PARAPSYCHOLOGY

A Concise History

by
John Beloff
Athlone Press 1993 - ISBN 0485120968


It is not easy to write factually about Uri Geller inasmuch as with no other psychic of modern times is it harder to seperate fact from fiction or to decide whether to treat him as an ingenious entertainer or as a genuine purveyor of the paranormal. Moreover, Geller himself seems to relish this ambiguity. Indeed, the strongest argument for doubting his powers is not that some conjurors can perform similar feats but that, if he is what he claims to be, it would be relatively simple to put the matter beyond all reasonable doubt were he to submit to a sustained programme of research.

As with all "miracle workers", stories about their childhood are best disregarded. Geller was born in Tel Aviv in 1946; he is reputed to have served in a paratroop regiment during the Six Day War in 1967; but his entry into parapsychological history starts when an American, Andrija Puharich, went ti Israel in August 1972 to meet Geller who was then making his début as an entertainer. Puharich was an inventor who had a number of patents to his credit in the field of medical aids including a miniaturized hearing-aid. But he was one of those who are obsessed with miracles and miracle-workers. Eileen Garrett had worked with him on telepathic experiments and, later he became facinated by the famous Brazillian healer and psychic surgeon, José Arigo. When Arigo was then killed in a car crash, in January 1971, Puharich was devastated. It was then that Puharich recalled a letter he had recieved from an Israeli army officer in 1970, describing the extraordinary powers of a certain young Israeli, and he duly decided that the time had come for him to act. The trouble with Puharich was that, not only had he embraced the paranormal long before he ever met Geller, but he was also a firm believer in current extraterrestrial mythology. The biography of Geller which he published in 1974 is an unabashed attempt to present Uri as some kind of new messiah specially selected by extraterrestrial intelligences to redeem mankind.

Be that as it may, Puharich's decision to bring Uri to the United States, where he was duly introduced to Edgar Mitchell, the astronaut, to Werner von Braun, the rocket pioneer, and to various scientists with an interest in the paranormal, was the impetus that was soon to make Geller a media sensation. However, even before he left for the States, Geller paid a brief visit to Germany where he met and impressed Freidbert Karger, of the Max Planck Institute of plasma physics in Munich - to much attendant publicity.

Geller is by now so well known that it seems almost superfluous to descibe what he actually does. In fact his repertoire covers both divisions of psi phenomena. Wiht respect to ESP, his usual task was to try reproducing a drawing which someone else had prepared. With respect to PK, his standard task was to bend metal objects, such as cutlery, merely by stroking them. It was this latter feat that is now indelibly associated with his name. It was a novelty which had played no previous part in the history of psychical research ( or in the history of conjuring for that matter) but it was soon to be copied by numerous other claimants, mostly children, and it is this phenomenon that we shall refer to, hereinafter, as "the Geller effect".

As it happens, however, it was Geller's ESP pretensions that first induced the scientific community to pay attention to him. In August 1973 Geller visited the Stanford Research Institute at Menlo park (SRI) where physicists Russel Targ and Harold Puthoff had been engaged in their remote-viewing studies, as disacussed earlier in this chapter. In the formal experiment, Geller was put into a sound-proof isolation chamber and the target drawings were prepared elsewhere (in one instance by a computer). In all, some 13 such targets were used but in only 10 did Geller provide a response drawing. The quality of these responses varied from a perfect fidelity in one instance (the target was a bunch of grapes) to a vague correspondence in others, but, when submitted to an independent judge, whose task was to match, blind, each of Geller's drawings, or set of drawings, with one or other of the target drawings, two such judges succeeded in doing so without error (the a priori probability of one perfect match, corresponds to odds of approximately a million to one).

