Magical Moments with Randi (1)
As I have said in previous articles, decades ago I had to abandon my intended career as a university teacher of philosophy, and instead went on to become a science journalist for German TV. During this period I became part of a group called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The founding members included scientists, academics, and science writers such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, and many others, all of whom I got to meet personally — together with many other equally fascinating personalities.
One of the most memorable was James (“The Amazing”) Randi, to whom I owe much of my skeptical background. The picture is taken from the James Randi Educational Foundation. Martin Gardner was the other major influence.
Randi is a stage magician who made it his life’s mission to challenge mystical, paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Following his activities and reading his books led me to the conclusion that we skeptics must not use physics professors or psychologists to test paranormal phenomena — they are particularly easy to fool. We must always use professional stage magicians. I implemented this as a guiding principal for the CSICOP’s German chapter.
During those founding years I visited Randi a few times at his home in New Jersey. He always received me graciously, and spent a lot of time teaching and testing me. I learned a lot — but equally important: I had a loads of fun with him. Randi would show me tricks, or videos of himself or other magicians performing seemingly impossible stunts, and challenge me to explain how they were done. I will give you a first example (with more to come later).
One of the early tricks Randi played on me involved five ESP or “Zener” cards, the kind used to conduct experiments for extrasensory perception (ESP) or clairvoyance. What he did was to give me the cards, instructing me to put one of them, secretly, into a manila envelope and seal it. Then, after performing some mind-reading gestures, he correctly identified the card I had sealed.
As a smart skeptic I leapt into action. I carefully examined the cards for irregularities, and the manila envelope for any kind of transparency. I chose a random envelope from the stack he had in a drawer, went into the bathroom, switched off the light and placed one of the ESP cards into the envelope. I did this under my polo shirt, without looking at which one I had picked. I put the remaining four cards into a second envelope and stuck that in my belt, under my shirt. I emerged from the bathroom and placed the envelope with the single card on the table. After the obligatory clairvoyant gestures, but without touching the envelope, Randi correctly identified the card it contained.
I was completely mystified. I asked him for another try, but Randi told me I needed to think. “You must try to reconstruct exactly what happened — not keep asking the subject to do it again and again.” In fact this is usually not possible with psychics in the field. You get one chance and must work things out by pure observation and reason.
I spent quite some time doing what he told me, but could not come up with a plausible solution. It really looked like ESP, like magic. Later that day, after I had done a fair bit of grovelling, Randi showed me how he had done it. This was a great concession, since it was a trick he had never revealed to his audience. Now, over forty years later, I suppose it is okay to tell you the secret.
Randi’s ESP cards had little magnetic strips embedded in them, in different places depending on the card. The dining table we were seated around was made of wood, and it has narrow groves in the surface. Into these groves, on the side I was sitting, he had dusted some very fine iron filings. When I put the envelope on the table, with the flap side up, he said: “No, the other way around.” I turned it over — an action I did not register and immediately forgot, especially since he had shut his eyes, tilted his head upwards and begun doing the mentalist stuff. He had, however, seen at a glance a few specs of iron dust in a specific spot on the envelope, and that told him what it contained.
More articles on my student days with the great magician, rationalist and critical debunker will follow soon. Those were such great times.
Randi currently lives in Fort Lauderdale and has been battling cancer for ten years. Watch this interview with the amazing survivor, cheerfully delivered, with lucid intelligence and mischievous humour — all at the age of 82, after his first bout of chemo. Since then Randi has not been lying around, resting. He has been recording, one lecture after another, on Big Think and elsewhere. There are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube, all extremely worthwhile. They are instructive, eloquent and always highly entertaining. You could do worse than spend a few hours watching.