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The Times - weekly review - 2 December 1973


MIND OVER MATTER


Brian Silcock



 Nine days ago on BBC TV, Uri Geller riveted Britain by his feats of psychokinesis. Brian Silcock our Science Correspondent, remained sceptical until Geller bent his own key without touching it. Is he, Silcock asks, an illusionist of prodigious talent, or does he have powers unknown to science?



 A GROUP OF CHILDREN appeared on Blue Peter last week with spoons and forks which they had apparently bent by mind-power. Another child with similar claims, 8-year-old Mark Shelly of Ipswich, acquired an agent, and the Daily Mirror sponsored a spoon-bending lunch at the London Hilton. Metal-bending by mind-power seemed to be rapidly turning into an eccentric branch of showbiz. For many it would be a profound relief if it did, for it could then be ignored as just another stunt.
 But the subject is far too important to be dematerialised in this way. If people really can bend metal by mind power it will mean a revolution in science and our whole way of thinking about the world more profound than anything since Newton turned the universe into a piece of clockwork three centuries ago.
 For it is difficult to see how the “Geller Effect” (it is time it had a name) can ever be incorporated into orthodox science. It violates too many basic principles. If some kind of field analogous to magnetism is involved why does it pick on some objects and not on others? Where does the energy come from? Why does it not die away at a distance? How can it be transmitted by radio or television, for some experiments last week seemed to work hundreds of miles away? And, Geller claims, experiments have shown that objects he bends actually lose mass.
 It is in fact a deadly heresy threatening the true faith of science, and because it is so subversive, the evidence must be examined in a spirit of almost fanatical criticism. Just how good is it?
 Last week in The Sunday Times I described some experiments which changed my attitude to Uri Geller from extreme scepticism to almost total acceptance. I am still convinced he is genuine, but after thinking carefully about what happened I am forced to admit to myself that some kind of trickery would have been possible – in theory.
 To recapitulate briefly; in a taxi on the way to London Airport, Geller bent the steel key to my office desk apparently without touching it. It is too tough for me to bend with my bare hands, though somebody with very strong fingers might manage it. It is definitely still the same key since it still opens my desk. And it is still bent.

  Trying to recall the sequence of events as precisely as possible, what happened was this. Geller examined the key, then passed it to Sunday Times photographer Bryan Wharton, who held it between the palms of his hands. Geller held his hands over Wharton’s for a few seconds and asked Bryan Wharton whether he felt anything. He reported a slight sensaion of warmth, then suddenly exclaimed: “My God, I can feel something now.” Later he described it to me as a kind of slow pulsing. Geller immediately said “It’s working,” and sure enough the key turned out to be bent through an angle of about 10 degrees.

 I have been able to think of two ways in which trickery might have been used. I am convinced neither was employed, but I could not prove it to anybody else. First, Geller might have distracted our attention when he first had the key, bent it, and put it into Bryan Wharton’s hand already bent. But how could he have done it without our noticing, since it would have required two hands and considerable effort or else some kind of tool? And could he really have counted on neither of us noticing that the key was bent in advance?

 Second, he might have substituted a similar key when first handed it, bent it, presumably with some sort of tool, while he was applying his power “power” and then, when Bryan Wharton opened his hand leaned forward to pick up the key there – a perfectly natural thing for him to do – and substituted mine again. But does he carry pocketfuls of substitute keys, on any one of which he can lay his hands instantly, and does he run the most appalling risk of being exposed every time?

