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One in a Million

Debunked! is short and highly readable. It tells good stories about human foolishness masquerading as science. It offers useful assistance to citizens trying to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. When it was published in France,* the title was Devenez sorciers, devenez savants, which means literally, “Become magicians, become experts,” or more freely translated, “Learn to do magic and learn to see through it.” The English title misses the point. The book is saying that the best way to avoid being deceived by magic tricks is to learn to do the tricks yourself.

The translator is a medical school faculty member who has written books about probability theory for doctors designing clinical trials. His knowledge of French language and culture was acquired from his family. He has added a preface explaining how he dealt with the problems of translation. He says, “Very long sentences in a distinctive, glorious Gallic rhetorical style have been reduced in frequency by rewriting but not eliminated completely…. I opted for intelligibility rather than the unalloyed preservation of style.” Few of his sentences are painfully long, and none are unintelligible. What remains of the distinctive Gallic rhetorical style is to be found in some passages where the authors express a lofty contempt for those who disagree with them. “Is it acceptable,” they ask, “that university colleagues, due to laziness, lack of rigor, lack of competence, or love of media attention, should go along with a pack of errors, untruths, nonsense, or lies, and label it an honorable point of view?” The translator has retained enough of the elegant style to give us the flavor of the French original. But the polemical passages are few. The greater part of the book is straight storytelling. The stories are well told and are allowed to speak for themselves.

The name of Georges Charpak brings back memories of fifty years ago, when I was living on the side of a mountain above the village of Les Houches, in the high alpine region of France close to Mont Blanc. I was teaching physics at the Les Houches Summer School, an institution that was then three years old and is now still flourishing. It was founded by Cécile DeWitt, who was then a young postdoctoral student, with the avowed purpose of rejuvenating French physics. Cécile is no longer running the school, but she is still very much alive and helping to keep the enterprise going. In 1951, when she founded the school, theoretical physics in France was at a low ebb, with academic jobs in the leading universities monopolized by old men out of touch with new developments. Cécile raised her own meager funds and built her school in a faraway corner of France, out of reach of the mandarins in Paris. She bought an abandoned farm and made the buildings more or less habitable as best she could. Students flocked to the school from all over Europe. The class of students that I taught that summer were the best I ever had. Many of them later became famous as scientific leaders in their own countries. The brightest of all was Georges Charpak.

We lived together in a cowshed and the students listened to lectures in a barn. I gave a tough course with the title Advanced Quantum Mechanics. I worked hard teaching and the students worked hard learning. But the formal lectures were the least important part of the school. Much more memorable were the informal sessions, the meals and the hikes, the daily hardships of mud and rain that we all shared. In a few short years the school became a prime mover of the renaissance of physics, not only in France but all over Europe. It has continued to be a cen-ter of excellence, bringing together gifted young people and giving them the opportunity to work together and learn together, creating friendships that last a lifetime. The cowsheds have long ago been replaced by solid permanent buildings, the muddy farmyard by a terrace ornamented with modern sculpture. In the year 1954 when I was at Les Houches, all of us, Cécile and the lecturers and the students, were young. We were intoxicated with joie de vivre. We were Europeans, we had survived the war and the dismal years of impoverishment that followed it, and now we finally saw Europe rising from the ashes and rebuilding itself. Les Houches was a visible symbol of the rebuilding, which was spiritual as well as physical. We knew we were lucky to be a part of it.

Somewhere on the farm, Georges Charpak found an old skull of a bull with horns attached, and he liked to wear these horns on his head. The horns fitted well with his bull-like physique and character. I have a vivid memory of Georges roaring around a muddy field with the horns, pretending to be a bull. His newly wed wife Dominique, armed with a long spoon from the school kitchen, was pretending to be a matador. For most of his life, Georges has been a leader of experiments at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, on the border between France and Switzerland. CERN is not far from Les Houches and is another symbol of the scientific rejuvenation of Europe. It came as no surprise in 1992 when I heard that Georges was the first of our students to win a Nobel Prize for physics. It comes as no surprise to meet him again in this book, fighting fiercely against the enemies of scientific reason.

