Powers of Mind

Adam Smith (George Goodman)
Random House, 1975 - ISBN 0394498321

Uri: Instructions From the Saucer

Uri Geller, a handsome, 6 foot 3 inch former Israeli paratrooper, left a trail of broken forks and bent nails across the television talk shows, all done with some mysterious powers.  His credibility came, at least in part, from the fact that he had been tested at Stanford Research Institute, the think tank in Menlo Park, California, that was once associated with Stanford University, and now works on the things that think tanks largely supported by the government work on - Russian missile capabilities, and so on.  His credibility was further enhanced because it was Captain Mitchell who brought him to both Stanford research and the TV shows.

I asked Mitchell what the reaction was of NASA to his current project.

"NASA has an engineering mentality," he said, " so they're slightly embarrassed by it.  It doesn't fit the paradigm of engineering. They come in from time to time, because all the astronauts for had some sort of experience like mine, seeing the earth as a tiny insignificant globe in a vast cosmos, knowing there is some sort of direction where science there isn't, and that knowing isn't intellectual.  Not all the astronauts had reactions like mine - as soon as the heavy tasks were over, on the way home, I had this alternating pathos and ecstasy, hard to describe - but all of them at something, only it surfaced through whatever belief structure they had."

Captain Mitchell has a Ph.D. in engineering;  if the so called "Geller effects" turned out to be true, what was that going to do to engineering and physics?

"Oh, it will expand it, like Einstein did to Newtonian physics.  I see it as bimodal, rather than as opposing points of view."

And why was he leading Uri to TV?

"The networks say it sells, and it helps to get the point of view across.  I don't think Geller has any idea why his things work, there just seems to be some sort of channel open that normally gets blocked."

That was the way Geller was regarded at Stanford research, too, as a kind of naif, a Prima Donna, very difficult to deal with, but who had a channel open that normally gets blocked.  The rest of us all have corks in our channels. The scientists who were testing Geller were no rat-runners, they were laser physicists.  In the unwritten hierarchy of science, laser physics gets more points than rat-running....

... Geller's public appearances were generally concerned with making metal objects bend:  Forks, spoons, big nails.  I was surprised to find that he had never done this at Stanford Research - the impression from television, from the coupling of his metal bending performance with the words "Stanford Research" and "scientists," was that he had been locked up in a Faraday cage, shielded from all contact and interference.  There, by some mysterious power, he melted forks.

"We're all set up with rings to bend," Hal said, " but it's never happened."

"Why not?"

"Well, a lab situation is different from a public performance, where he can get people's energies working, he's used to having people watch, controlling them, being relaxed."

What had he done in the lab, if he hadn't bent any metal? Well, he generated a magnetic field, and affected the role of dice , carefully controlled, and made numerous telepathic hits.

How did he do that?

"He says he visualises a TV screen, and then he reports what comes in on the screen.  He thinks the flying saucer people give him the right answers.  The other day, a flying saucer was one of the images we had in another room. He kept saying, I'm not getting it, I'm not getting it, and he kept seeing the image of a flying saucer, he was supposed to draw whatever image came through, and finally the flying saucer people whirled by again and said, " it's us this time, dummy, draw us! He drew a flying saucer."

"He was exhibiting ESP, though, before he began to talk about the flying saucer people.  Then somebody suggested that to him, and he used it as an explanation.  Psychics don't know where their powers come from, or why, and they're afraid they'll go away, so they make up these things, and sometimes they cheat."

A magazine article had suggested that Geller cheated.

"He cheats, he cheats a lot, and also he's real," said one of the physicists.

we were at SRI - security guards, escorts, badges, not because of this research but because of the stuff in other parts of the buildings.  Geller was happy with his day at the lab.  He had scored a lot of telepathic hits.

"I am feeling good today.  The vibrations are very good."

Did he, I wanted to know, use any alcohol or drugs?  No, never.  Was there anything he could affect besides metal?  No, just metal.  When he wanted to get a metal ring to break, how did he break it?

"I just concentrate and say, 'Break!' and it breaks."

Geller's demeanor was boyish and enthusiastic.

"I don't know how I do it, I don't know why it happens, I am some sort of a channel."

Right then, he was more interested in cars and girls than in academic discussion of the paranormal.  I found I was more interested in the physicists than in Geller.  I noted the contents of a bookcase in one of the offices:  three full shelves of books on quantum mechanics, light, lasers, masers, all standard physics stuff, and then the anomalies - Jung, Witchcraft and Magic.

I spent some time with the physicists.

"When Uri comes to dinner," said one of the wives, "I have to be sure to put the good silver away.  He melts forks unconsciously, he can't help it."  She showed me a fork Uri had been eating with. It certainly looked melted and twisted.

"Things happen around Uri," said one of the physicist who was not on the project.  " we were walking to the parking lot one day, and a large rock fell at our feet out of a clear blue sky."

"We have all kinds of crazy things on videotape, watches falling out of the ceiling, poltergeists."

"You know," said Hal, "Mitchell left his camera on the moon.  It was really a bit embarrassing, they mentioned it on all the subsequent moonshots.  So Uri was going to try to bring it back.   All kinds of Mitchell's stuff began to materialise around him.  He dug his spoon into his ice cream one day and found a tie pin Mitchell had been missing for two years.  Gradually, Mitchell's jewelry box in Texas began to fill up with everything he had lost, cufflinks, tie clasps, stuff gone for years."

