on another occasion, floating for 10 minutes above the Luxor Pyramid in Las Vegas. Once he seemingly walked on water across a swimming pool, with people swimming under and around him. None of this actually proves paranormal abilities, but such acts are extremely difficult to explain.

In addition to magicians and martial artists, others have demonstrated abilities that are exceedingly difficult to explain away. The telekinetic feats of Uri Geller and Nina Kulagina might be nothing more than stage magic, but what about the apparent levitation performed by medium Daniel Dunglas Hume, reportedly witnessed by several reputable people? Many, many decades ago, the Polish strongman Siegmund Breitbart, it is claimed, bit through steel chains and pounded spikes into wooden beams with his bare hands. If these acts were not somehow faked, it is impossible for human teeth to cut steel, which is much, much harder, stronger, and less brittle than human bone and tooth enamel. And Human flesh and blood would be bruised and even lacerated by pounding against the spikes.

More recent accounts of incredible feats are better documented. Some have been videotaped and even televised, as on the “Stan Lee’s Superhumans” program. “Hammerhead” John Ferraro, a wrestler and strong man, can pound nails into wood with his head and has had assistants break a stack of bricks on his head. This is at least stretching the limits of what is possible for unaided flesh and blood. A Belgian free diver, Patrick Musimu, dived to 685 feet underwater just holding his breath, with no scuba or other breathing gear. To put this in perspective, scuba divers rarely go deeper than 200 feet without special gas mixtures, which require more advanced training. I have been diving for many, many years and have never been deeper than 90 feet. Wim Hof, the Dutch “iceman,” stayed one hour, 13 minutes, and 48 seconds in an ice bath. He also climbed Kilimanjaro in shorts and did a marathon, also while wearing shorts, when the temperature was four degrees below zero Fahrenheit. He practiced “tummo,” a discipline developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Kagyu tradition; these monks claim that they harness the “kundalini” energy, producing internal heat as a kind of by-product and, to test themselves, wrap themselves in wet sheets in cold weather and dry the sheets with the heat they produce. This has been pretty well documented. At first glance, Hof’s hour in an ice bath sounds less impressive than David Blaine’s incredible 63 hours in ice, but Hof was in a mixture of ice and liquid water, which would conduct his body heat away more rapidly.

Then there are the magnetic people. Miroslav Magula can cause heavy metal objects to stick to his body and claims to be able to control the force; he was studied by Dr. Friedbert Karger at the Max Planck Institute in Germany in 1997. Liew Thow Lin in Malaysia has been videotaped doing the same thing and was studied by Professor Doctor Mohamed Amin Alias at the Malaysian Universiti Teknologi. Lin and was featured on the Discovery Channel’s “One Step Beyond.”

But martial artists are probably the largest single group of people who demonstrate abilities hard to explain in conventional terms, with the possible exception of Tibetan monks. A few words of explanation are in order. The term “martial arts” means any art of war, including rifle marksmanship or the ability to pilot a fighter jet. But it is generally used in a more narrow sense to refer to unarmed combat or fighting with clubs and sticks and edged weapons. Western martial arts, like boxing and wrestling, tend to be more fluid and improvisational than most of the Far Eastern arts which emphasize meditation, breathing, and the practice of often complex but rigidly defined movements called “katas.” The one exception is Thai kick boxing, which is as fluid and improvisational as Western boxing.

The Oriental martial arts can be roughly divided into those that mainly emphasize punching, hand strikes, and kicking, and those that emphasize throws, locks, and choke holds. The first category includes such arts as karate, Korean Tai Kwan Do, and some forms of Kung Fu. Kung Fu, or Wushu refers to a variety of Chinese martial arts; some forms of kung fu seem to have originated in the famous Shaolin Buddhist monastery as far back as the seventh century. Kung fu seems to be closely related to the disciplines of Tao Yin, Quigong, and Tai Chi Chuan, systems of postures, exercises, and breath control believed to enhance health and mental well-being. Their similarity to hatha yoga is almost certainly more than coincidental.

Other forms of kung fu, and Japanese jiu-jitsu emphasize holds, locks, and throws more than hand strikes or kicks. Jiujitsu practitioners claim to use the opponent’s strength against him. In the late nineteenth century Kano Jigoro developed judo from jiu-jitsu; it is somewhat less lethal (and, arguably, less effective for self-defense) and places a greater emphasis on throws. Mitsuyo Maeda brought jiu-jitsu to Brazil in 1914 and taught it to his friend Carlos Gracie. The Gracie family then developed Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which involves a lot of grappling on the ground or mat. Marihei Ueshiba developed, also from jiu- jitsu, aikido, which is less lethal and attempts to redirect attacks rather than meet them head on.

Most of these Oriental martial arts use meditation, certain postures, and breath control as part of their training, and as any Bruce Lee fan will attest, almost all of them claim to develop a mysterious energy source known by many names across the world: chi, ki, mana, prana, kundalini, orgone energy, vril, and odic force. It is believed that this energy fills all of space and can be controlled by the human will. While indigenous shamanic traditions may be one source for this belief, the Hindu practices of India, especially Hatha Yoga, were almost certainly the main influence. Of course, Yoga itself may have first been developed by shamans on the sub-continent, but given the evidence for the extreme antiquity of civilization in India, that would have been many, many thousands of years ago, far back in prehistory. Knowledge of Yoga could have spread directly and, via Buddhism, indirectly.

Not only might this explain the extreme feats of breaking stacks of bricks or concrete blocks or multiple boards at once, but it might be true, as the Shaolin monks claim, that it is the source of their ”iron shirt” technique, which makes them seemingly impervious to thrusts from sharp spears and blows to the head with heavy sticks. Trickery can never be entirely ruled out, but these feats have repeatedly been witnessed, videotaped, and televised. Perhaps it is this technique that allows John Ferraro to perform his incredible acts.

If, indeed, the abilities of some martial artists are due to their control of the chi force, there is a need for thoroughly and rigidly controlled experiments. It should be possible to eliminate any fraud and to determine with certainty if certain acts are possible for unaided muscle and bone or not. Also, just as amateur investigators of hauntings use sensitive instruments to detect electric and magnetic fields, researchers studying martial arts should do the same. I strongly suspect that martial artists, channeling chi, may produce such fields as a side effect; this might also explain the magnetic people described earlier. The problem is that few reputable and professional scientists are willing to undertake such experiments; and amateurs, no matter how intelligent, honest, and thorough they may be (like the people who investigate hauntings), are seldom taken seriously. Much is at stake here. The chi force, if it exists, may very well be the ether, a dynamic ether that could be a source of inexhaustible “free” energy, and which could, perhaps, lead to new medical technologies. But there is even more to it than that: if the human will controls chi, and chi is the ether, perhaps the primal source of all matter and energy, this would seem to undermine the atheist/materialist status quo so popular among all too many scientists today.

By William B. Stoecker

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