Magical moments with Randi (2)
Last week, to my great sorrow, I learned of the death of my friend and mentor, James Randi. I learnt such a lot from him.
Randi lived to the ripe old age of 92. In recent years he had been treated for cancer and heart ailments. Watch this interview, cheerfully delivered, with lucid intelligence and mischievous humour —at the age of 82, after his first bout of chemo. Randi had recently agreed to see me again, this year in his house in Florida. Unfortunately Covid-19 said no. It is heart-breaking to have missed this final encounter.
James Randi was a Canadian-American stage magician and scientific skeptic. I will not give you a large bio of his incredibly interesting life. There are thousands of articles on Randi on the Internet, and many hundreds of videos. Google his name and spend a few hours (or days or weeks) entertaining yourself with his amazing escapades, and learning the ways of skepticism and science. I do not intend to add to this treasure. Instead, I want to tell you a few personal stories about my interactions with Randi.
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 other equally fascinating personalities, most of whom I got to meet personally. One of them was a stage magician, James “The Amazing” Randi. To him I owe much of my skeptical background (Martin Gardner was the other major influence).
At the time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I visited Randi in his home in New Jersey, on a number of occasions. He always welcomed me warmly, on occasion put me up. He would perform stunts and challenge me to explain how he did them. Or he would show me taped videos and discuss them with me. Occasionally I was able to accompany him to a local performance, a lecture or a talk show. Today I want to describe something I learned from him.
At the time I visited him there was a litigious psychic, whom I will not name, doing a mind reading trick. He would have a blindfold wrapped around his eyes, after which someone would write or draw something on a whiteboard. Then the psychic would, with considerable effort, describe approximately what had been written or drawn. Great applause — everyone assumed he had supernatural powers.
During that time Randi went on a talk show and offered to do something on the same lines. He had a video tape, and I could watch him perform the stunt. The studio assistants had brought in some pizza dough and pressed this over his eyes. Then they had wrapped a heavy black blindfold around that. And finally they had put a cloth bag over his head. After this Randi got up and walked around the people in the audience, saying things like: “Oh, that’s a nice watch — a Seiko, right? But it seems to be running a few minutes slow.” Or: “Is that your wedding ring? Are the three stones diamonds?” Clearly he could see perfectly well, in spite of the multiple blindfolds around his eyes and head. Afterwards the studio assistants freed him of them: they took the bag off, unwrapped the blindfold and removed the pizza dough. They had to pick pieces of the dough off his eyes before he could open them.
So how could he have managed to do this? Naturally he wanted me to guess. I told him it was clear that he had an assistant talking to him through a hidden wireless receiver he had in his ear. No, Randi said, that was not it. And he chided me for always looking for explanations that were too technical, too difficult and too complicated. So how did he do it? This time he did not tell me, but insisted I should work it out myself.
Many years later, while describing the performance to my son Tommy, we suddenly asked ourselves: why the cloth bag? Weren’t the pizza dough and the blindfold enough?
The explanation had to be as follows: the cloth bag was placed over Randi’s head. He adjusted it, “so it was possible to breathe.” But while adjusting the bag he could push the blindfold up and poke holes in the pizza dough with his fingers. You could not see this because the bag covered it. On the other hand, the bag was transparent enough for him to be able to see things around him.
Uunfortunately I was not able to ask Randi if we were correct — that was planned for the next visit that never happened. But I had occasion to see something related on a recent trip to India. There I was introduced to a trainer who specialized in “midbrain activation.” He wanted me to write an article on the astonishing abilities his students gained, which included being able to see in spite of being blindfolded. There are a large number of videos on YouTube demonstrating these feats: just search for “midbrain activation,” and add “Rubic’s cube” if you want to see examples of what I was confronted with.
Anyway, the trainer said one of his students could, after having done extensive midbrain training, solve Rubic’s cube blindfold. He had brought the lad along, a bright 12-year-old, accompanied by his parents. Yes, of course, he said, he would love to do a demonstration for me.
Naturally I insisted on mixing up the cube myself, because it is easy to solve it with a fixed set of moves which you can then reverse. The boy said he was fine with that. He was then blindfolded, and we handed the cube over to him. But: I held a newspaper between his face and his hands. The boy kept twisting and twisting, without making any progress. In the end he simply gave up.
So it was clear that he was peeking. I asked the trainer to blindfold me in the same way. I could look down my nose and see what I was doing with my hands, and solve Rubic’s cube quite easily. It is shocking to see (in the YouTube videos, if you have retrieved them) how easily academics and scientists can be fooled in this simple way, and are willing to attest to the amazing feats people can perform after “midbrain training.”
There is one more thing I want to report. After I had exposed the lad people watching were quite dismayed: “How can parents use their son to perpetrate a deception like this?” they asked. “They are teaching him to be dishonest.” But I had watched the parents while the boy was unsuccessfully twisting the cube. They were smiling proudly, pointing towards their son: “Watch him, isn’t he amazing!” was the expression on their faces.
So it was clear: the boy was tricking his parents— and everyone else. Probably having fun in the process. And that’s what the other kids are doing in the YouTube videos. Just having a lot of fun at the cost of grown-ups.
In the near future I will be telling you other things I have learnt from Randi, and about other adventures I had with this dear friend. He will be sorely missed.