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
Occupationwriter, scientific skeptic
Known forPopularizer of optical illusions
Parent(s)Ruth Schonthal
Paul Bernard Seckel

Alfred Paul "Al" Seckel (September 3, 1958 – 2015) was an American collector and popularizer of visual and other types of sensory illusions, who wrote books about them.

Early life[edit]

Seckel was born September 3, 1958 in New York City, New York to Paul Bernard Seckel, a German-born painter and graphic artist, and Ruth Schonthal, a German-born pianist and classical composer. His mother was a refugee from the Nazis. Seckel was raised in a Jewish household. He grew up in New Rochelle, NY with his two older brothers, Ben and Bernard Seckel.[1] Seckel graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1976. He attended Cornell University from 1976 to 1978 but left without receiving a degree.[2]

In 1981, Seckel moved to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where he lived for nearly thirty years.


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.[3] Chris Gilman, a Hollywood prop maker, manufactured the first plastic car ornaments in 1990, and licensed the design to Evolution Design of Austin, Texas.[4] When the emblem evolved into a million-dollar business, Evolution Design threatened to sue distributors of look-alike and derivative products. 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.[3]

In 1984, Seckel started the Southern California Skeptics (SCS), and became a spokesperson for science and its relationship to the paranormal.[5] SCS co-sponsored and produced a monthly series of lectures, primarily held at the California Institute of Technology, with other meetings occasionally held on the campus of Cal State Fullerton, that explained alleged paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception and firewalking.[6][7][8] 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.[9] 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.[10] An article published in New Scientist in 1985 states that the Southern California Skeptics were "the fastest growing chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)".[11]

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.[12] 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.[8] 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.[13]

The Southern California Skeptics dissolved in the late 1980s. In 1992, Michael Shermer started a new Los Angeles-area skeptical group called The Skeptics Society, using SCS's old mailing list and involving several of the same board members.

Visual illusions[edit]

Seckel was "a leading collector and popularizer" of optical illusions.[2]

In 1994, he created an interactive website on illusions.[14][15] He also developed visual illusion installations for museums.[16]

Seckel's books about optical illusions include several picture books for children such as Ambiguous Illusions (2005), Action Optical Illusions (2005) and Stereo Optical Illusions (2006).

His book, Masters of Deception: Escher, Dali, and the Artists of Optical Illusion (2004), collects the work of many 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.[17]

He gave many lectures about such illusions, including an early TED talk (2004) and a talk at the World Economic Forum, Davos in 2011.[2]

Other activities[edit]

Rare book investment and sales[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 Christie’s to keep the collection in one piece. A settlement was reached where Norman through Christie’s was allowed to sell the collection in its entirety to preserve free access to scholars.[19] Former colleagues and associates of James 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]

Lawsuits and disputes[edit]

Seckel was sued on several occasions after disputes over rare-book investment and sales.[2][21]

In a San Diego Reader article from 1994, Tom McIver (author of Anti-Evolution: An Annotated Bibliography) accused Seckel of failing to disclose financial information as leader of the Southern California Skeptics and misrepresenting his academic credentials.[22] Seckel later sued the author, Tom McIver, for libel over edits to his Wikipedia page. The suit was settled in 2007 under undisclosed terms.[2]

A 2015 profile of Seckel in Tablet Magazine by Mark Oppenheimer detailed several first-person accounts from individuals who reported that Seckel still owed them money including the widow of one of his mentors, his lawyer, a graduate student, and those who had engaged in rare book deals. The article stated that there were at least 25 cases involving Seckel from 1992 to 2015 in the Los Angeles Superior Court database.[2] Oppenheimer reported that Seckel cultivated a false image, both with personal contacts and within the media, of himself as a graduate from Cornell with degrees in physics and math, as an affiliate of and candidate for doctoral degrees at CalTech, and as a scientist conducting research in conjunction with colleagues at Harvard University. Some of these inaccuracies were published in media coverage of Seckel, including in the Los Angeles Times in 1985[7] and 1987.[2][8]