"But no camera."

"No, the camera's still up there."

Randi:  A Prestidigitation of Magicians

I went to see Uri whenever he performed publicly and I was around; by this time I knew a lot of people in the audience.  Uri was to try to guess a color we were all thinking.  He turned away, and a woman wrote "blue" on the blackboard, and then erased it.  " Okay, I'm going to take a chance.   The color I get is blue."  The audience applauded wildly.  Uri cut off the applause.  He pointed to one corner of the audience.  "Who over here," he said, " was sending yellow?"  A young man, somewhat sheepishly raised his hand.  "Please don't do that," Uri said, "It confuses me."  The man apologised.

Volunteers came forward with rings and pins and keys.  Uri would try to bend them, or break them.  He said objects of emotional attachment would be of the most value.  He couldn't guarantee success, he was tired, from trying to focus his metal powers before senior physicists.  We should all be "with" him, send him our own psychic energies.  He tried bending rings by putting them in the hands of volunteers and then passed his hands over theirs.  It didn't work.  We were watching on a television monitor.  The audience got a bit restive.

"It's not working," Uri said.  "It's not going to work." Plainly, it was not going to come.  I knew how he felt;  it had that tennis serve that wouldn't come if you wanted it.   "Wait-" Uri said.  There?  Isn't one broken?  No?   No.  "Wait - there!  There! Didn't it break?  one of the rings, indeed, had broken, there was hard to tell, on the television monitor.

For hubris, there is nemesis, for matter, there is anti matter, and for Uri Geller, there was James Randi, the bearded, roguish, saucy magician I ran into on the streets of New York.  Randi's fame had taken upward turn from being an anti-Geller.

"He's a magician," Randi said.  It was careless of them not to know.  Physicists are easier to fool than anybody."

"All that metal bending- "

Randi reached for my keys, and began to stroke one of them.

"He couldn't perform on the Carson show because I got to Carson, and we didn't bump the table with all the little canisters on them," Randi said.  "Then he went on the Griffin show, and Griffin said, ladies and gentlemen, here's a man who failed before thirty five million people, and that's good enough for me, and the audience cheered."

My office key was beginning to bend.

"Cut that out," I said.  The office key continued to bend.

"Bend it back, I don't have another one," I said.  Randi reversed it and the office key began to bend the other way.

"We had a bunch of magician's at his last performance.  We were laughing.  I've videotaped all his shows so I can analyse his tricks."

The office key was bending to much the other way.

"Can't you get the damn thing like it was at first?" I said.

"It won't open the door the way."

Randi handed the key back.  We were sitting in a restaurant.  Absentmindedly, Randi held a spoon, which began to bend.

"He's very good, though, very, very good," Randi said.  "He's one of the best I've ever seen."

Could I learn to bend a spoon like that?"

"Sure," said Randi, and he showed me.

All of Randi's processes involved what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.  You're used to seeing things are certain way, so you continue to see them, and if you have a spoon in the hands, you can make your hands appear to hold the spoon in a way other than they really are, while you give it some pressure.

"Now, watches, Geller's starts stopped watches.  That's easy.  Would you like to move your own watch ahead an hour by mental powers?  Let's see, what time have you got?  Hold your watch face down in the palm of your hand, that's right, now keeping a circle going on the watch back with your finger, that's good, that's good."

Randi began to imitate Geller.  He frowned, as if in fierce concentration.  " It's not going to work, no, please, you must be with me, somebody's sending me bad vibrations, please everybody send me good vibrations, I don't think I could do it today, I was up all night with the Nobel prizewinners, wait, wait, maybe it's going to work-"

The imitation was almost cruel;  Randi really had the cadences down.

"Now, look at your watch.  I think we have moved it and an hour ahead by sheer mental powers."

The watch was an hour ahead.  I was mystified.  How the hell did that happen?  Randi wouldn't show me.  He must have got a thumbnail on the watch stem at some point, probably when he said, let's see, what time is it, but I sure didn't see it.

"And the telepathy?"

"Some telepathy involves a little pencil point in the thumbnail, and a quick look at the blackboard when everybody's distracted, and some involves handling the envelopes."

"Is there anything Geller can do that you can't?"

"Yes, I told you, he's very very good - but I'm working on it."

Again I felt a curious ambiguity.  If Geller was just a magician, I was disappointed not to have a box seat when the paradigm changed.  But there was also a little feeling of relief, that maybe the world was still the way we thought-

-Yet the scientist who got a Nobel prize for his work in measuring and clocking impulses in the nervous system, sir John Eccles, wrote, "I think telepathy is still a tenable belief, but if it exists at all, it provides an extremely imperfect and inefficient way of transferring information from the neural activity of one brain ..."

A book came out about Geller.  It said that Geller got his instructions from an orbiting computer called Spectra, from the planet Hoova for.  People began to lose interest.

Some psychologists - as opposed to physicists - at Stanford Research Institute tested Geller, and reported to a psychology newsletter, without much fanfare, that they had come up with nothing.  The vibes must have been bad.  Wherever Geller went, a gaggle of magicians followed, eager to claim him as one of their own.

"Unlike magicians, it doesn't always work for me," said Uri.  "That proves I'm real."

"Parapsychology experiments in general, and the Geller experiments in particular, have been set up with out adequate controls and with many unconscious biases," said Martin Gardner, a Scientific American columnist and amateur magician, "And with no knowledge of magic."

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