In due course, this study was published in Nature for 18 October 1974. It is very rare that Nature consents to publish parapsychological findings of any sort but, as explained in an editorial in that issue, so much publicity had already accompanied this investigation and so many unfounded claims had been made for Geller himself that, as they put it: "The publication of this paper, with its muted claims, suggestions of a limited research programme, and modest data, is, we believe, likely to put the whole matter in more reasonable perspective." Actually, Nature had been pre-empted by one day by the magazine New Scientist which devoted most of that week's issue to a withering account of Geller in general and the SRI investigation in particular. An ingenious counter-explanation was offered: perhaps Geller, benefiting from Puharich's patent miniaturized hearing-aid, had such a device implanted in a tooth? ( a subsequent dental examination to which Geller submitted revealed no such implant). In due course, other suggestions were made throwing doubt upon the impregnability of the isolation chamber and raising the possibility that some member of Geller's entourage might have been able to signal to him a description of the target drawing. The authors, Targ and Puthoff, never retracted their claims but it became obvious that, short of a sustained research programme to which Geller would never consent, his alleged ESP abilities would remain controversial.

In the course of the next few years, Geller visited most of the countries outside the Communist bloc and duly appeared on their television screens. Two consequences of these appearances regularly ensued: scores of viewers would phone in to say that, foloowing his appearance, they had discovered bent cutlery in their own homes or watches and clocks which had previously refused to go had now started up (this too was part of Geller's repertoire) and, secondly, scores of children, having watched Geller, found that they, too, were metal-benders! These consequences were especially notable following Geller's visit to Britain in November 1973. Two british scientists, not previously connected with psychical research, became interested in Geller and in these "mini-geller's" (as such children came to be known): John Taylor, Professor of Applied Mathematics at King's College, London, and John Hasted, Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, London.

One of the tests which taylor devised for Geller is described by him as follows:

 A brass strip about 20 cm long was taped horizontally to the platform of a balance. [of the type used to weigh letters and parcels]. The major portion of the strip extended out from the platform, and Geller stroked the top surface of it while I measured, directly, by reading the scale, and by using an automatic recording device, the pressure he was applying. At the end of the test the strip had acquired a bend of ten degrees although Geller had at no time applied more than half an ounce (20 gm) of pressure. It was out of the question that such a small pressure could have produced that deflection. What is more, the actual bending occurred upward- against the pressure of the finger [author's italics]. Earlier, another subject gave a similar result, producing, with less than an ounce of downward pressure, a smaller upward deflection (two degrees) on a strip of copper. While Geller was doing this we found it a little disconcerting, to say the least, to have the needle, which indicated the amount of pressure on the balance, also bending, as it moved, through seventy degress.


Could Geller have distracted Taylor's attention long enough to produce the upward bend of the strip or the outward bend of the dial-needle without his noticing anything amiss? And could the unnamed mini-geller have done the same? We shall now never know. having published his best-selling Superminds in 1975, describing his work with Geller and with his mini-gellers, taylor underwent a change of heart. Whether he had been got at by his fellow scientists or whether he lost interest when he discovered that electromagnetic radiation was not, after all, the answer to the mystery of PK or ESP we can only speculate. At all events, he retracted his earlier endorsement of the paranormal and, in 1980, published Science and the Supernatural in which he allies himself with the sceptics. Sadly, he never ventures to tell us how he now thinks that Geller fooled him into thinking that that brass strip had bent paranormally.

