A Big Think Interview with David Adamovich

Question: How did you discover your talent for knife-throwing?

David Adamovich: I was the director of a graduate program in exercise physiology at Long Island University, from there I went out with a friend who had an emergency medicine practice where he would oversee the physicians in an Emergency Department at different hospitals.  So I left the university to work with him.  I stayed with him for about five years and then went out on my own and decided to open a pool hall.  And within the first years of running the pool hall, one of the guys I shoot pool with, Joe Tauraka came in with a small knife; showed it to me and I had no idea what it was.  And he said, “Let’s go outside and I’ll show you.”  So, we walked outside the pool hall, across the street to a tree and I threw the knife, stuck it into the tree, and said, “I could do that.”

It was just natural for me.  And believe it or not, I was 50 years old at the time.  I never even saw a throwing knife before then, or would have known what it was when he was showing it to me.  It just came as a natural, easy talent for me. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was going to stick and I understood the physics and the mechanics of how to throw a knife.  I believe that everyone has a natural talent; they just have to find what that talent is in, and for me it was definitely knife throwing

Question:
How do you deal with the risk involved with throwing knives at another human being?

So, I always use the expression, “I throw around my target, I don’t throw at.”  Simply because they last a lot longer if you throw around them than if you throw at them.  There’s a risk involved, it’s an incredible risk, and it’s really the target girl that takes the risk.  Not me.  And the most important thing of my act, I can’t express it any other way than to say, I think of the girl’s safety 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Any stunt I devise, anything I doing, I understand the risk that’s involved, just how close I can throw, how close I shouldn’t throw depending on the stunt, but always what can happen if something goes wrong as to where that girl is up at the board.  Always think about it.

Question: Have you ever had a knife-throwing accident?

David Adamovich:  Well, there’s two or three questions I’m always asked, one of them is, "Do you do the wheel?"  Yes, I do the Wheel of Death.  The other question is, are the knives real?  Do they come from your hand, or the back of the board?  Yes, they’re real, and they do come from my hand.  They do not come from the back of the board.  And the third question always is, have you ever hit the girl?  So I have to answer honestly and say, yes, we’ve had some incidents and I have scraped a girl, I admit it.  I got a little closer, I was a little out of control on a fast stunt where I’m throwing at about a half second per knife and after I released that knife I have to come down to my hand to get the next one, and as I do that, sometimes I pulled in a little too fast as the knife was released and then the knife hit her dress, instead of the board.  So, yes, I admit, there have been some incidences, scrapes only.  I’ve never impaled the girl.  And I don’t want to either.  

Question: What kinds of knives do you throw?

David Adamovich: That’s a typical throwing knife.  It’s a 14-inch knife, about an eighth of an inch thick, it weighs about 12 ounces.  A good throwing knife will be at least that size, between 12 ounces and 14 ounces, at the most one pound, 16 ounces.  It’s got a good piece of steel in your hand, a nice point, and that’s what sticks in the wood.  So whether or not I’m throwing knives, tomahawks, axes, or Bowie Knife, the process is always the same.

Question: What are the physics of knife-throwing?

David Adamovich: The physics of throwing a knife is the same every time, whether I’m throwing by the handle, or the blade.  If it’s a blade throw, it’s called a half-spin and it starts back here, right back by my shoulder, and I bring my arm forward and aim it right to where I want it to go.  Now in that position right there, when the knife is actually like this, in the air – I’m sorry, as my hand gets into that position, it slides off, the knife makes a quarter turn, which doesn’t count.  And now it needs to make another half turn to get that point to the board so it does this in the air, and then finally gets to the board and sticks.  

If I were throwing it for a full spin, I would hold it by the handle, I’d start back here, right behind my shoulder, the arm comes forward and straight out pointing to where I want it to go.  And then as the hand passes through this position, it slides out, makes a quarter turn, that doesn’t count, and now that point had to make one more full turn to get to the board, which is over there.  So, it will go like this in the air, and get there point first.  

The speed of the knife has always been a contention among knife throwers.  I’ve checked it with radar guns, I’ve checked it with 60-frames-per-second videography, it always works out the same.  The knife is going through the air between 26 and 30 miles per hour.  So, from where I’m standing to get to the board is somewhere just under two-tenths of a second.  

Question:
Do you have to be a certain distance from your target?