 Our next experiment involved telepathy. It is well known that professional magicians can give very convincing demonstrations of telepathy which they do not pretend are due to psychic powers. But Geller did something I found very impressive.
 First (before the key bending) I tried without success to transmit to him a shape I had drawn. After the key incident, Bryan Wharton tried. He drew a circle with another wavy circle round it, while Geller turned away, hiding his eyes, and Geller then described it exactly. First, though, he said he would try to pass the shape on to me, so I made my mind a blank. While Geller was concentrating, two shapes floated into my mind, an equilateral triangle and a square with a semi-circle on one of its sides. I said nothing about them, but Geller, after describing Bryan Wharton’s circles, said: “Oh, I also got these” and proceeded to draw an equilateral triangle and a square with a triangle on one side of it. Since I never committed my shapes to paper he could not have watched my arm or used any magicians tricks.
 When we got to the airport Bryan Wharton bought a paper knife in the shape of a sword, which Geller proceeded to bend by stroking it while an airport employee held one end. He then took it himself and stroked it some more. It continued to bend. The blade could certainly be distorted by hand but we have a whole series of pictures (two are shown above) to show that it bent gradually, over a period of several minutes. Quite a crowd was watching. Did Geller repeatedly distract everybody’s attention, on each occasion bending the blade a tiny bit more?