John Hasted, on the other hand, never repudiated his endorsement of Geller or of the mini-gellers although it was, perforce, with the latter that he did most of his research. In 1981 Hasted published his report on the geller effect in his book, The Metal-Benders, in which he explains why he stuck to his guns. The advent of the mini-gellers was a sharp reminder to us all that children can be as cunning and as devious as their elders. Few of the mini-gellers were successfull when asked to perform under satisfactory conditions of observation and some were even caught in flagrante by concealed cameras. Since the geller-effect usually involves stroking the metal object, one way in which Hasted sought to counter the possibility that force was being used was to use a bar made of a special alloy which, though soft and elastic in appearance, is in fact brittle and, if bent quickly, would snap. Although this ruse was kept a close secret for a long time, none of his mini-gelers contrived to break the brittle specimen. Hasted's main contribution to the field, however, was his introduction of the strain-gauge to detect micro-bending in a target specimen. The advantage of this technique was that the child did not need to touch the object at all and, indeed, the effects might register while the child was playing and merely willing the target to bend. The disadvantage was the difficulty of convincing doubters that the flips seen on the polygraph recording of the strain-gauge were actually due to such micro-PK rather than to some electrical artefact in the atmosphere. The technique does however offer great scope for a new approach to the study of micro-PK that has advantages over the standard technique using REG's. The term PKMB (PK metal-bending) has now joined the parapsychological vocabulary.

One country where the mini-gellers flourished was Italy. between 1975 and 1978, Ferdinando Bersani, a physicist at the University of Bologna, carried out a series of tests on a selected number of these "gellerini" whose families had brought them to the attention of the Bologna Centro Sudi Parapsicologi. Although a number of seemingly paranormal events were observed, Bersani's main contribution to the field was to devise a method whereby the children could operate in private, using built-in safeguards which would at once reveal if there had been any cheating. Thus, metal objects would be inserted into elaborately sealed glass jars which would also contain coloured powders so that even shaking the jar would expose illicit tampering. Two professional conjurers who were consulted approved the experimental design. Yet a number of positive results were still forthcoming. It seems a pity that the children were not also monitored by a video-camera (concealed if necessary) but this omission was not so much an oversight as an ackknowledgment of the arcane idea of the "camera-shy" subject.

There were only two adults who, in the wake of the Geller craze, attracted the attention of researchers: one a Parisian, Jean-Pierre Girard, the other a Swiss, a resident of Berne, Silvio Meyer. Girard is described as a medical technician, Silvio (as he was known professionally) as a graphic artist. Both men are credited with conjuring skills. Girard is important mainly because he attracted the attention of a metallurgist, Charles Crussard, who worked for the large firm of Pechiney Ugine Kuhlmann of Paris. Crussard studied not only evidence of both macro- and micro-PK metal-bending but, as a metallurgist, he was also interested in comparing the micro-structure of specimens treated by Girard with control specimens. His investigation at the Pechiney laboratories at which a number of independent witnesses had been present, including a professional conjurer, is described in a paper by Crussard and Bouvaist in the Revue Métallurgie for February 1978. Crussard's work has, of course, been attacked but it has not been invalidated.

Silvio, whose career as a metal-bender began in 1974 after seeing Geller on TV, was never as closely studied as Girard. He was, however, investigated by Hans Bender who was duly impressed, as also by Hans Betz, a professor of physics at the University of Munich. Silvio was, I believe unique among metal-benders in claiming, on occasion, to be able to coalesce the broken pieces of a given metal object! Of course, neither Silvio nor Girard were always able to deliver the goods and, when they failed, critics were only too ready to claim that they had outsmarted them. Meanwhile Geller's own career had taken a new turn. Sir Val Duncan, Chairman of Rio Tinto Zinc, met geller at a party in 1973 and urgedhim to take up dowsing for minerals. Sir Val died two years later but Geller heeded his advice and, as he began to tire of the entertainment business, he devoted himself increasingly to dowsing at the behest of industrialists who were willing to pay his sizeable fee. But these commercial activities made the problem of a scientific evaluation even more remote. Geller still sometimes appears on TV, but when he does oblige with some metal-bending, it is no longer with the same flair that first made him celebrated. The geller-effect still crops up from time to time but, whether it will become a permanent feature of parapsychological research remains to be seen. For a brief period in the mid-seventies Geller suceeded in putting the paranormal squarely on the map for perhaps the first time in living memory but, as had so often happened before in the history of parapsychology, the phenomena declined, leaving a trail of question-marks as their legacy.


© John Beloff - reproduced with permission

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