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Journal of the Society for Psychical Research - Volume 49 - number 772 - June 1977 - pp. 537-540

The Geller Papers

Reviewed by Anita Gregory

 Few people in the Western world have not heard of Uri Geller, new folk hero of the psychic frontier. Anyone remotely connected with psychical research is bound to have been asked whether or not he is genuine. What, for most of us, began as a dubious TV entertainment has become a scientific issue: the present volume is a testimony to the seriousness of the interest and the high quality of the research and calibre of some of the investigators involved. The young Israeli who appeared on the scene only a few years ago has aroused the interest of scientists - above all of physicists and engineers - all over the world. Not all of these findings have been published. A good many have been refused publication in the scientific literature, others are scattered over a few scientific and parapsychological journals; yet others remain in notebooks. Dr. Panati has collected an appreciable number of diverse types of paper and made out of them an impressive whole. Not that all contributions are of the same standard: several are first rate scientific contributions but one (the longest) should in my view have been reconsidered and extensively revised before publication.
As far as the public is concerned, psychical research is apt to be embroiled in a catch 22 situation: either the phenomena are unique and instantly evanescent, in which case they can be shrugged off as fluke or fiction; or else they recur over and over again, in which eventuality they will be challenged by professional magicians claiming to be able to perform similar marvels. Uri's phenomena are, of course, of the second type and should quite properly be open to the question: to what extent could a conjuror simulate the effects?
Several contributions to this volume concern this issue: The Hasted-Bohm-Bastin-O'Regan paper reprinted from Nature contains important theoretical reflections on this topic, whilst Cox, Zorka and Leslie give expert magicians' views - all of them, incidentally, favourable to Geller. The question is not, of course, just whether anyone could replicate the phenomena, but whether they could do so given the circumstances; and who is ultimately the arbiter as to whether a given set of phenomena could have been replicated given the conditions? One answer is that public shows of entertainment can never be any thing other than prima facie evidence suggesting the worthwhileness of further investigation, and that this further research must ultimately lead to effects which could not reasonably - and preferably even unreasonably - be attributed to the magicians art. Several papers in the Panati selection indicate just this sort of further investigation. For instance, John Taylor in "Analysing the Geller effect" describes his simple and effective spring balance arrangement by which the pressure exerted on a specimen can be measured and recorded, whilst the force required to obtain the bend on the specimen actually observed can be calculated. In the instance he gives the bend obtained was in the opposite direction from the finger pressure exerted, and it would have required a force considerably larger even if it had been in the same direction. It is this type of evidence that the Amazing Randi should have to come to terms with at the celebrated Royal Institution confrontation.
Once a medium is removed from a public platform, it becomes possible to devise tests and to investigate effects which do not lend themselves to explanations in terms of fraud and deception: unusual substances and unique specimens rather than household appliances such as forks and spoons can be employed. There are several very impressive investigations of this type. Perhaps the most astonishing is given by Eldon Byrd, working at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Maryland, first published here. On the face of it, Uri Geller permanently deformed pieces of "nitinol" wire (a metal alloy that has a "memory", i.e returns to its original shape) in such a manner that the metalurgical experts could think of no "explanation of how these deformations may have occurred under the conditions imposed" (p. 73). Geller would have had either to palm a source of high heat, or else substituted his own personally manufactured and previously altered pieces of nitinol for deception to be a possible explanation.
"Nitinol" was a new substance so far as Geller (and I suspect most of us) were concerned. In Dr. Wilbur Franklin's laboratory at Kent State University Geller exercised his talents on, among other things, a platinum ring and produced a double fracture which, on the metallurgical evidence, it would have been extremely difficult to duplicate at all, fraudulently or otherwise.
