Al Seckel

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Al Seckel
Al Seckel in 2009.jpg
Seckel in 2009
Alfred Paul Seckel

(1958-09-03)September 3, 1958
Died2015 (aged 56)
Occupationwriter, scientific skeptic
Known forPopularizer of optical illusions

Alfred Paul "Al" Seckel (September 3, 1958 – 2015) was an author of books on visual and other types of sensory illusions, and how they related to perception. Seckel collected, researched, and experimented with illusions to understand what conditions are necessary for them to work.

Freethought movement[edit]

Throughout the 1980s, Al Seckel was active in the Freethought movement. In this capacity he authored a number of articles and pamphlets. He also edited two books on the English rationalist philosopher Bertrand Russell. In 1983, Seckel and John Edwards co-created the Darwin fish design, which was first sold as a bumper sticker and on T-shirts in 1983–84 by a southern California group called Atheists United.[1] Chris Gilman, a Hollywood prop maker, manufactured the first plastic car ornaments in 1990, and licensed the design to Evolution Design of Austin, Texas.[2] When the emblem evolved into a million-dollar business, Evolution Design began threatening to sue distributors of look-alike and derivative products (like a Jewish "gefilte" fish). Seckel in turn sued Evolution Design for copyright infringement. Seckel did not seek royalties, but wanted Evolution Design to allow free use of the design by anyone authorized by him. Although Seckel was able to produce examples of the design that predated Gilman's claimed 1990 copyright date, the suit was settled when it became apparent that Seckel and Edwards had allowed the design to fall into public domain.[1]

In 1984, Seckel started the Southern California Skeptics (SCS), and became a spokesperson for science and its relationship to the paranormal.[3] SCS co-sponsored and produced a monthly series of lectures held monthly at the California Institute of Technology, other meetings were also held on the campus of Cal State Fullerton, that explained alleged paranormal phenomena such as Extra-sensory perception and firewalking.[4][5][6] Seckel also wrote about investigating various supernatural claims from the scientific perspective. One such investigation, led by James Randi, concerned faith healer Peter Popoff, who used a hearing transmitter to give the impression that he was psychic and hearing private information from God.[7] Seckel also wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times and the Santa Monica Monthly News from 1987–1989, explaining apparently amazing or paranormal phenomena in scientific terms.[8]

In 1987, SCS and Seckel helped sponsor an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Edwards v. Aguillard, challenging the constitutionality of a Louisiana law calling for the classroom inclusion of creation science.[9] The brief was written by a group of attorneys led by Jeffrey Lehman (later president of Cornell University), and SCS board member and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann recruited the signatures of 72 Nobel Laureates, 17 State Academies of Science, and 7 other scientific organizations.[6] It argued that "creation science" was counter not only to the study of evolution, but to all sciences. The court decided in a 7-2 vote that so-called "creation-science" was in fact, religion disguised as science, deliberately construed as such in order to circumvent the constitutional prohibitions of keeping Church and State separate, especially in the public science classroom. All of the opinions cited the brief, including the dissents.[10]

In late 1990, due to a sudden onset of leukemia, Seckel had to enter the hospital, where his health quickly deteriorated. The Southern California Skeptics folded. In 1991, Michael Shermer started a new Los Angeles-area skeptical group called The Skeptics Society, using SCS's mailing list and involving many of its original board members. Seckel started to recover from his illness in 1994, turning his full attention to studying the human brain, specifically vision and how it relates to perception.[citation needed]

Visual illusions[edit]

Seckel collects, researches, and experiments with visual and other types of sensory illusions. Up through 2005, Seckel was affiliated with California Institute of Technology vision scientist Shinsuke Shimojo and computational neuroscientist Christof Koch.[11][12][13] Seckel has written a number of books on visual illusions and has given invited talks at many universities around the world, and at many prestigious conferences, including TED and the World Economic Forum, Davos.[14]

His book, Masters of Deception: Escher, Dali, and the Artists of Optical Illusion (2004), collects the work of many prominent international visual illusion artists, including among others Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593), Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), M. C. Escher (1898–1972), and Rex Whistler (1905–1944). His book The Art of Optical Illusions placed first on the American Library Association's "Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers" list for 2001.[15] Some of his other books on optical illusions and perception, which focus more on the science that mediates illusions and perception, have been used in college courses on visual perception.

In 1994, Seckel designed and put up the first free interactive website on illusions[12][16] and has developed visual illusion installation for museums around the world.[11] Seckel has also written a series of optical illusion picture books for children including Ambiguous Illusions (2005), Action Optical Illusions (2005) and Stereo Optical Illusions (2006). Seckel wrote a monthly column on illusions for National Geographic Kids magazine.

