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Paranormal Review  - No.20   October 2001



THE SERIOS EFFECT AND THE GELLER EFFECT:

TWO EXCEPTIONAL PARANORMAL PHENOMENA OF THE

TWENTIETH CENTURY



JOHN BELOFF



 Two unprecedented paranormal phenomena arose during the past century. The first, which florished during the 1960's, was the so-called "thoughtography" as produced by Ted Serios and investigated by Jule Eisenbud, the second, which arose during the 1970's and is still occasionally manifested, is "PK metal bending" as produced by Uri Geller. There is good reason to think that both phenomena may be genuine but neither, unfortunately, has left any legacy for on going research.
 What I am calling the "Geller Effect" is the bending of metal usually by stroking an object such as a fork or spoon as famously claimed or exemplified by Uri Geller.
 Regrettably, I never managed to witness at first hand either of these effects, though not for want of trying.
 I have met Geller on two occasions. Once when he came to Edinburgh to promote his new novel at Waterstone's bookshop, and the second time when Adrian Parker arranged for the two of us to visit Geller at his home in Sonning, Berkshire. But while he was most forthcoming in showing us around his house and large garden of which he was obviously very proud, he declined to demonstrate for us the "Geller Effect", saying simply that he was fed up having to do so again and again. He also told me, while showing us around, something that I had already heard from his biographer, Guy Playfair, that the reason why he did not wish to be scientifically authenticated was that it would make him too tempting a target for assaination; the idea here being that no Arab assasin would want to waste his ammunition on a mere showman. Whatever the reason we had to be content with a present of two science fiction novels he ahd written and a video-tape autobiography with actors playing Geller as a child and adolescent.
 Actually, Geller did submit to controlled testing with positive results at the hands of Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute (Puthoff & Targ, 1974) and for John Hasted, professor of physics at Birkbeck College, London.

Uri Geller is, of course, credited with a wide variety of paranormal powers both mental (ESP) and physical (PK), including a peculiar power to germinate seeds held in his hand for a few seconds. Here however, we shall be concerned exclusively with his alleged paranormal bending of metal objects, usually forks or spoons. Unlike the Serios effect, the Geller effect has not been confined to its namesake. It has been produced, or at least claimed, by others who were inspired by Geller's example. In many cases these were children, the so-called "mini-Gellers". This was specially the case in Italy when Geller visited that country in the early 1970's. An Italian physicist, Ferdinando Bersani of the University of Bologna, afterwards made a special study of such "gellerini" as the Italians called them, while in Britain John Hasted studied a number of children with apparent metal bending powers, sometimes using strain gauges to detect slight effects. In the USA, at the height of the Geller craze, Jack Houck, a Californian aeronautical engineer, held large parties to which the guests were invited to bring their own cutlery and a lot of PK metal-bending is reported to have taken place.

It would make life much simpler for us parapsychologists if both the Geller effect and the Serios effect could be written off as no more than clever conjuring tricks as the magicians, Randi (1975) and Bob Couttie (1998), would like us to do.

Geller is much more open to suspicion than Serios if only because he made a lucrative career from his ability. However, this extract from an email message written by Eldon Byrd, a physicist of the U.S. Navy, to Brian Josephson, a Nobel laureate physicist of Cambridge University, makes it hard to dismiss the Geller effect as a mere trick: "the metal Uri bends is not subjected to force. I have seen the electron microscope photos of several items Uri has bent without force - the grain structure is very even, whereas like items bent by force had a chaotic grain struture both at the margins and internally. I had a shadowgraph done of one of the Nitinol wires Uri touched while I was holding both ends. He altered the shape memory at the molecular level and caused it to go to an angle so acute that a similar piece broke when an attempt was made to bend it to such an acute angle. Also an electron microscope photo of the wire at the bend revealed that stress marks were apparent along the wire due to the extrusion process by which the wire was made. However, there were no stress lines apparent longitudinally at the bend. A density analysis showed that the material was more dense on TOP of the bend where stretching should have occured, not underneath as one would expect where compression occured. I have not only seen many items continue to bend after Uri had touched them (mostly knife blades and forks that he had stroked with ONE finger); I have also had cutlery bend in my hand spontaneously bend and continue to bend over a five or six second period while Uri was across the room and had never interacted with the item." [capitalized words as in the original.]

Margolis (1998) has a similar tale to tell: "One of the key events John Hasted organised to show off Geller when he was in England was an informal gathering of high-powered, interested parties in his lab at Birkbeck on a June Saturday in 1974. Among those who came to meet Geller were the chief engineer of the Rolls-Royce Rocket Division, Val Cleaver, Arthur Koestler, the engineer-turned science writer, who later bequeathed 1m to found a chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh University, Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, and a third Arthur, Arthur Ellison, professor of Electrical Engineering at City University, London and a part time researcher into the paranormal. The meeting became famous as the source of an ongoing argument between Arthur C. Clarke and several of the others. When Clarke saw his front door key bend before his eyes, according to Ellison and others present, he exclaimed, 'My God, it's Childhood's End come true.' (a reference to one of his own novels, in which the alien overlord Karellan explained to the human race some centuries hence that the ancient mystics had been right, and science wrong, and such phenomena as poltergeists, telepathy and precognition were real). Clarke then said to Byron Janis, Uri's classical pianist friend, who was also present, 'My God, what is this world coming to?"

'Five or six years later,' Janis related at his apartment in Manhattan, 'Clarke said it hadn't happened at all, and that he had been in a hypnotic state. It pissed me off, because I remembered it so well.' Indeed Clarke had turned abruptly on Geller. Ten years later, in the forward to a book of his own, Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers, he urged his readers to study Randi's work, and was scathing about Geller. He admitted that he had made the comment as reported when his key bent, but said that everyone else's memory of the bending process had been at fault, and that Geller had actually manipulated the key.

Professor Ellison remained resolute. "Clarke got out Yale key and he put it on top of Hasted's secretary's typewriter,' Ellison recalls. 'We were standing around the desk in the outer office. Clarke put his finger on the key, which was all alone on that flat surface, and said to Geller, "See what you can do with that." I was to one side within a foot of it, Arthur Koestler was a foot away elsewhere, and Geller came up between us and stroked it on the flat back of the typewriter. All of us were watching that key like a hawk, and the end curled up in about a minute. You could rock it to and fro. Our attention was not distracted, we weren't born yesterday, we were all aware of magicians' tricks, and there was nothing else that happened that I haven't mentioned, so there's not the slightest doubt in my mind. If I have seen something I will say so. I will not be short of the courage of admitting if I see things that most scientists think are impossible. Clarke was amazed at the time, so I was surprised when I saw him on a TV programme that he was very non-committal about Geller. I think he probably feels that if he admits to seeing a paranormal phenomenon, everyone will assume he's going round the bend and will cease taking him seriously." (Margolis 1998, 281-282).

One thing that Serios and Geller had in common was that they were neither mediums nor indeed products of the Spiritulaist movement. They were new style, twentieth century psychics who happened to possess gifts that still puzzle and intrigue us as we try our best to make sense of them. What now awaits us in the twenty-first century we can only wonder, but if the past is anything to go by then new cases of the unexplained are likely to await us.


©The Society for Psychical Research - Reproduced with permission



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