David Adamovich: When I first started performing, I devised the act for almost everything at a full spin.  So all my items were thrown from the handle and I was out about 12 feet.  But as I was going to different venues, I found out I didn’t have the space on stage to do a full spin throw, plus the distance to the board to the back of the stage.  The stages just don’t allow it. So I revised the whole act to be half-spin, all the knives, and that’s at about seven feet from the board.

So when I’m throwing the big things, like axes and tomahawks, I have to go out to about 12 feet because I’m holding them from the handle versus the blade.

Question: What is the most dangerous stunt you’ve ever done?

David Adamovich: I guess it would have to be when I did the Triple Crown, and that was when I caught a bullet, an arrow, and a knife.  I’m the only person to have ever done all three.  Others have seen how to catch a knife and they’ve copied it from me.  I’ve seen others catch the arrow, I copied that from them.  And then I had seen David Blaine do the bullet catch with the cup in his mouth and I decided I would do the same thing, but instead use the steel cup in my hand.  So all three items, the knife, the bullet and the arrow were caught with the same hand.  And that’s really crazy.  And I don’t think I would want to do it again.  

Question:
How dangerous are these stunts actually?

David Adamovich: Specifically, each of the three have their own issues.  Catching the knife, I have to watch that knife coming toward me as it’s being thrown for a full spin and if I didn’t catch it, it would stick in the board right next to me.  So I watch the release very carefully as it leaves the thrower’s hand and I’m reaching up and snatching the knife when it’s... as it comes in this position, and then I continue with it, but I don’t lit it hit the board.  I just take it out of the air.  

I have set the world record for catching 25 knives in one minute.  I tried to repeat that and break it down to... I wanted to get it to 30 knives in a minute, and after about five knives into the stunt, I was yelling to the thrower to speed up a little bit, I wanted to get the stunt moving a little faster.  Things went wrong.  His throw was off, my grab was off, and instead of the knife being here the knife was actually there when I put my hand up.  And I took the knife right through to the back of my hand, and it hurt.  I really hurt.  I looked up to the... you know, setting a World Record, there was an audience full of people—I’m sorry, I was breaking my World Record and I just grabbed the knife, pulled it out of my hand, saw the blood coming out... put my hand over it and looked up to the audience and said, “Show is over.”  And walked off stage and took a look at that hand and I thought everything was all over for me.  But I didn’t catch any tendons or ligaments, nothing broke, it just went right through to the back.  I pulled it out and I was fine.  

The arrow catch... the arrow’s coming in at about 55, 60 miles per hour from the archer being at about 30-35 feet away.  So, again, I’m watching it, I let some of them go by and then I kind of imagine where I would have to reach up and grab it, and then has it was coming, I just reached up and went like that, and snatched the arrow right out of the air.  

The bullet catch is using a small cup about that long and about that round and instead of doing it in the mouth the way David Blain did, I just decided, of course, I would do it in my  hand so all three items were caught the same way.  And I just held it at my side and the same guy, Chris McDaniel, who threw the knife and who fired... pulled the bow, also fired the rifle.  And we had a red laser dot that was on the front of the barrel of the rifle, and I used a mirror next to the gun at about, it was about 14 feet away.  And I looked in the mirror and moved my hand to where I saw the laser dot in the cup.  And then I gave him the okay to pull the trigger, and he fired and, bang, there it was.  I caught it.  Stopped it really, but it’s referred to as catching it.

Question: Who was your first human target?

David Adamovich:  Well, after the five years of competition throwing and aiming, and aiming to specifically put a knife in a two-inch bull’s-eye, I know how to refocus my entire thinking and say, okay, the guy... the person in the middle is the target, but he’s not really the target, I want to be just a few inches to the side.  And I recruited this guy who works for a printer that did my printing and he said, “Oh, I’d love to stand there and be your target.  I didn’t really tell him he was my first target.  But he stood at the board and I psyched myself up and I did this profile of knives up one side and then the other side and after the ten knives were in the board, he jumps away and he goes, “That was so good.  It was more fun than when I had my nipples pierced!  Can we do it again?”  And that’s a true story about the first person I ever threw knives around.  

But from him it became target girls, not target guys.  Target guys on stage don’t work.  You need a pretty girl with a nice figure who’s afraid to stand there... I’m sorry, who’s not afraid to stand there and be very brave and look like she’s enjoying it at the same time.  So, I have a variety of target girls each with their own personalities, each with their own issues, like I have issues. But we kind of work everything out and they stand there and we do our act and the audience loves to see the interaction between the thrower and the target. The entire act is really a cabaret-style act where I like to perform it in front of a live audience that I’m talking to them at the same time as I go through the stunts, and then there's this interaction between the target girl and myself and it’s, you know, it’s got tension, it’s got energy, the audience is wondering perhaps are these two up to something when they’re not on stage?  We never tell.  We do what we have to do.  We do our act and we let the audience wonder what’s going on between us.  