Author George P. Hansen, in an article published in 1992, stated that Seckel embarrassed the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) after it "was discovered that he did not hold the academic credentials he claimed."[23]

Collaboration with Jeffrey Epstein[edit]

In 2009 Seckel was involved in organizing a science conference with financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The Mindshift conference took place in 2010 on Epstein's private island Little Saint James. In attendance were Murray Gell-Mann, Leonard Mlodinow, and Gerald Sussman.[21]

An interview between Jeffrey Epstein and Al Seckel discussing perception appeared on Epstein's science website on October 17, 2010.[24]

Personal life[edit]

Seckel married Laura Mullen in 1980; their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1987. Mullen and Seckel later divorced. His second marriage was to Denice D. Lewis in 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada: it was never annulled.[2] Seckel married for a third time to Alice Klarke; the union was dissolved in 2007. Seckel became involved with Isabel Maxwell from 2007 until his death in France in 2015.[2]

From approximately 2010 until his death in 2015, Seckel lived in France.[2] According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and his personal website, he died near his home in France. The day of death was not specifically listed.[25][26]


  • 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


  1. ^ "Al Seckel Obituary". Legacy. September 22, 2015. Retrieved July 29, 2019 – via San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Oppenheimer, Mark (July 20, 2015). "The Illusionist". Tablet (magazine). Retrieved March 11, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Sarah Lubman (December 26, 1995). "Fish fight looms over bumper ornament". Albany, NY Times-Union (via Knight-Ridder News Service).
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ Robert Rheinhold (April 8, 1988). "Winning the West from Nostradamus". The New York TImes. p. A14.
  6. ^ The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12 no. 4, Summer, 1988; p. 346.
  7. ^ a b Baker, Bob (April 21, 1985). "A Skeptical View : Doubting Academics Waging a Flamboyant Battle to Debunk Society's Fascination With Popular Theories". Los Angeles Times. p. A3. Retrieved August 6, 2019.
  8. ^ a b c Newton, Edmund (January 4, 1987). "No Doubt About It--The Skeptics Put On Good Show". Los Angeles Times. p. 1. Retrieved August 6, 2019.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ "Feedback in Los Angeles". New Scientist. 106 (1459). Reed Business Information. June 6, 1985. p. 28. ISSN 0262-4079. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  12. ^ Seckel, Al. Science, Creationism, and the U. S. Supreme Court. The Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 11, no. 2. Winter 1986–1987. pp. 147-158.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Voss, David. "Seeing is believing." Science. (1997) Vol. 275, p. 792.
  15. ^ Pamela O'Connell (April 16, 1998). "Screen Grab; See the Spiral Spin, See Your Skin Crawl!". New York Times. p. G10.
  16. ^ "Netwatch." Science. (2001) Vol. 291, p. 1453.
  17. ^ American Library Association Press Release.
  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. ^ a b Patterson, James; Connolly, John; Malloy, Tim (2016). Filthy Rich. New York: Little Brown and Company. pp. 233–236. ISBN 9780316274050.
  22. ^ McIver, Tom (November 3, 1994). "Evolution debate on full display – Creation Museum in Santee, A little bit east of Eden". San Diego Reader. Retrieved July 29, 2019.
  23. ^ Hansen, George P. (January 1992). "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview". The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. v. 86: 39. Retrieved August 5, 2019. Incidents involving Al Seckel have also proved embarrassing for CSICOP. Seckel was an official and active member of the Committee and a founder of the Southern California Skeptics. After years of high profile activity, it was discovered that he did not hold the academic credentials he claimed. Ironically, the Committee had previously prided itself on exposing hoaxers and con artists, but CSICOP has made no public comment on the Seckel affair.
  24. ^ "Jeffrey Epstein Talks Perception with Al Seckel". Jeffrey Epstein Science. October 17, 2010. Archived from the original on November 12, 2010. Retrieved July 29, 2019.
  25. ^ "Al P. Seckel". Obituaries. San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  26. ^ "AL SECKEL 1958 - 2015". Al Seckel website (archived). Retrieved August 7, 2019.