 Geller’s performance on the Dimbleby Talk-In seemed utterly convincing, with it’s close-ups of a breaking fork. But even here trickery is possible. Last week Dr Chris Evans, a psychologist who works at the National Physical Laboratory and takes a highly sceptical extra-curricular interest in the paranormal, amazed his colleagues in the NPL canteen by apparently reproducing this dramatic manifestation of the Geller Effect. He did it by repeatedly bending the fork to weaken it before appearing, so that gentle stroking was enough to break off the head. He points out that the forks were on the table in the studio for eight minutes (he timed it) before Geller bent one.
 Of course there is a great deal that nobody has even begun to explain in terms of trickery, such as the watch hand bent under the glass, but even so nagging doubts remain. Even if you are convinced that the Geller effect is genuine, as I am, the evidence is not good enough to convince a really determined sceptic. He can usually find some alternative explanation involving trickery.
 In more than a thousand public performances and private demonstrations, Geller has never been caught cheating in any way, a truly remarkable record if he is a magician. But in an extremely hostile article on him last spring Time magazine made some allegations that came pretty close to an accusation of fraud.
 At one stage, according to Time, Geller’s powers were investigated by the US Department of Defence. One of these investigators claimed to have seen Geller peeping when he should have been hiding his eyes. And a demonstration of his ability to move the needle of a magnetometer (an instrument very like a compass) was discredited when one of the investigators noticed Geller apparently vibrating the floor. By doing the same thing the investigator was able to move the needle further than Geller.
 At a demonstration in Time’s offices Geller was watched in action by a professional magician called James Randi masquerading as a reporter. Afterwards Randi duplicated all Geller’s feats and claimed that the fork bending was done by hand when the attention of the audience was distracted. If this is the case, it is difficult to see how Geller could possibly perform on television. If the picture is showing a close up of hands and fork there would be no way of distracting the audiences attention open to him.
 While Geller’s critics have had virtually no success in showing that he is really a magician, not having para-normal powers, he has made himself extremely vulnerable to ridicule and is likely to become more so.
 Geller’s friend and mentor in the United States is a New York doctor called Andrija Puharich. It was Puharich who “discovered” Geller in Israel and brought him to America two years ago. He has written a book about Geller, due out early next year, which by all accounts is not likely to increase Geller’s chances of being taken seriously by sceptical scientists.
 In an interview with an American magazine called Psychic, Puharich gave some hints of the books tone. He described an incident in which he and Geller had driven into the desert and found an unidentified flying object – “a disc-shaped metal object with a blue light flashing on top.” Geller, according to Puharich, entered the UFO while Puharich filmed him. He also filmed him emerging ten minutes later. Unfortunately, Puharich explained, the record was lost, as the film cartridge dematerialised a few minutes later. With friends like this Geller has no need of detractors.
  What his detractors require to remove the suspicion that he is merely a magician of genius is a set of carefully controlled experiments by people who have no prior commitment to psychical research, with filmed or videotaped records to show that there was no sleight of hand.
 In fact Geller has already co-operated in an investigation which very nearly meets the bill. A year ago he spent six weeks at the Stanford Research Institute, a reputable organisation which carries out sponsored research in California, working with two physicists: Dr Harold E. Puthoff and Russell Targ.
 At a meeting in New York this year they presented some of their results.
 In an experiment in which Geller had to guess the uppermost face of a dice shaken in a metal box he “passed” twice because he was uncertain (as he was allowed to do under the rules of the experiment) and was right the other eight times. The odds against this happening by chance are a million to one.
 Ten times he successfully guessed which of ten identical aluminium film cans contained an object such as a ball bearing or a sugar cube. He passes twice, but made no mistakes.
 Geller made almost exact reproductions of seven simple pictures in sealed envelopes. There were no errors.
 Most remarkable of all were two experiments in which Geller physically perturbed laboratory instruments, without touching them. In one he made the pan of a precision balance under a big glass jar move several times by amounts of ten to a hundred times greater than could be produced by striking the bell jar or the table or jumping on the floor.
 In the other he was able to move the needle of a magnetometer without touching it.
 Puthoff and Targ took great care in designing their experiments to exclude all possibility of trickery. In the picture-guessing series, for example, the pictures were drawn when Geller was not at the Institute, and placed in the envelopes in a safe by an assistant not associated with the experiment. Everything was filmed, and all experiments in which the experimenters could even think of a way of cheating were discounted.
 Nevertheless the experiments are not entirely satisfactory in several respects. SRI has been very tight-lipped about them and has refused to say a word apart from the report to the New York meeting. There are rumours of even stranger incidents during the experiments – objects materialising and dematerialising.
 Another series is clearly called for, conducted more openly and not quite so restricted in its scope. SRI, for example, did not report on Geller’s metal-bending ability at all, though this is in some ways the easiest to study. At least there is something physical there to examine.
 Last week the New Scientist, in a sceptical editorial, issued a challenge to Geller which he can hardly refuse and continue to maintain that he is prepared to co-operate in serious investigations of his powers. The magazine has set up an informal committee including two members of its staff, a psychologist, a professional magician, and an independent journalist, and invites Geller to demonstrate his powers in front of it. Everything, the New Scientist says, will be recorded on video-tape and all results published in the magazine. There is probably a lot more to be said for this kind of informal investigation than for more semi-secret experiments by scientists terrified of making fools of themselves.
 Geller has promised to come back in the New Year to do some experiments with professor John Taylor, a theoretical physicist in the mathematics department of King’s College, London, who appeared on the programme with him, so perhaps he will be able to take up the New Scientist challenge then; but since other claimants are coming forward there is no need for research on the Geller Effect to stand still.
 There are plenty of obvious lines to pursue. How common is the ability to bend metal by mind-power? Can it be developed? Is it always associated with clairvoyance and the like? Are there any measurable effects on the metal? Can the effects be reproduced by other means? Does the power to bend metal obey any laws at all with regard to distance, size, shape, material, thickness and so on?
 There are some scientists who, while not totally disbelieving in telepathy and the like, cannot see any way of getting to grips with it. Uri Geller has given them some leverage on the para-normal. The forks, whether they are bent by trickery or by mysterious forces, are there to inspect. This has already caused a marked change in attitudes among conventional scientists. British Government laboratories, for example, are beginning to show a glimmer of interest in the subject; facilities have search.
 Suppose the Geller Effect does become sufficiently well established for the Science Research Council to start giving grants for investigating it, and the Royal Society to discuss, what is it all likely to lead to?
 The answer to that question is quite literally closer to science fiction than to conventional science. A vivid imagination is more useful than a knowledge of the laws of physics. Uri Geller claims he could, given time, stop Big Ben. He is alleged to have already stopped an escalator in Munich. He claims that nothing unpleasant ever happens because of his powers. He certainly has no qualms about flying. But if he can stop an escalator, why not an aeroplane? As soon as one starts to think about the implications of the Geller Effect outside the TV studio and research laboratory, it becomes terrifying or ludicrous depending on whether you believe in it or not.
 At one extreme, Uri Geller could simply be exposed as a fraud. At the other, missiles could be knocked out of the sky by mind power alone. But these are not the only ways in which the affair can develop. There is a third altogether more boring possibility. The Geller Effect could turn out to be real, but rare and useless, except for doing tricks. It could become a kind of scientific backwater, useless in practical terms, and incomprehensible theoretically, and therefore disliked. I have a nasty feeling that is the way it is going to turn out.

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