We now jump ahead some 60 years to examine a twentieth century “psychic”, a person whom many people believe to be the most sensational. Uri Geller has travelled throughout the world and has been widely seen or read about by hundreds of millions of people, and he has been extensively tested by numerous scientists.
The Uri Geller story has a good deal of romance and legend associated with it. A strikingly handsome, charming, flamboyant individual exuding great charisma, he is able to bend and break keys, spoons, and rings, to make stopped watches start up again, jam computers, divine the contents of sealed envelopes and boxes, materialize objects, and even teleport himself. People are convinced his powers are extraordinary, even miraculous. A consummate showman, he displays childlike wonder at his own feats.
Geller was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 20, 1946. in his book My Story , Uri claims that he was “born with these powers” and that he “was actually given them from some source… I don’t want you to think I’m a Moses or a Jesus, but according to the Israeli account, Jesus was born on the 20th of December. Maybe it is a coincidence,” he says. “I believe that Jesus had powers and so did Moses, and so did all those others in history” (quoted in Wilhelm 1976). According to Uri’s uncorroborated testimony, his psychic mission manifested itself when he was only three or four years old, when he was visited by a flying saucer while alone in a garden near his home:
It was late afternoon but still light…. Suddenly there was a very loud, high-pitched ringing in my ears. All other sounds stopped. And it was strange, as if time had suddenly stood still. The tress didn’t move in the wind. Something made me look up at the sky. I remember it well. There was a silvery mass of light….This was not the sun, and I knew it. The light was too close to me. Then it came down lower, I remember, very close to me. The color was brilliant. I felt as if I had been knocked over backwards. There was a sharp pain in my forehead. Then I was knocked out. I lost consciousness completely. I don’t know how long I laid there…. Deep down, I knew something important had happened. (Geller 1975, 95-96)
At six or seven years old, Uri discovered that he could move the hands of his wristwatch solely by the power of his mind. Similarly, he relates, his mother knew that he had strange gifts because he was able to tell her after she came home from a cardgame exactly how much she had won or lost. At the age of nine, silverware began to break in his hands. He said that he kept these strange occurrences quiet because of fear of ridicule.
In 1967, Uri was wounded while fighting with the Israeli army in the Six Day War. While recovering, he met Shipi Shtrang, a lad seven years younger, and Shipi’s sister Hannah. They became Uri’s intimate friends and were with him during his meteoric rise to fame. Shipi and Uri apparently came across a book that dealt with magic and magicians and began working together to develop a night-club act. Under the direction of a personal manager, Uri was booked into theaters throughout Israel and became an instant star. He performed his one-man act innumerable times with great success. His routine began with his asserting that the mental energy of his audiences was essential to his success and that he could not perform with negative vibes. Uri’s show’ according to his critics, was standard magic, with the psychic dimension thrown in to heighten the drama. He followed the same routine employed by other mentalists – such as Kreskin and Dunninger – though with some clever new twists. He would usually begin by asking someone from the audience to write the name of a color on a blackboard, which the audience observed but which Uri presumably could not see. Similarly, he guessed the names of foreign capitols. It is possible to do these tricks with an accomplice in the audience, providing the proper signals have been prearranged, or it can be done merely by finding an opportunity to quickly peek at the blackboard where the words are written. Next, Uri would bend or break metal objects – razors, keys, nails, or spoons – by sleight of hand, or make stopped watches go again. All of these tricks can be easily duplicated by magicians without any pretence that they are supernormal.
Uri’s career took a different turn when he and Shipi met Dr Andrija Puharich, an American psychic researcher and physician who, having heard of Uri’s gifts, went to Israel to investigate them. Puharich was duly impressed by Uri’s powers. Hyponotized by Puharich, Geller identified himself as “Spectra,” a computer aboard a spaceship from a distant galaxy. Under the control of “Hoova,” he sent to intervene on earth and Puharich was to assist Geller. How much of this was due to Puharich’s or Geller’s fantasies and how much was a result of pure fabrication on the part of both is difficult to say.
