Illusionist David Blaine's Electrifying Stunt is Shockingly Safe

(Image credit: NOAA)

In his latest stunt, illusionist David Blaine plans to make his body a conduit for an electric current flowing between two high-voltage electrodes for three days straight. The magician says he'll face off with 1 million volts in what he told the Daily News would be his "most dangerous" feat ever, but at least one MIT physicist won't be losing sleep over Blaine's safety, saying the trick seems mostly risk-free.

A trailer for the stunt, which is set to begin on Manhattan's Pier 54 on Oct. 5, shows Blaine standing at the center of a dark room, his mesh bodysuit lit only by two fluttering arcs of electricity emanating from his outstretched arms.

If the teaser gives any indication of what will actually transpire next month, Blaine's odds of besting death in the trick he calls "Electrified: One Million Volts Always On" are pretty good.

"He has a conducting suit, all the current is going through the suit, nothing through his body," said John Belcher, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-investigator on a plasma experiment aboard NASA's Voyager 2 craft. "There is no danger in this that I see. I would do it, and I am 69 years old and risk-averse. I just would have to take a nap."

Blaine's safety during the stunt will rely on an altered version of a piece of technology that has been around since 1836, when it was invented by a mostly self-taught English scientist named Michael Faraday. The device, called a Faraday cage, is a hollow shell or mesh frame of conducting material.

Faraday realized that when exposed to a current passing through an external electric field, such an enclosure would distribute charge on its surface in a way that resulted in no net effect on the interior. In what is probably the earliest prototype for Blaine's stunt, Faraday demonstrated this fact in 1836 by coating a room with metal foil and standing inside of it while powerful electric discharges flowed over its outside.

When Blaine dons his mesh suit, he "is just wearing the cage instead of being inside of the cage," Belcher told Life's Little Mysteries.

Blaine's choice to advertise the voltage of the electrodes he'll be standing between, rather than the amperage of the current that will flow through his Faraday suit, is perhaps somewhat misleading. What directly concerns a human's risk of electrocution is not voltage (in a common analogy, voltage is likened to water pressure if electric current is thought of as the flow rate of water through a pipe), but the amount of current coursing through an electric field, measured in amperes, or amps. And within an electric field of a given strength, the current passing through an object will vary depending on that object's resistance, a property governed by its material.

"I would have no fear of having 1 million volts between my head and the soles of my shoes as long as I made sure my shoes had a really, really high resistance," said Belcher.

Though the only immediate threat Blaine is likely to face during the three-day stunt is fatigue, some of the subtle byproducts of an exposed arc of current might actually pose a small health risk, according to Belcher.

"He is surrounded by all these lightning discharges, [which] would certainly emit radiation and there would be a lot of ozone," he said." [That] might be a problem for three days."

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Life's Little Mysteries Staff Writer