SCIENCE ON THE STRIP: THE SOCIETY FOR SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION MEETS IN VEGAS (1997)


'Quanta.' 'Random Event Generators.' 'Meta-analysis.' Dozens of academics from the U.S., Canada, and Europe are milling around, talking physics and philosophy in the air-conditioned comfort a hotel theater on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip.

A science conference...in Las Vegas? Isn't the gambling Mecca all wrong for a thinkfest? Science, we're told, is the slow, dogged pursuit of the truth -- a quarry more elusive than a Royal Flush or three rows of fruit.

Yet Vegas may be an appropriate spot for this year's meeting of The Society for Scientific Exploration. SSE members are playing a high stakes game, academically: the organization's mandate is the investigation of phenomena on the fringe -- stuff orphaned by mainstream science, and relegated to the foster homes of pop culture. Since 1987, the Society's peer-reviewed journal has examined "things that go bump in the lab", with papers (both pro and con) on clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, chemical or biological transmutation -- as well as the more mercurial reports of UFOs, cryptozoology, out-of-body and near-death experiences, alternative medical practices, ball lightning, crop circles, and so on.

"Advances are made by answering questions," asserts Bernard Haisch, astrophysicist and editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, "and discoveries are made by questioning answers." I had few questions myself, and flew into Vegas to jot down a few notes on the event.

Thursday

The SSE meeting is a three-day event at the Lance Burton theater, the venue of the Monte Carlo Hotel's house magician. The plush velvet drapes across the proscenium, the mock-Victorian circus posters of levitation in the lobby... such decor doesn't seem too out of line with an organization concerned with popping a few paradigms.

Ph.D. astrophysicist Jacques Vallee gives a morning talk on UFOs. In Vallee's scientific opinion, a small subset of UFO cases "center on a technology that is able to manipulate both the physical environment and the psychic reality of the witnesses." (A computer expert as well as a UFO researcher, Vallee contributed to defense department networking projects, the backbone of what later became the Internet.)

Vallee doesn't think the standard extraterrestrial hypothesis does justice to the more bizarre sightings, and cites recent ideas in mainstream physics that involve ten dimensions or more. "A serious analysis of such reports could give science important new insights," Vallee observes.

John Schuessler, from the Center for UFO studies, gives a talk on his investigation on the early eighties Cash/Landrum case, in which two women and a child apparently suffered from burns, hair loss, and nausea following an encounter with a brilliantly lit, diamond-shaped object along a Texas Highway. The object, accompanied or pursued by unmarked black helicopters, has never been identified as an American research project, Schuessler tells me later.

From Princeton University Anomalies Research Laboratory, Brenda Dunne gives a talk on "human/machine anomalies". A film is shown of a motorized device, it's movements determined by a random event generator. Set on a table, the device makes a "random walk", moving about in all directions. Human subjects attempt to influence the device's movement, either pulling it closer, or pushing it away -- through concentration alone. Initial results, according to Dunne, not only show a significant departure from chance, but also a "striking male/female disparity in performance": women do better than men.

Friday

A fascinating afternoon talk on quantum computing -- the reduction of binary switching to the smallest level conceivable. Such computing might conceivably to solve how psychic phenomenon might function, says Richard Shoup, of Interval Research -- "without breaking or even bending existing laws of physics."

A number of JSE contributors are legendary figures -- Hal Puthoff is one. Once a laser physicist at Stanford Research International, Puthoff was involved in the twenty year CIA-sponsored program of remote viewing -- "psychic spying". I notice the prof in the audience, but the elusive scientist vanishes at the break like a short-lived subatomic particle. No interview -- just my own hastily scribbled haiku: Puthoff took off.

Puthoff, along with JSE editor and astrophysicist Bernard Haisch, are two leading theorists on the "zero-point field", a radical new theory that reworks conventional thinking about matter, energy, and inertia. Following their jointly authored paper on the theory in Physics Review, Puthoff and Haisch were recently immortalized in Arthur C Clarke's novel 3001: the Final Odyssey. Their names are now embodied in an acronym for a futuristic rocket drive.