The “intelligences” that Uri drew upon were from outer space. For many, UFOlogy has become a new religion, replete with science-fiction imagery of the post-modern world. And Uri, like countless others, has embellished his mission with fanciful space-age symbols. Just as the metaphors and symbols of transcendent revelation of previous ages have been clothed in the imagery and metaphors of their times, the paranormal revelations and powers of the present day are charged with scientific technology and space-age gadgetry. However, these fanciful accoutrements can today be more easily investigated and refuted. Although there have ben millions of reports of UFO sightings and hundreds of cases of alleged abductions or direct visitations, after decades of intensive scrutiny not one case stands up as clear evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation. Virtually all sightings can be given a normal pedestrian explanation (meteors, planets, weather balloons, swamp gas, helicopters, and so on), and no case of abduction has been shown to be reliable, even though in many instances the abductee actually believed that he or she had been kidnapped by outer-space aliens.
John Wilhelm, a science writer, interviewed Geller and Puharich after they had arrived in America. Puharich claimed that his own tests with Geller convinced him that Uri was genuine. He told Wilhelm that both he and Uri were in contact with extraterrestrial beings who used various channels to communicate, and he claimed to have taped Geller’s “transvoice” and that it sounded as if it was synthesized by a computer. Moreover, he said, the tapes often vanished (was Geller hiding them from Puharich?) and it was all due to the intelligences from Hoova, who would intervene. In Uri’s presence, Puharich said, many inexplicable things would happen: radar jammed, computers reprogrammed, motors shut off in cars, and gears shifted – all without any physical intervention. Puharich even claimed that “the voice” would at times speak to him on the phone (Wilhelm 1976, 32).
Geller seemed at times to wish to distance himself from some of Puharich’s speculative ideas. Yet he also went along with the story. Thus Geller related that there were several instances in which he and Puharich witnessed UFOs. As with vanishing tapes, no one else could corroborate their account. One night Geller rushed from his Tel Aviv apartment , taking Puharich and a female friend with him. Driving into the suburbs, Geller stopped the car; he saw flashing blue lights in the distance. Cautioning the others not to accompany him, he approached the lights just behind a dip in the terrain. After a few minutes Geller returned carrying Puharich’s pen, which according to Puharich had mysteriously “dematerialised” a few days earlier.
Geller also relates the incredible story that one day he teleported himself virtually instantaneously from the streets of Manhattan some 30 miles north to Puharich’s home in Ossining, New York, coming right through the upper portion of the screened porch (Geller, 1975, 266 ff.). Uri claimed that he didn’t think the powers that he evinced were coming from him but that they were channelled through him. “What I am able to do,” he confides, “is maybe part of a much greater plan which concerns more than the earth and mankind.”
No doubt the most dismaying development in the Uri Geller story was his ability to convince many scientists that his powers were genuine. Geller had become an international media personality, transfixing audiences world-wide. Famous television and radio personalities were impressed at his ability to bend keys and read the contents of sealed envelopes. They became convinced of his reliability. But, sceptics asked, are his powers real or fraudulent? Has a modern-day superpsychic emerged, one who clearly the paranormal powers of the mind and has been tested in objective controlled laboratory situations?
Geller learned that there were many scientists who were willing to test him to confirm his psychic credentials: the “Geller Effect” was the name given by scientists to the strange contra-causal or even anti-causal phenomena that appeared in Geller’s presence.
Geller agreed to be tested at the Stanford research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California, by Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, two physical scientists. Puthoff was identified with Scientology, which presupposes astro-projection, reincarnation, space travel, and other psychic powers. Targ and Puthoff have tested other Scientological psychics, such as Pat Price and Ingo Swann, who they claimed also manifested psychic powers, especially clairvoyance, telepathy, and the ability to identify objects outside the laboratory and transmit this knowledge to a psychic within. They called this “remote viewing” as if a television camera in the mind could pick up a distant signal by some strange means. The SRI experiments with Geller were carried out at various times between November 1972 and August 1973. they were supposed to test Geller for clairvoyance, telepathy and psychokinesis. The results of the clairvoyance and telepathy experiments (Targ and Puthoff 1974) were published in Nature, Britain’s most prestigious scientific magazine, though the editors expressed numerous doubts about the experimental design and the lack of rigor. The paper was published, we were told, in order to allow parapsychologists and other scientists to assess the quality of the SRI research and to see how much it contributed to the field of parapsychology.
