Chickening Out: Ernst Mach’s “Illusione Gallieae”

12. Oktober 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank-you for your most interesting contributions, to literature, to poetry, to  humanity and progress, which I have had the privilege of absorbing here tonight.

You have asked me most kindly to join your ranks, and given me 10 minutes to demonstrate, with utmost economy, some scientific facts about the nature of perception.

So let me begin not by speaking and making beautiful soundwaves such as we have just heard, soundwaves that will make your eardrums vibrate and shake, but by performing a modern science experiment, to show you how the human body is capable of producing pressure, pressure which we need to make any kind of sound:


Inside this ballon, we now have approximately atmospheric pressure. The atmosphere inside this room is pressing against the balloon, the air inside the balloon is pressing against the atmosphere, the forces are equal, and so the balloon keeps its shape.

BLOW. If I increase the pressure, you see that the volume increases. This was for example the volume which Goethe would have used, when he filled his lungs to recite his poetic verses.

If I increase the pressure further, BLOW, I can increase volume. This was the volume that perhaps Kant needed in Königshof, when he was lecturing about the categorical imperative, and he had to keep his students awake.

BLOW RAISE VOICE 0,6, 0,8 bar inside this ballon. And as it is growing, it is taking more and more volume in this room, (this is maybe the volume Napoleon needed to command his troops in waterloo) and if I continue, I can use my body to displace your bodies, to push you against the walls.


And eventually the pressure would get so great, that we will have an explosion, and all of you will explode into tiny little pieces, like russians who are facing the superior Austrian artillery, and you will all simply fly away as debris into empty space.


But I know it would not be comfortable for you to experience such an explosion in this room.  So I can just tie this knot and preserve the pressure in here, and with the help of my magic lantern projector, I can show you how it would be if this pressure would send you flying up into the atmosphere.


Whenever I am flying through space like this, travelling much faster than the speed of sound, I remember how as I child, I visited my grandfather Ernst, who had a farm in Breclav. There he kept some chickens. To impress me, his immensly curious, 4-year old Grandson, he liked to perform a magic chicken trick, the so called “illusione gallilae”, the cock’s illusion: first, he asks me to seize a chicken in the yard, and press it firmly to the ground. After half a minute or so, the bird accepts its sad fate in my grandfather’s arms and stops fluttering. Then Grandfather Ernst takes a piece of chalk out of his pocket and draws a line along the chicken’s back, following its spine. He also draws a circle on the ground, around the chicken. Then, we step back, and the chicken just sits there motionless, like this:


DEEP: “Scare it”, says my Grandfather. “Try and scare the chicken.”

FAST: As I highly gifted 4 year old, I loved to scare chickens, so he didn’t have to tell me twice. I always had some wet gun-powder in my pockets, so I put some on the chickens beak and head and set it on fire. The chicken is exposed to thick smoke, but it does not move.


I bring a magnesium strobe light, which later, as a famous scientist, I used to photograph bullets at ultrasonic speeds, and flashed it in the chickens eye. But the chicken doesn’t react. It doesn’t even blink or squawk.


Finally, I get so angry, that I throw rocks at it and hit it hard with a spade, but it just sits there paralysed, almost dead.

DEEP “Hahaha”, my grandfather laughed at me. “It’s magic. The chicken believes it has been tied up with a rope. And only the same magic chalk can be used to set it free.”

And then indeed he freed the chicken from its spell, although I was never allowed to watch how he did it. And indeed when I looked, I saw the chicken…


…the chicken was as free as you and me.

But many years later, when I was already a famous scientist, I remembered my grandfather’s wonderous poultry-magic, and finally decided to investigate it with a modern scientific experiment. I asked for a chicken to be brought to my laboratory. I had no magic chalk, of course, so I tried different alternative methods to paralyse the chicken; first I put it in a glass vacuum chamber, where after just a few minutes it stayed completely still. Then I even put it inside our new 3D-printer, were its feathers and head were sprayed and coated with burning hot plastic, and again it seemed to be completely in shock, and didn’t move at all.

So I was able to prove that it is possible to completely paralyse a chicken without any “magic chalk”, and that this wonderous “illusione Galliae” is actually just a simple trance-induced hypnosis.

Yet even here, in the 21st century, in Berlin, there are still people who will believe any such magic story, without using science to test if it is actually true. They laugh at science, and instead they worship poetry, painting, music, fashion, and the daily printed news, as if these had some kind of higher power.

There are even more primitive people amongst us, maybe even in this very room, who believe they can use their thoughts and willpower to control reality, to prevent for example cancer, or to achieve professional success – even though, of course, it is the opposite way; it is always reality, which impresses itself and controls our thoughts. I have observed fully grown german adults shouting at television screens like savages in the jungle, with bloodshot eyes and painted faces, because they want to propell the football into the enemy’s goal; and if they fail, they believe it’s because they have not shouted loud enough.

A paralysed chicken and a piece of chalk, a positive thought and a successful professional career, a football goal, and loud shouting – there is nothing wrong with such random associations. But when our mind puts 1 and 1 together, these mental connections can spread throughout the population like a wildfire. Then, one individual’s error of perception can quickly become confused with common sense, with a bigger conspiracy, with higher knowledge, or with god’s will.

Let us remember that it was only 7 or 8 generations ago, in 1782, that the last so-called witch was burnt in Europe, in Glarus, Switzerland. Countless other human sacrifices and monstrous crimes have been committed since then, because people have trusted their emotions and gut feeling more than the voice of reason and modern science.

And do I still need to remind you, Ladies and Gentlemen, of the situation today in Europe? On one hand, we have rising social and economic instability. On the other hand, we have hundreds of thousands of so-called refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Irak. These two facts are distinctly and clearly observable. Yet once again they become automatically connected in the primitive human mind – first inspiring some of us to unconditional acts of sympathy, solidarity and limitless self-sacrifice, and then, just a few months later, driving others into blind fear, hate, and acts of violence and political madness.

I am no doctor, so I have no cure for this terrible disease of the human mind. I am also no shaman, no sorcerer, or performance artist, who with a little bit of good magic can undo the black magic of our times.

What I am, ladies and gentlemen, with all my heart and to the utmost depths of my so-called soul, is a scientist. And therefore, I will now happily leave the stage to you again, dear poets, writers, and artists of Berlin, and head back to the laboratory in Budapest, where I have some slightly serious issues waiting for me, and also a scared and paralysed chicken, which is still sitting here next to me.

Squawk-Stand up Front.

You know, when I was finally old enough, my Grandfather he showed me how to free a scared little chicken from his magic spell. And even today, in such troubled times as we are living through, if I see anyone here who is scared, or paralysed, or chickening out because of some strange kind of magic, then I know it is my duty as a scientist to do exactly what Ernst would have done, which is this:




Lecture Performance @ Lettretage Berlin, Kakania Series, delivered on 11.10.2016