In 2005, Seckel was one of the judges at the first "Best Visual Illusion of the Year" contest held in A Coruña, Spain at the European Conference on Visual Perception.[17] In 2006 he was listed as one of the contest's sponsors.

Other activities[edit]

During the late 1990s, Seckel and rare-book dealer Jeremy Norman purchased, collected, and organized the original papers of many of the pioneers in the history of the development of molecular biology, so that these papers would be preserved together for scholarly use.[18] At the time they were collected, the papers had no apparent market value and institutions were not interested in keeping the archives of their retired scientists. After the Wellcome Trust purchased the papers of Francis Crick for $2.4 million, Norman offered his collection for sale piecemeal through Christie's. Seckel brought forth a lawsuit against Norman and Christies to keep the collection in one piece. A settlement was reached where Norman through Christies was allowed to sell the collection in its entirety to preserve free access to scholars.[19] Former colleagues and associates of Watson and Crick attempted to raise the asking price of $3.2 million so the collection could be donated to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where Watson and Crick had done their pioneering research, but were unsuccessful. The collection was eventually acquired by molecular biologist J. Craig Venter, who has said he will keep the collection at the J. Craig Venter Institute.[20]

Seckel, in turn, was sued on several occasions after disputes over rare-book investment and sales.[21]


Seckel had one daughter Elizabeth, born in 1987. His father is an artist, and his mother (Ruth Schonthal) was a classical composer. He was born in New York City, New York, and grew up in New Rochelle, NY with his two older brothers Ben and Bernard Seckel. According to his personal website and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune he died near his home in France. The day of death was not specifically listed.[25][26] At the date of his death his partner was Isabel Maxwell.

Bibliography (partial)[edit]

  • Science and the Paranormal. SCS Publishing (1987)
  • Bertrand Russell on God and Religion. (Seckel, editor), Prometheus Books (1986) ISBN 0-87975-323-4
  • Bertrand Russell on Sex, Marriage, and Morals. (Seckel, editor), Prometheus Books (1987) ISBN 0-87975-400-1
  • The Art of Optical Illusions. Carlton Books (2000) ISBN 1-84222-054-3
  • Great Book of Optical Illusions. Firefly Books (2004) ISBN 1-55297-650-5
  • Masters of Deception: Escher, Dali, and the Artists of Optical Illusion. Sterling Books (2004) ISBN 1-4027-0577-8
  • Incredible Visual Illusions. (with Rebecca Panayiotou and Tessa Rose, editors), Arcturus Books (2005) ISBN 1-84193-197-7
  • Action Optical Illusions. Sterling Books (2005) ISBN 1-4027-1828-4
  • Impossible Optical Illusions. Sterling Books (2005) ISBN 1-4027-1830-6
  • Stereo Optical Illusions. Sterling Books (2006) ISBN 1-4027-1833-0
  • Optical Illusions: The Science of Visual Perception. Firefly Books (2006) ISBN 1-55407-172-0

Published articles (partial list)[edit]

  • "What I Admire About Albert Einstein", Discover Magazine, December 2004
  • "Rather than Just Debunking, Encourage People to Think", The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 13, Spring, 1989
  • "Couch Potato Dog Convinces Hard-Core Skeptics", Skeptical Eye, Los Angeles Times, 1989
  • "Dalmatian's Counting Goes to the Dogs", Skeptical Eye, Los Angeles Times, 1989
  • "A New Age of Obfuscation and Manipulation", in Robert Basil, ed., Not Necessarily the New Age: Critical Essays by Carl Sagan, J. Gordon Melton, Martin Gardner, etc., Prometheus Press, 1988.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion: No Longer a Burning Issue Santa Monica Times, 1988
  • "Nostradamus: The California Earthquake", Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1988
  • "Nancy Reagan's Astro-Logic", Santa Monica News, July 29, 1988
  • "Quacks: Health Criminals", Santa Monica News, May 20, 1988
  • Mere Puffery: Confessions of a Leading Psychic Santa Monica News, May 6, 1988
  • "Recognizing Destructive and Manipulative Groups", Santa Monica News, April 22, 1988
  • "Surgery as Magic", Santa Monica News, February 26, 1988
  • "Remembering Richard Feynman", Santa Monica News, February 2, 1988
  • "Pinocchio Science: The Truth about Lie Detectors", Santa Monica News, Jan 17, 1988
  • "Tabloid Psychics Failed to Predict '87 Would be a Bad Year for Them", The Skeptical Eye, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1988
  • The Man Who Could Read Record Grooves The Skeptical Eye, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1987
  • "Sensing Just How to Help the Police", The Skeptical Eye, Los Angeles Times, 1987
  • "Keep Creationism out of Public Schools!", Freethought Today, Vol. 3, no. 8, 1986
  • The Revolt Against the Lightning Rod (co-authored with John Edwards), Free Inquiry, Winter, 1986
  • Robert Ingersoll's Views on Religion (co-authored with Gordon Stein), Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1985
  • "Russell and the Cuban Missile Crisis", Journal of the Bertrand Russell Studies, Vol. 4, no. 2, Winter 1984
  • The Shroud of Turin (co-authored with John Edwards), Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1984
  • History's Judgment on Religion Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1984
  • Christianity Versus Women (co-authored with Julia Hernandez), Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1984
  • Equal Time for Creationism? (co-authored with John Edwards), Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1983
  • Thomas Paines' Age of Reason Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1982
  • Albert Einstein's Views on Religion Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1982
  • Charles Darwin's Views on Religion (co-authored with John Edwards), Atheists United, Freethought Leaflet, 1982
  • "Scientists Crucified: Hypatia", The Humanist, May 1981