"Clarke was pretty accurate with his prediction for communication satellites", I say to Haisch, feeling him out about practical applications of what's supposedly still theory. He responds with a thin smile -- perhaps the look of an scholar who thinks of pop-culture endorsement as the academic kiss of death.

Speaking of pop culture, UFO expert Jacques Vallee is famously skittish with the press -- possibly the result of his high profile following Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which he was the model for the scientist character Lacombe. Once the gray eminence of saucer studies, Vallee's now more like the Garbo of the paranormal. When the lanky, silver-haired scientist is asked if he'll hit sit for an interview, he shakes his head and politely declines.

John B. Alexander, a graying ex-colonel in civvies and cowboy boots, is here to give a talk promoting the National Institute for Discovery Science, an organization funded by Nevada financier Robert Bigelow. The institute's mandate is to investigate "survival of consciousness after death, as well as aerial phenomenon". NIDS' frontman has a rather wide-ranging resume; in the Vietnam conflict he led mercenaries in the Mekong Delta, and went on to get a degree in thanatology (the study of death) under Elizabeth Kubler Ross. He went on to be a defense consultant, and spent a stint heading the Non-Lethal weapons lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Alexander has a foot in the worlds of weird weapons, UFOs, and psychic spying. When I ask him about the accusations on the Net about Bigelow's organization not being forthcoming about its investigations, Alexander doesn't beat around the bush: "the short answer to that is bullshit." I don't press the issue, suspecting Alexander may kill me in an elevator later.

Outside by the Monte Carlo's pool, overheated high rollers sizzle like ballpark franks in the hot Nevada sun. Relaxing in the hot tub makes for a great brain break.

Saturday

A prayer for Lance Burton, master magician, to appear. If only he'd jump from the wings with his saw to cut a few speakers -- and their talks -- in half. Case in point: a sociological study of "paranormal professionals", in which the author announces the astounding discovery that parapsychologists tend to believe more in parapsychology than skeptics. Presenters like this one put the sigh back in psi.

"The SSE is really now beginning to take its place as a respectable scientific society," Princeton's Brenda Dunne says during a lunch break. "It's looking at topics that just either fall between the cracks or just aren't recognized in other areas. We like to think that were sort of out there on the vanguard. SSE, I think, is the first scientific organization to be out there doing 21st century science."

"It's ironic," a science writer friend says later, as we walk down the gigawatt sensorium of the Vegas Strip. "A whole town which is based on nothing but illusion, a place that attracts people who want to be distracted from reality -- and here's a group of scientists meeting here who are trying to peel away illusion, get to the truth."

The SSE web site is at http://www.jse.com

A CONVERSATION WITH BRENDA DUNNE AND ROBERT JAHN

Princeton University scientist Brenda J. Dunne is showing a film of a robot to a gathering of academics. The robot makes a meandering, haphazard roll across a table, it's movements controlled by a random event generator. It spins and moves in all directions, like an inebriated, pint-sized R2D2, doing a "random walk". It's not a particularly impressive display, but what's scientifically at stake with Dunne's research is.

After the film, dozens of academics from the US., Canada, and Europe mill around, talking physics and philosophy in the air-conditioned comfort a Las Vegas hotel theater. Just outside the doors, it's science of a different sort: slot machines recede to a vanishing point on the casino floor, with gamblers working the levers like well-conditioned lab rats.

Las Vegas is the site for this year's meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a convocation of lettered scholars who examine phenomenon on the fringe. Dunne is one of the presenters, and the little robot is the centerpiece of a series of experiments at Princeton, part of research to detect what Dunne and her colleagues call "human/machine anomalies". Can human beings affect the path of the device -- push it toward them or away -- merely by concentrating?

"Its controversial, its true," says Dunne, a researcher with Princeton University' s Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR)."I think doing the work at Princeton makes people pay attention a little bit more than if it was done somewhere else." In 1979, Dunnes's colleague Robert Jahn -- then dean of the school of engineering -- formed PEAR to research the role of consciousness in the physical world.

