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Journal of the Society for Psychical Research - Vol. 52   No. 795 - 1984 - pp. 218-19


To the Editor,

I am a great admirer of both the writings and research of John Randall, so I hope that he does not conceive this letter as in any way demeaning his work. At the recent Cambridge Centenary Conference I argued for more internal criticism and collaboration with external critics. It is with this in mind that I wish to comment on his recent paper (Journal October 1982) in which he referred to the tests of Geller's ability to alter the memory of nitinol wire, carried out by 'Dr Eldon Byrd of the Naval Surface Weapons Center.' The authors also repeat the claim that nitinol 'was not generally available outside the Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory, so that substitution of a previously prepared piece of alloy seems unlikely.' Having read a critical review of this work by Martin Gardner (Humanist May/June 1977, also published in Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, Avon Books 1981) it would seem important to point out:

  • 1. the tests were not in any way associated with the above named laboratory.
  • 2. Nitinol was generally available to magicians from 1971 onwards (the tests were conducted in late 1973) and the conditions of the tests did not appear to eliminate the possibility of wire substitution.
  • 3. it would also seem possible to alter the configuration of nitinol by other means than heating such as by using coins, pliers or even teeth to change its shape.
  • 4. finally, the tests subsequently carried out on the wire did not support the claim to have permanently altered the wire's memory, beyond that of what could have been achieved by the above means.

     Indeed in many respects the report of Randall and Davies is more impressive than the Geller work—given the age and apparent naivety of the child. But mini-Gellers are on the other hand notorious for their cheating (see for example Harry Collin's article in Nature 1973, Sept 4, p. 8) so it is for this reason that further details of the procedure and background of the child would be welcomed (such as the possibility of wire substitution or manipulation of the wire, the time spent on the test, the presence of other adults, the child's knowledge of magical tricks). Have any control tests been conducted with nitinol distorted in the same way by the previously mentioned means and then heated. Finally I wonder if the protocol of the experiment has been assessed by professional magicians and if they have any comment to make. I am also naturally curious to know whether any further tests have been carried out with this person.


    To the Editor,

    I am grateful to Dr. Parker for his kindly remarks and helpful comments. I certainly agree with his general point, that we should welcome criticism, both internal and external, but—I would add—only if it is presented in a rational and scientific manner, Martin Gardner's attacks on parapsychologist^ are so laden with insults, innuendos and emotionally-toned phrases that I find it hard to take him seriously. For example, in the paper cited by Dr. Parker, Gardner solemnly informs us that Byrd is a Mormon, and darkly hints that this has something to do with his belief in the paranormal. Well, I happen to be a practising Anglican; I wonder what Gardner will make of that! I should feel much more confidence in Gardner's criticisms if he would (a) confine himself to a properly objective scientific analysis of the experiments, and (b) submit his conclusions for publication in the scientific literature, rather than propagandist periodicals such as The Humanist.

     Dr. Parker, citing Gardner, says that Byrd's tests 'were not in any way associated with' the Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory. Why, then, was it necessary for the Laboratory to approve the release of Byrd's paper? Panati states that the paper was examined and passed by four staff members of the Laboratory (all named), who checked it for (a) technical accuracy (b) quality and editorial competence (c) compliance with security regulations, and (d) professional ethics. According to Gardner, the Center later denied that Geller had ever been on its premises, and Dr. Wang, the metallurgist who was supposed to have conducted tests on the nitinol sample, 'could not remember' having done so. Obviously, something very strange is going on here. My guess is that all the publicity which followed the release of Byrd's paper caused so much embarrassment to the authorities at Silver Spring that it became necessary to do a 'cover up'job, in the course of which Dr. Wang suffered a very convenient loss of memory.

     Byrd tells us that, in 1973, nitinol was not generally available to the public. Gardner denies this, and suggests that Geller could easily have obtained a piece. Which of the two should we believe? I see no reason why we should always accept the sceptic's view of events rather than the parapsychologist's. Since Byrd worked at the centre where the alloy was developed, he was presumably in a better position than Gardner to know about its availability. It certainly was not easy to get hold of nitinol in Britain in 1976, because I tried to do so unsuccessfully for quite a long time after the publication of Byrd's paper.

     The only part of Gardner's paper which is really relevant to our work is the section where he describes his own experiments with nitinol. This is a really valuable contribution to the research, and it is a great pity that Gardner did not submit it to one of the parapsychological journals. Since I am not a subscriber to The Humanist, I did not see this work until after our paper had been written. If Gardner is correct, the memory of nitinol can be altered by cold working, so that, as an indicator of paranormality the test is nothing like as useful as we thought. It seems curious that Gardner should have discovered this fact, which is in contradiction to the properties of nitinol described in orthodox papers on the metal. However, I do not doubt his word. Gardner's work in this respect is a good example of the positive contribution which sceptically-orientated research can make to parapsychology. What a pity that he has to present it with so much unnecessary hostility!

    To assist the evaluation of our experiment, I am happy to add the following information:

  • 1. Our subject, Mark, did not read psychical literature and had never heard of nitinol prior to our experiment. His sole interest in metal bending arose from watching Geller on British television in 1973. To the best of my knowledge, nitinol was never mentioned in the British media before 1977.
  • 2. On previous occasions Mark had caused bending in metal strips and thick copper wires in our laboratory. We did not tell him in advance that a special alloy was to be used on this occasion, nor did we mention the word 'nitinol' until after the experiment. As far as he was concerned, it was simply another wire-bending experiment.
  • 3. To the best of our knowledge, Mark has never shown any interest in conjuring, nor performed conjuring tricks of any kind.
  • 4. The experiment described in our paper took place on a Saturday morning, in a room on the second floor of the science building. I brought the piece of nitinol directly from my home. Apart from the two experimenters and the subject, no other persons were admitted to the room at any time before or during the experiment. The doors leading to the outside were locked before the experiment began, and remained locked until Mark went home.
  • 5. As stated in the paper, Mark was under continuous observation throughout, and he certainly did not use pliers, pennies, or any other implements of the kind suggested by Gardner. The bending took about ten minutes to develop.
  • 6. We would have liked to have done further nitinol experiments, but we were unable to obtain any more samples of the wire. Also, due to a change of employment I lost touch with our subject during the months that followed.


    © The Society for Psychical Research

    Reproduced with permission

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