29 January 2011

Forbidden Geller 2

Today I finish the articles provided by reader Steve regarding Uri Geller and nitinol, that mysterious substance whose properties no one seems to agree on. This last one was written by Martin Gardner, science and mathematics writer who had a side job in debunking.

Gardner seems to write in such a way to present the reader with one set of facts then produces a sort of plot twist, revealing something to the contrary for no evident reason. For example, he mentions the labora
tory where Byrd met Geller first, the Isis Center, saying "Is not Isis a peculiar name for a naval laboratory?" (emphasis in original) Well, I don't think so. The government always picks seemingly random names for its projects. Paperclip was the name of a project to transport Nazi scientists and research to the United States after the war before the Soviets got them. Able Danger was the intelligence operation that uncovered the 9/11 plot, or at least was going to (depending on who you ask) until red tape got in the way (wasn't Able Adam and Eve's son who was killed in a fit of jealous rage by his brother Cain? No, Gardner really speculates on the religious connotations of the name Isis). Grudge was the UFO investigation project that preceded Blue Book, so named because the Air Force didn't want to do it. Sailor Hat was a simulated nuclear blast, using hundreds of tonnes of conventional explosives, to see how well defended combat ships were. What I'm trying to say is that government projects always have goofy names, there's nothing suspicious about that.

He does reveal, in the very next paragraph, that the Isis Center was an organization created by an occult group, (possibly Theosophists, he's not too clear on that) not the Navy. Why mislead the readers by proposing the rhetorical question about why the Navy would name their laboratory Isis then? The world will never know. (Okay, I just wanted an excuse to link to that commercial)

Gardner agrees with Couttie that nitinol was not uncommo
n during Byrd's experiments. That means that the same number of people who say it was common as who say it was uncommon. Without some tie-breaker we may never know who is right.

He does make two references to Randi in the footnotes, so I'll have to subtract points for that. Anyone with half a brain knows that Randi isn't the great paragon of wisdom. He's even less reliable than the other wiki (I've had people grading papers at universities tell me the stuff some students got off Wikipedia is no better than stuff people just make up on the spot, although some of the stuff they have on different guns is pretty good).

Gardner does point out some holes in Byrd's paper, and some issues with the controlls of his test with Geller:

"Since no magicians were present during the chaotic session at which Uri bumped and kinked one piece of wire, it is impossible to do more than speculate on possible nonparanormal explanations. One scenario is that Uri came prepared
with samples of wire to which he had previously given permanent kinks (in a way to be explained below) and then straightened. He passed up the wire of lager diameter because he had not brought wire of that size. The smaller-diameter wire was then switched, by Uri or Shipi, for Byrd's sample. Uri bumped the wire while stroking it - easily done by a push with the thumbnail. Then when Byrd heated the wire it naturally lost the bump and assumed its permanent kink."

He then goes on:

" However, it is not necessary to suppose that Uri came with prepared wire. Nitinol wire is now harder to get than in 1973, but I finally obtained a sample about a foot long of the 0.5mm. wire. I cut off a small piece, and I swear by all that is holy that my very first experiment was a whopping success. Using two small pairs of pliers I bent the wire at a sharp angle. I straightened the wire, then by holding the wire between thumb and first two fingers, and pressing with my thumbnail, I created a bump at the wire's center. I put the wire in a bowl and poured boiling water ove
r it. The bump vanished and the wire assumed the shape of an angle, almost 90 degrees, with a sharp vertex. The angle was unaltered by applying a match flame.

"Excited by this unexpected success, I tried producing a sharper angle (about 3 degrees), but when I straightened the wire it snapped in half. I then repeated the experiment with a third piece, this time using nothing more than two pennies to grip the wire, and a third penny to force an acute angle. I straightened the wire, letting the angle remain as one side of the bump. When boiling water was poured over this wire the bump disappeared and the wire assumed an angle with a sharp vertex of about 75 degrees. I have it before me as I type. It is indistinguishable from the wire in plate 4 of Panati's book."

Playing Devil's Advocate,

I can say that since we have only Mr. Gardner's word to go on (he provides no pictures of this metal he bent, and there were no other witnesses) we can't know if he's lying or not. This criticism then is completely worthless, by his own standards. He then goes on into speculations of the sort of "someone could have cheated by doing X, where X is whatever Rube Goldbergian scenario I can think of but cannot prove one way or the other." Speculation of this sort is completely useless, as he himself says a few paragraphs down (he likes to repeat this tactic throughout the article), since the test was uncontrolled all speculation on it is useless. Well, then why did you spend the past six whole paragraphs doing something you yourself admit is useless speculation? Is it to add length to the article because you get paid by the word? If so I can respect that.

Gardner talks about correspondences with Byrd that point out inconsitencies in Byrd's paper, but does not actually provide us with evidence that these correspondences exist. Again, we must take his word for it, and again, Devil's Advocate, we have no way of knowing whether he's making stuff up. Gardner then goes on to do more speculation about how Geller might have cheated, but he doesn't know, he's just speculating, and what's worse, he mentions Randi again. No one is convinced by Randi's shitty magic tricks! Randi is a terrible magician, as Don Lane could attest to (I can't find the original video I was looking for, so here's this one instead).

He says Byrd had to let go of the wire at some point to get out a match and light it: "
Now surely it takes two hands to open a match folder, take out a match, close the folder, and strike the match," but there has been at least one side-show performer who could not only light a match without needing both hands, but could also roll a cigarette, strike the match, and light the cigarette, and he had severely diminished limbs that were functionally useless, so no, it does not take two hands to strike a match.

What are we left with? 2 for cheated and 3 1/2 for not cheated. Since there are no more articles, and no more opinions to assess, we can go no farther in figuring out where exactly the truth lies, which is exactly what I predicted in the previous post. I suppose I should end with the following quote made by Arthur Koestler at the top of Gardner's article, "
Uri is certainly 25 percent fraud and 25 percent showman, but fifty percent is real." I don't know what the truth is, but Koestler is probably right.

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