One of the tests reported on dealt with Uri’s ability to telepathically read target pictures chosen at random by the experimenter or others. Of 13 targets, Targ and Puthoff maintained that Uri had scored well on 6 and fair on 2 of his guesses. According to them the probability of this happening by chance was one in three million. Skeptics have criticized the test for lacking stringent controls. They have pointed out that the pictures drawn by Geller did not match what they were supposed to correspond to but appeared, rather, to be responses to verbal cues. What constituted a “hit” is open to dispute. The conditions under which the experiments were conducted were extremely loose, even chaotic at times. The sealed room in which Uri was placed had an aperture from which he could have peeked out, and his confederate Shipi was in and about the laboratory and could have conveyed signals to him. The same was true in another test of clairvoyance, where Geller passed twice but surprisingly guessed eight out of ten times the top face of a die that was placed in a closed metal box. The probability of this happening by chance alone was, we are told, one in a million. Critics maintained that the protocol of this experiment was, again, poorly designed, that Geller could have peeked into the box, and that dozens of other tests from which there were no positive results were not reported.
Geller failed a third test, in which he was supposed to draw his impression of target pictures that had been placed inside sealed envelopes. Targ and Puthoff also reported in Nature that, although metal bending had been observed in their laboratory, they had not been able to combine such observations with adequately controlled experiments to obtain data to support the paranormal hypothesis.
The Targ and Puthoff tests apparently helped to catapult Geller’s career – for now he had been “tested” by science. Wherever Geller went he repeated his act. The “Geller Effect” took on psychological dimensions; for if people were predisposed to believe that he exuded psychic powers, the slightest suggestion that anything unusual was going on was taken to be a psychic phenomenon. In his many broadcasts and telecasts throughout the world, Uri would ask his listeners and viewers to concentrate on bending metal. After the program, hundreds, even thousands, of calls would pour into the station reporting miraculous psychokinetic effects: spoons, keys, locks and watches all displayed seemingly mysterious effects.
Geller (1975, 4) describes the psychokinetic effect that he was able to produce on metal:
What happens is very simple but also very startling. The key begins to bend slowly as I either rub it lightly with my fingers or hold my hand over it. Then it continues bending after I take my hand away. Sometimes it bends only slightly and stops. Other times, it continues up to a 45 degree angle, or even to a right angle. Sometimes it will seem to melt, without heat, and half the key will drop off.
Now all of these feats can be easily duplicated by magicians without any pretence that they are supernormal. James Randi, the professional conjurer, has demonstrated that he can perform similar tricks by sleight of hand. He has bent keys by physical manipulation or pressure, undetected by observers; then, holding them in his fingers and turning them gradually, they appear to bend. Similarly, he is able to exert metal fatigue on a specially prepared spoon or key, which after gently stroking seems to melt and then break off. He is able to advance or retreat the minute or hour hands on watches by deft flicking of the winder. He has also been able to divine the contents of sealed envelopes either by surreptitiously holding them up to a light or by peeking into them when no one is about.
On some occasions, before Geller was tested (as on the Johnny Carson show), Randi was consulted to insure the tests were foolproof. When he did so, Geller invariably failed to produce results. It is when Geller controls the conditions of the performance or experiment – as was the case with Eusapia Palladino – that he is successful. If he is unable to succeed, then he blames the negative vibes of nearby sceptics or scoffers and is then able to loosen conditions and heighten the effect.