It is good to see published for the first time the empirical part of the Hasted-Bohn-O'Regan paper describing, among much else of great interest, the ostensible dematerialization of part of a single crystal venadium carbide disc from inside a pharmaceutical capsule; and also excerpts from John Hasted's "Geller notebooks" showing the actual difficulties of regarding this event as conclusively demonstrating dematerialisation. The Geller notebooks contain several other interesting observations and suggestions: for example: a single crystal of molybdenum was found to be ferromagnetic - "How this impurity got into pure crystal is still a puzzle" (p. 206) - on the face of it apport-cum-permanent-materialisation! (or perhaps matter through matter"; however, William Cox who specially prepared a device for testing this effect has so far failed to obtain it). Both the Hasted team and John Taylor observed the movement of objects and also the affecting of a Geiger counter and both discount ionising radiation as a likely cause of the latter. The apparent crumbling and disintegration of substances into a number of pieces observed by Taylor is an unusual phenomenon; the only other claim to such an observation I know of was made by that intrepid chemist, Dr. Ludwig Staudenmaier with, of course, himself as medium.
There is also a brief contribution by Lawrence Fried, president of the American Society of Media Photographers, describing an example of "thought photography" in circumstances convincing him that trickery could not have been involved. He put the cap over the lens, secured it with 2 inch cloth-like photographers tape across the lens cap and barrel. Uri pointed the camera at his head and tripped the shutter, whilst Freid was photographing him. Opposite one frame marker was a "somewhat out of focus and underexposed but unmistakably a photograph of Geller" (p. 171). Both Freid's and Geller's photo of Geller are reproduced. It occurs to me to wonder why Geller's should apparently be reverse mirror-image wise: Freid's photo shows the left side of Geller's face illuminated, the "thought photo" his right side.
There are too many contributions to discuss fully within the compass of a review. Geller's talents are of course not confined to physical phenomena. Dr. panati reprints Puthoff and Targ's important Nature paper, together with two other contributions from the same authors: The daily log kept during Uri's visit to the Stanford Research Institute, a document of great interest, and the narrative accompanying the SRI film of Geller.
As appears from the work of the major experimenters, not the least important of his accomplishments might be called the setting in motion of a sort of psychic epidemiology - the spreading of never, or infrequently, reported phenomena by contagion mediated by publicity. This is not new in the history of the subject: the Fox sisters gave the impetus to much of 19th century mediumistic phenomenology, and on the more individual scale D.D. Home could apparently at times transmit some of his paranormal talents to specific participants. In the long run, and from the scientific point of view, the investigation of specifiable characteristics of individuals drawn from large populations according to some predictable pattern is likely to be of even more importance than the examination of star subjects however scintillating. It is a pity therefore that E.A. Price's paper which is largely concerned with the effect of Geller on others, shows evidence of haste and lack of care. Some of his tables (e.g. table 1) do not quite add up correctly; and the astonishing and potentially important implication of table 1 and figure 1 , namely that the number of "Uri Geller experiments" increases with age is forgotten 14 pages later. On one - very important - occasion the figure does not correspond with the table it is intended to represent (figure 2 and table 3) which affects the argument: according to the table far more widowed than divorced persons ostensibly exhibit (or rather write about having exhibited) Geller effects, whereas according to the figure it is the divorced who take pride of place. Table 5, "Educational qualifications of experients" is divided among the following qualifications: 1. Primary school, 2. High school graduates, 3. University undergraduates, 4.Diplomats (sic) and postgraduates,5.Unknown. Now in this table (as opposed to the preceding ones) Price does not calculate a column dividing percentage of experients by percentage in population. The failure to perform this calculation disguises the fact that the ratios would have been as follows: 1.:0.76; - 2.: 1.21; - 3.: 16.50; - 4.: 1.01. This is a very significant observation, whether or not "undergraduates" here means undergraduates or graduates as opposed to postgraduates. Either way, this should have been noted and discussed and is of some importance. However, since it appears that the material exists and is on record, and some of it is of the greatest interest if not for parapsychology then for social psychology, this paper might perhaps be revised and re-planned.
 This is an important volume, and it is to be hoped that a paperback edition, perhaps revised and updated by the inclusion of some of the work projected in its pages and now in progress, will become available. Meanwhile it is important reading for all interested in the field.

Anita Gregory

© Anita Gregory/The Society for Psychical Research  - Reproduced with permission

Uri Geller - a bibliography - homepage