Question: Why would anyone want to be a target girl?

David Adamovich:  So who does somebody contact me, or I would ask a certain person, “How would you like to be a target girl?”  And very often, it’s the girls who have a variety act background of their own that want to also be a knife thrower’s assistant.  One of them is a hula-hoop artist, another one is a contortionist, another one has an act where she lies on a bed of machetes and nails, and another girl is a sideshow performer from Coney Island.  So these type of girls are used to being on stage, are used to doing dangerous things, for the most part, on their own, but then decide, "Well, besides my own act, I’d like to work with a magician or a knife thrower and be the target girl or the magician’s assistant."  And they are the ones that work out best for me.  

Topic: The Great Throwdini’s Most Popular Stunts.

David Adamovich: One of the more interesting stunts in the act is when I do some speed throwing, to demonstrate one of my world records.  So, the girl stands at the board and I’ll hold 16 knives and I’ll tell the audience, “I’m going to throw these 16 knives in about eight seconds.  That’s a half-second each.  Not only am I going to throw them that fast, but I’m going to throw them opposite sides to the board.”  Then I say, “Just one more thing, there’s going to be a girl in the middle that I have to throw on each side of.”  So, I’m standing there with this handful of knives, and they’re all right there.  I got one in my hand and we give each other the signal that she’s ready and I’m ready, and I start to throw and it’s fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast right to each side of her body as I’m doing the stunt and emptying my hand of the knives.  

And there you can see I’m throwing to each side.  Of course she’s pretending she’s afraid, but she’s not.  She’s very brave.  And there are 16 knives in probably eight seconds.

And one of the other stunts I do is throwing a bunch up one side; we call it “Lateral with the straw.”  She backs up to the eight or 10 that I put on the side of her then I would put a straw in her mouth and I throw right up the front, four or five knives, getting very close to her bod. And on the one that I decide that I’ll break the straw with is thrown about three inches from her nose and goes right through the straw and the piece that was cut falls right to the ground.

And then we have another stunt where I pile five knives in each of my pocket and I refer to it as, “Knife throwing the old western style, instead of gun slinging.”  And I pull knives out of my pockets, the right hand and then the left hand and I throw them to alternate sides of the girl, right across the front of her body.

And then we have a stunt called, “The Profile,” where I throw three knives to the board and she leans back and rests her head on those three knives and I take a handful of nine or 10 knives and I outline her body, starting from her ankles or knees right up across the abdomen and the chest and finally right over the throat.  There have been times went he knives were really close and they were laying against her body, and she had to like wiggle her way out to stand up and take the applause

I do two blind stunts during the act; this one is called the double blind.  I wear a metal mask and a hood and she sets me in place and hands me the knives, and then she takes one long knife and stands in the middle of the board and bangs the knife on each side of her body in a random fashion and I just listen for that sound and that’s where I throw the knife.  If I don’t get the right sound, or I’m not sure where she tapped, I just ask her to repeat it, and we do it again and then finally when those six knives are out of my hand, I’m left with one knife, which is a flaming, firing knife and that one is thrown right where she was standing.  She just turns, hits the center of the board and jumps out of the way and that knife has gasoline on it and a lighter, the knife has a big flame on it, and there’s a bullet loaded into the blade.  It’s a crimped bullet, and she jumps out of the way, I throw it, it’s on fire, hits the board and the bullet bangs and the audience literally jumps right out of their seat and then I turn, I pull off the hood and I pull of the mask and get a thunderous round of applause.

And the other blind stunt I do is throwing six, 16-inch knives, three on each side of the girl, but the target girl is behind a six-foot high by four-foot wide veil of paper.  And to make this stunt even harder, I say, it really is maximum risk because we’ll do it in the dark.  And the lights go out in the theater and a strobe light goes on and I’m just looking at this really quick flash of strobe against where I believe the paper is, and I through three to one side, three to the other and then I walk to the paper, I pull the paper, we drop it down and the lights go on.  And there she is, right behind that piece of paper and the knives are right up the side of her body.

Recorded on July 15, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

A conversation with the world’s fastest knife-thrower.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.