In Dunne and Jahn's experiments, human operators attempt, solely by volition, to influence the behavior of a variety of devices to conform to pre-stated intentions. The deviations from chance, according to the researchers, are tiny -- but statistically spectacular nonetheless. "In unattended calibrations these sophisticated machines all produce strictly random outputs," the PEAR web page pronounces," yet the experimental results display increases in information content that can only be attributed to the influence of the human operators." The deviations achieved in any given run are exteemely small, but the results of half a million test runs show an the apparent signature of an effect the researchers attribute to human consciousness: "an extremely minute, but statistically measureable, ability of the mind to skew the output of electronic number generators and other devices."

It sounds a bit spooky, in a dry, academic way.

Dunne's recent work with the robot was inspired by another researcher's efforts, who tested for the truly bizarre: animal/machine anomalies. In an ingenious experiment, a randomly moving robot was introduced to newly hatched baby chicks, who imprinted on the device. The animals were set in a mesh enclosure in a corner of a room, and the robot was left to ramble. The researchers were determining if the chick's emotional link with their cyber-mother would result in a pattern of movement closer to the enclosure. According to the researchers, the results were overwhelmingly in favour of an effect.

Dunne graciously answers a few of my questions during the break, while the slot machines ping and ding outside the theater doors. Ironically, the venue for the scientists' presentations is the Lance Burton Theater, home to the Monte Carlo Hotel's house magician. Behind Dunne there's a mock-Victorian circus poster of a magician levitating his assistant.

"We don't even use the word psychokinesis," Dunne says. "One reason being is that the word has a lot of negative connotations -- it's new agey. We just speak of human/machine anomalies ." She adds that the "psycho" part of psychokinesis is problematic in itself, and that "kinesis means an energy or force of some sort, and were certainly not dealing with an energy of any sort that we currently know."

Robert Jahn, a serious, ascetic-looking man, joins in the discussion. Asked how strong the evidence is for human/machine anomalies, Jahn indicates a forthcoming paper in which he and Dunne survey "what amounts to thirteen separate experiments in the laboratory that have accumulated over an eleven year period." When the results are tallied, the professor says, "you're looking at less than a part in a trillion (in favour of the results being due to chance alone) -- that is overwhelming."

"All of science is statistical," Jahn says with a smile, making a thinly veiled reference to skeptics, "its a question of what your tolerance is." If the data were totally random, he adds, there would be no structure, and Jahn says there's plenty, right down to gender effects (Women do better than men in the human/machine trials).

The purported phenomenon has a real-world side to it, including concern regarding possible mental influence on critically sensitive, fly-by-wire avionics in aircraft. There's also the commercial possibilities: PEAR Inc. has a web page (http://www.pearinc.com/xpost-sc.html) where, for $24.95, you can download a piece of software called ShapeChanger. The program tests your personal power with human/machine anomalies on your home computer: the object is to "will" one preselected image to appear on your monitor over another, as the two pictures dissolve back and forth.

But what about the critics of PEAR's work? "Criticism can be good," Jahn notes, but "critics have to be informed, constructive." The Princeton prof makes a distinction between the useful criticism by those who have studied PEAR's protocols, and those who are motivated by something less than scientific dispassion. Jahn cites a number of possibilities for flat-out scientific rejection, including professional fears of new phenomenon. "Resistance goes up as the phenomenon gets more real."

And there's the rub. Jahn and Dunne's research, if accepted by the academic community at large, is a materialist's worst nightmare: that consciousness and cosmos are inextricable. It's like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle with a vengeance.

"This is the real excitement, I think to us, that were not just looking at cute little anomalies or aberrations within the field of human/machine interactions, but were seeing the floating debris, if you will, that presages a much more substantial overall concept of science to include subjective dimensions as well as objective dimensions....science is going to go kicking and screaming on this, because for the last three or four centuries, because it has been moving in precisely the other direction..."

However, the results of human/machine work don't suggest you're likely to beat the house with the powers of mind. "Gamblers throughout history have believed that they could affect the outcome of a random process like rolling dice or shuffling cards, " Dunne wrote in 1992. "The phenomenon we're measuring is a lot more subtle, but it's the same idea and we've measured it in the laboratory." Whatvever it is PEAR is measuring, it's a tiny effect, and the phenomenon only shows its hand after many thousands of trials. The deviations aren't enough to break any casinos. Not unexpectedly, I saw no one from the conference at the gaming tables or slot machines.

Geoff Olson