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sarah Lubman (December 26, 1995). "Fish fight looms over bumper ornament". Albany, NY Times-Union (via Knight-Ridder News Service).
  2. ^ Berta Delgado (March 15, 1998). "Filleting their foes through a fish". The Record (Bergen County, NJ). p. L05. (originally published in the Dallas Morning News)
  3. ^ Robert Rheinhold (April 8, 1988). "Winning the West from Nostradamus". The New York TImes. p. A14.
  4. ^ The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12 no. 4, Summer, 1988; p. 346.
  5. ^ Bob Baker (April 21, 1985). "A skeptical view". Los Angeles Times. p. A3.
  6. ^ a b Edmund Newton (January 4, 1987). "No doubt about it–the skeptics put on a good show". Los Angeles Times. p. 1.
  7. ^ Seckel, Al. God's Frequency is 39.17 MHz: The Investigation of Peter Popoff. In Science and the Paranormal. Pasadena, Calif: Southern California Skeptics, 1987. Available online.
  8. ^ Many columns were written, including, for example, "Dalmatian's counting goes to the dogs" (December 21, 1987), debunking a dog whose owner claimed it could perform simple arithmetic, and "Tabloid psychics failed to predict '87 would be a bad year for them." (January 11, 1988).
  9. ^ Seckel, Al. Science, Creationism, and the U. S. Supreme Court. The Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 11, no. 2. Winter 1986–1987. pp. 147-158.
  10. ^ EDWARDS, GOVERNOR OF LOUISIANA, ET AL. v. AGUILLARD ET AL. No. 85-1513. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. 482 U.S. 578; 107 S. Ct. 2573; 1987 U.S. LEXIS 2729; 96 L. Ed. 2d 510; 55 U.S.L.W. 4860.
  11. ^ a b "Netwatch." Science. (2001) Vol. 291, p. 1453.
  12. ^ a b Voss, David. "Seeing is believing." Science. (1997) Vol. 275, p. 792.
  13. ^ Additional confirmation of Seckel's Caltech affiliation can be found here and here
  14. ^ Example Google search.
  15. ^ American Library Association Press Release.
  16. ^ Pamela O'Connell (April 16, 1998). "Screen Grab; See the Spiral Spin, See Your Skin Crawl!". New York Times. p. G10.
  17. ^ "Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest (2005)". Neural Correlate Society. Retrieved 2006-06-05.
  18. ^ Rex Dalton (June 14, 2001). "The History Man". Nature.
  19. ^ "News in brief." Nature. Vol. 422, p. 102 (13 March 2003) and Vol. 432, p. 578 (5 June 2003).
  20. ^ Nicholas Wade (August 10, 2005). "Picassos? Warhols? No, This Multimillion-Dollar Collection Stars the Science of DNA". The New York Times. p. A1. After the Crick papers passed out of reach, Mr. Norman decided to put the collection up for auction at Christie's. According to an article in Nature in 2003, Mr. Seckel objected to the sale, saying he had promised the sellers that their collections of papers would not be broken up, and said he would go to court if necessary to block the proceedings. (subscription required)
  21. ^ Oppenheimer, Mark (July 20, 2015). "The Illusionist". Tablet (magazine). Retrieved March 11, 2019. Ensign accused Seckel of absconding with over half a million dollars of the firm’s money. Myhrvold did not respond to a request for comment, and in March 2014 Ensign dropped the case. The files have been sealed by the court, and the only trace of them in the public record is a news article by a web service, which has since been taken down.
  22. ^ "Al Seckel". Edge: The Third Culture.
  23. ^ "G4G9". Gathering 4 Gardner.
  24. ^ "Advisors". EX PRIZE Foundation. Archived from the original on 2010-11-09.
  25. ^ "Al P. Seckel". Obituaries. San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  26. ^ "AL SECKEL 1958 - 2015". Al Seckel Website. Retrieved September 22, 2015.

External links[edit]