TAM 4: Report #4

Contributed by
Feb 2, 2006

I was going to post this on my TAM4 travelog (which I'm in the process of writing), but that's getting pretty lengthy, and I was afraid people might not read it all the way through - and I wanted to share this story. It's a bit long, but bear with me.

Dr. Richard Wiseman is an extremely smart and funny guy. He's a psychologist and stage performer, and he studies such things as peoples' perceptions of luck and of change. Why do some people have such strong feelings that they are lucky or unlucky? How do we detect changes in our environment? For the latter, he conducts tests where people are put into situations where something is changed without them knowing what, why, or how, and he sees if they notice. It's actually very funny, which brings us to the heart of my story.

Last year, at TAM3, it was brought to our attention that Richard and I look quite a bit alike (it helped that our clothes were similar too). Sure, there are some differences: he is thinner than I am, his glasses are different, and he speaks with a British accent, but overall all we could easily be mistaken for each other, as you can see in the picture there. This gave us both an idea for a fun prank!

We started exchanging emails over the next few months, mapping out our plan. Finally, when TAM4 rolled around, we hammered out a few details and got ready for his talk.

The next day, he was the first speaker, which was perfect. Before his talk, I went around behind the stage and hid. He went on, and I listened covertly as he got a lot of laughs showing various optical illusions and joking about them. About 20 minutes in, he started a video clip, which is where the fun began.

The clip was of a guy, the unwitting subject of a perception test, who walks up to a desk and is asked by another man sitting there to fill out a form. A few seconds later, the man at the desk bends down to pick up a piece of paper, but when he comes back up, he is replaced by an entirely different guy. Incredibly, the guy filling out the form doesn't notice that the man he was just talking too has been replaced by someone else. The audience was getting a good laugh out of this, but I was hoping we were about to get a bigger one!

Right before showing the clip, Richard complained his throat was scratchy, so he walks offstage to get some water. However, instead of him walking back onstage, I did. I was dressed almost exactly as he was (actually, it's weird we both have similar purple shirts), including wearing a spare pair of his glasses. To maintain the illusion, I was carrying a bottle of water, pouring it into a cup.

The hope was that I would be able to carry out this little trick for about 20 or 30 seconds before anyone would notice. I would talk with a British accent (I actually impressed Richard with my ability to imitate him) and then ease back into an American accent, talking the whole while on how things can change right in front of people and they won't notice.

Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned. Damned skeptics! They're too observant! I hadn't even gotten halfway to the podium before a roar of laughter erupted from the front rows. They knew immediately it was me and not Richard walking back out. I heard later that someone yelled out, "It's Phil Plait!" (I'm sure the same kind of person who spoils movie endings to all his friends). Despite that, a lot of folks in the back were initially clueless that we had pulled a switch, including several friends of mine. It wasn't until they heard the laughter and started looking more closely that they noticed I wasn't Richard.

Anyway, it did get a huge laugh, and I had people coming up to me all day and the next telling me it was the funniest moment of the whole meeting. In fact, I was stayed in the those clothes the rest of the day (Richard changed into more casual clothes) and twice -- twice -- people came up to me and talked to me thinking I was Richard.

So in the end, even though it didn't go exactly as planned, we still pulled off a great joke. Now I just have to think about what to do next year!

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