Henri Broch, the second author of this book, is a professor of physics at the University of Nice. He is not as famous as Charpak as a physicist, but he is famous as an investigator of paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception and telepathy. He has investigated many claims of people who believe that they possess paranormal powers. His success in demolishing paranormal claims is owing to his skill as a magician. He has mastered the art of doing magical tricks, so that he can reproduce the alleg-edly paranormal phenomena in public demonstrations.

Henri Broch plays the same role in France that the Amazing Randi plays in America. Like Broch, the Amazing Randi is a skilled magician. He challenges any possessor of psychic powers to perform wonders that he cannot duplicate. I once participated in a session in San Diego at which the Amazing Randi confronted the famous Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller. Geller gave a public performance at which he bent metal objects such as spoons and keys without touching them, using his psychic powers. To make his performances more impressive, he used the word “telekinesis” to describe what ordinary people call spoon-bending. The session was conducted in a big public auditorium, and a large crowd came. I took my family along to see the show.

Following his usual routine, Geller invited volunteers from the audience to come up on stage, bringing spoons or keys with them. My daughter Emily, then twelve years old, volunteered and went up with an old key that we had brought with us. The key was no longer in use, and we did not mind if Geller succeeded in bending it. Geller examined the key carefully and handed it back to Emily, telling her to hold on to it and not let go. Then he chatted with the audience about telekinesis. He described to us how the atoms in the key were rearranging themselves in response to his psychic powers, while Emily stood waiting on the stage. Then he turned suddenly to Emily and said, “Now, let’s look at your key.” She handed him the key, and there it was, bent. He gave it back to her, and she came down to show it to the audience. She said she could have sworn that she was watching the key the whole time and never let it out of her sight. After that, Geller continued with other volunteers, bending various other objects. Then Geller departed and Randi’s performance began.

Randi went through the same rituals as Geller and was equally successful. A succession of volunteers went up on stage, and came down as mystified as Emily had been. Then Randi explained how he did it. The actual bending of the key was the easy part. He bent it with one hand, inserting the tip into a hole in a second key and squeezing the two keys together. This was done while he was chatting with the audience about psychic powers. The more difficult part of the trick was the exchange of keys. The exchange had to be done twice. At the beginning when the volunteer first handed him the key, and at the end when he gave it back to her, he quickly exchanged her key for a similar key that he had hidden in his hand. Each time he made the exchange, he distracted her attention and the attention of the audience with a loud remark or a sudden movement of the other hand. The essential skill of the magician is the ability to distract attention at the moment when the trickery is done. Emily said that if she had not seen Randi’s demonstration she would not have believed that she could be so easily deceived. After Randi had reproduced all of Geller’s tricks and explained how they were done, he entertained the audience with a number of even more amazing tricks which he did not explain.

Henri Broch describes, in a section of the book entitled “Practice Telepathy,” a splendid demonstration of his ability to send information telepathically to an accomplice a few miles away. The demonstration is made in a private house where a group of friends, in no way involved in the trickery, are gathered. First Broch invites the group to provide a deck of cards, to shuffle them thoroughly, and to pick a card at random. Broch sits in the room while this is done, so it is obvious that he could have had no influence on the picking of the card, and no prior knowledge of which card would be picked. Let us suppose that the five of clubs is picked. Broch then glances at an address book that he carries in his pocket, writes down the name and telephone number of the accomplice on a piece of paper, and asks the friends to choose a representative who goes to another room to call the number. While the call is made, Broch sits in his chair gazing at the card with a look of intense concentration, groaning with the effort of exercising his telepathic powers. The accomplice answers the phone and says, “We have several brothers living here, which of us do you want to talk to?” So the friend gives the name and the accomplice says, “Speaking.” The friend explains that a card has been picked and that Broch is trying to transmit the image of the card telepathically. After a suitable pause for dramatic effect, the accomplice says, “The card you picked is the five of clubs,” and the friend rushes back to tell Broch and the rest of the assembled company that the message has got through.

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    *Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 2002.

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