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Why David Blaine's million-volt stunt is shockingly safe

6:24 PM, Oct 5, 2012   |    comments
Illusionist David Blaine lets electricity course through his protective chain-mail suit during a preview of "Electrified: One Million Volts Always On." (Getty Images/NBC)
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NEW YORK - Magician David Blaine's latest stunt boasts lots of high-voltage snap, crackle and pop - but experts say he'll be safe from electrocution as long as he wears his chain-mail suit and metal headgear.

The show at Manhattan's Pier 54 calls for 1 million volts of electricity to flow from one Tesla coil to another, across his metal-clad body - for 72 hours, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday. He'll go without food and without a good night's sleep, with electricity crackling around him constantly.

Blaine's past endurance trials have included sitting in a box suspended above the River Thames in London for 44 days with only water, and standing unharnessed on a 100-foot-high (30-meter-high) pillar in New York City for 35 hours. He says the "Electrified" show is "one of the craziest things that I ever dreamed up, and I don't know how I could go beyond it."

"I had wanted to do this for years," he told reporters at a preview on Tuesday. "Being in the middle of a lightning storm, it feels so amazing, being in an environment you shouldn't be in."

During the unusual press conference, Blaine mounted a platform on the pier, gave the go-ahead for the electricity to be switched on, and proceeded to shoot purplish arcs of lightning out of his hands and the top of his head.

Protected by Faraday suit
Blaine's stainless-steel chain-mail suit is a Faraday suit, an adaptation of the principle of the Faraday cage, in which an enclosure of highly conductive material shields whatever is within the enclosure from an electric field. It's a version of the protective suit that some linemen wear when working on high-voltage power lines, or that hobbyists make for themselves when playing with homemade Tesla coils.

"He has a conducting suit, all the current is going through the suit, nothing through his body," John Belcher, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Life's Little Mysteries . "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."

Although the voltage sounds shockingly high, it's the strength of the current, measured in amps, that makes the electricity deadly. And the electric current produced by a typical Tesla coil is low.

Columbia University physicist William Allen Zajc applauded the magician for making physics seem exciting. He said the stunt was basically safe, though it could prove risky if the suit deteriorated from exposure to the elements.

"To me, the amazing thing is that he plans to stand there for 72 hours, not that there's a million volts or these impressive lightning bolts passing through the Faraday cage that surrounds him," Zajc told Reuters.

Stuart Weiss, Blaine's doctor, said the main risks of the stunt include exposure to the ozone and nitrous oxides that are a byproduct of ionized air, which humans should not inhale in large quantities. A ventilation system will ensure that Blaine has breathable air, and a special visor in his helmet will protect his eyes from the ultraviolet radiation of the arcing electricity.

A scare during rehearsal
The visor was reportedly misaligned during one of the rehearsals, which resulted in a serious scare. Blaine told Wired.co.uk that the device hit his nose when he lowered it into place, causing his head to snap back and hit the wired headgear he was wearing. "The electricity arc hit me right in the head, almost knocking me out, so we had to shut it down," he said.

Wired.co.uk quoted Blaine as saying the shock felt as if "somebody is punching you as hard as they can at the back of your head."

Blaine will be wearing noise-cancelling earphones to block out the crackling sound of the Tesla coils. Those earphones will allow him to hear and communicate with people on the ground, including members of the public. Organizers of the stunt are planning to relay questions from Twitter, marked with the hashtag #electrified.

He will suck water through a tube, urinate through a catheter, and has been fasting to avoid the need to defecate. Paul Hoffman, who is Blaine's science adviser as well as president and CEO of Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, told NBC News that the magician had to keep himself from scratching an itchy nose.

"He might get a bad burn, or worse," Hoffman said in an email.

During a Reddit chat on Thursday, Blaine said the hardest part would be "staying awake ... standing the whole time, wearing armor and not being able to move very much."

"I actually have a harness so I don't fall off and die, which normally I would never worry about," Blaine said.

Intel Corp. is sponsoring the event to promote notebook computers that use its processor technology. Video of the stunt will be streamed via YouTube, and special viewing stations have been set up in London, Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney.

(NBC News)

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