Two psychologists, David Marks and Richard Kammann (1980, 107), carefully monitored Geller’s visit to New Zealand. Mark’s was permitted to test Geller in his hotel room. He had placed a previously prepared drawing of a sailboat in a sealed envelope and handed it to Uri. Mark’s was surprised when Geller managed to duplicate the figure. Later Marks retrieved the discarded envelope and found that Geller had evidently peeled it open when Marks was in the bathroom and the other observer was distracted by a phone call. He apparently peeked into the envelope to see the drawing. Richard Kammann also tested Uri’s ability to “divine” drawings, and he found that Uri would succeed if he could observe the movements of the top of the pencil, but if the pencil top were concealed he could not. In testing their students Marks and Kammann also demonstrated that an astute person could perceive the outlines of a folded drawing through the envelope if allowed to put it up to the forehead (the light) as Geller had done. As to the thousands of reports of bent cutlery that radio and TV stations had received, Marks observed that virtually anyone can find a bent fork or spoon in their house if a thorough search is made. Marks and Kammann (1980, 107) also performed an interesting test of watches that needed repairs. If a watch or clock is held in the palm of the hand for a few minutes, the heat from the body is able to warm the watch, and it often begins to tick. They examined watches awaiting repair in seven jewelry stores, and they found that 60 out of 106 started ticking again when held in a warm hand for a few minutes. The success rate was 57 percent. However, there is no evidence that Uri can repair watches by the mind alone, not when the mainspring is broken or some other structural mechanism is in need of repair.
It is the uncanny ability of Geller to convince scientific observers of his powers that deserves special attention. A number of them have attested to his psychic abilities, and this is especially the case where there is a predisposition to believe in such powers, an unawareness of how trickery or conjuration can be done, and an implicit trust that the person under observation is honest and reliable.
A remarkable collection of papers was assembled by Charles Panati (at one time a science editor for Newsweek magazine) and published under the title The Geller Papers: Scientific Observations on the Paranormal Powers of Uri Geller (Panati 1976). These papers, by 14 scientists and 3 magicians, might convince an impartial reader that the “Geller Effect” has been carefully confirmed in the experimental laboratory. The book includes the Naturepaper by Targ and Puthoff already discussed and three other papers, by Wilbur Franklin, Eldon Byrd, and John Taylor that seem to indicate some kind of physical confirmation of Geller’s psychokinetic powers.
John Taylor, professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, university of London, and a physicist, has a brief report in The Geller Papers on Geller’s visit to his laboratory. He details how Geller had apparently caused objects to “fly through the air” or disappear, how a “compass needle had been caused to rotate without the intervention of a visible mechanism,” and other strange phenomena (Panati 1976, 217). These events he deemed impossible to comprehend, and they left him in a state of “mystification.” Taylor had observed Geller perform on a television program. He was so baffled that he became convinced of his paranormal gifts. He was apparently unaware of conjuring techniques at that time. In pursuing his research, Taylor had also tested a number of young children who he claimed were able to bend metal spoons and forks. He devised an experiment whereby an aluminium rod six inches long was placed in a transparent plastic tube sealed at both ends by red rubber stoppers, which were held in place by screws covered in wax. Much of this was written up in Taylor’s (1975) Super minds. (See also Taylor 1980.) Curiously, Taylor noted that there was a “shyness effect”; that is, children could not perform their feats when they were under direct observation. But Taylor always saw evidence of disformation after the fact. He attributed these phenomena to unknown causes.
James Randi once visited Taylor incognito at his office, and he was able to perform psychokinetic feats that Taylor could not explain Randi found that he could easily break open the seal of the plastic tube, bend the aluminum rod, and return it apparently undetected . Apparently Taylor had been taken in by simple conjurer tricks; he could not believe that young teenagers could possibly cheat. Two scientists at the University of Bath tested the “shyness effect.” They allowed six metal-bending children an opportunity to perform. An observer in the room did not note anything unusual, but a secret television camera showed that the children cheated when the observer was not looking. Geller may have worked the same way. To his credit, Taylor has since withdrawn his views on psychokinetic effects, admitting to his former errors, and now claims that the existence of psychic phenomena is doubtful. However, Taylor rejected the idea because he could not find any known physical theory to explain it; but the crux of the matter is that what he had observed was most likely due to conjuring tricks.
The paper by Eldon Byrd in the Panati volume has been cited as giving strong evidence for psychokinesis. Many were impressed by what seemed to be independent physical corroboration that Geller was capable of bending metal by non-normal means. Byrd used a sample of an unusual alloy, nitinol. This metal wire has a physical memory for the shape in which it was formed at the time of manufacture. Only by heating the wire to a very high temperature could it be reshaped. Geller rubbed the nitinol wire in Byrd’s presence. When he removed his fingers the wire had a definite bump or kink in it. When Byrd placed it in boiling water, instead of snapping back to its original straight shape, it began to form a right angle. The bends that Geller had produced, reports Byrd, (1976, 82), had “permanent deformations.” How had Geller achieved this, asks Byrd? He has been quoted as saying “Geller altered the lattice structure of a metal alloy in a way that cannot be duplicated. There is no present scientific evidence as to how he did this” (quoted in Gardner 1981, 160). Byrd’s paper has been cited by parapsychologists as a decisive verification of the “Geller Effect.”
Martin Gardner (1981), however, has refuted these claims. He attempted to replicate Byrd’s experiments, and much to his surprise he got the same effect, but by normal means. He bent the wire using pliers. Then bending it back into shape, he caused a bump in it by pressing it with his thumb nail. He then placed the wire into a bowl and poured boiling water on it. Lo and behold! The wire took on the form of an angle, similar to that described by Byrd. It was entirely possible, said Gardner, that Uri had done what Gardner did when Byrd was not watching, or had even come with a prepared wire, whose properties were incidentally well known to magicians.
In another paper, “Fracture Surface Physics Indicating Telenural Interaction,” Wilbur Franklin, chairman of the Department of Physics at Kent State University, also seemed to provide proof that Geller was able to cause changes in physical objects by unknown means. In this case, Franklin reported that a platinum ring had spontaneously developed a fissure in its surface in Geller’s presence, “without his having touched the ring (Panati 1976, 75 ff.) Franklin submitted the fractured ring to metallurgical analyses. He found that the surface of the fracture on the ring and also a needle broken by Geller were “distinctively different” from known types of nontelenural fracture surfaces. He concluded that “it would have been extremely difficult to fabricate these surfaces by known laboratory techniques” (p. 80). He also said that such “telenural interaction with matter” points to the necessity of developing new theoretical constructs to account for the “Geller Effect.” In the Panati book there are photographs of the various fractured metals – all presented as impressive verification.
Since that time, Franklin has withdrawn his conclusion entirely and admitted to his error. The circumstances were as follows. As Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), I invited Wilbur Franklin to Buffalo, New York, to appear on a television program I was moderating on the paranormal and parapsychology. Also participating were three sceptics, James Randi, ray Hyman and Ethel Romm. Mrs. Romm expressed her dismay that Franklin did not include a picture of the normal fractured ring along with the Geller ring so that we could compare the similarities and differences. Franklin insisted that the Geller fracture was not standard. He later went back to his laboratory and fractured a platinum ring by physical means and compared it with the photo of the Geller fracture. He found, much to his embarrassment, that they were virtually identical! So the last major piece of physical corroboration was now withdrawn.
No doubt one factor in Franklin’s decision to reexamine the evidence was Randi’s performance of “paranormal tricks” in his presence. He bent Franklin’s key, broke a spoon, correctly guessed the contents of a sealed envelope, and moved a watch-hand ahead. He even had Franklin pull out a book from his own briefcase, asked him to open it to a page, and then told him a word on the top line. All of this flabbergasted Franklin. He said that he was shaken, for he had witnessed Geller do similar things and was convinced then that they were “telenural” and “paranormal.” But now a professional conjurer had duplicated the “Geller Effect.”
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