(This is a new feature I’ve been wanting to add to the blog, talking about some of the most memorable meetings I’ve attended — meetings about science, science fiction, world affairs, all kinds of things.. Some of them were one-off or by invitation only, so I can’t urge you to try them for yourself. Most, though, are regularly scheduled yearly functions — for example the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Future Society and (of course!) the World Science Fiction Convention. The good part of that is that I’ll try to time the columns about the open ones for a few months before their next meeting and give details of how to register, so that if one takes your fancy you can try it for yourself.)

The NASA Conference on Speculative Technology

Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell, failed telepath?

This first, and so far only, NASA conference on speculative technology was the brainchild of a NASA man named George Pezdirtz. If I ever wanted to put together a really fun scientific conference of my own would try to hire Mr. Pezdirtz to plan it. He did just about everything right.

To start with, the conference was held on an island off the coast of Georgia. I have come to believe that that is the very best kind of site for a conference that wants to explore new possibilities in its mandate. You see, the only way in or out for most of the participants was a single-engine propeller plane that commuted between the Atlanta airport and the island. In most conferences that feature a lot of high-profile participants, the superstars generally fly in just in time for their performances. Then they fly right out again as soon as they’re over. At Spec Tech they couldn’t do that. There weren’t enough seats on the plane. So nearly all of the conferees hung around for the duration, mingling with the others, to the great enrichment of the discussions that followed each paper.

Of course another factor that made that work so well was that so many of them were in fact superstars themselves.

Before we go any farther, let me make a confession. I had some personal reasons for particularly enjoying it. One was that, during a break in the proceedings, Arthur Clarke found some bicycles nobody was using, and attempted a spot of bicycle jousting — I pedaling, Arthur on the handlebars. (That was about the last time both Arthur and I were spry enough for that sort of juvenile delinquency.)

And then there was the question of Wernher von Braun. He and I had been aware of each other’s existence, but the only tangible connection was that he did keep inviting me to watch rocket launches at the Cape. This troubled some mutual friends, Willy Ley in particular, who thought that Von Braun and I could be good friends, but he never offered any one-on-one invitations, and I couldn’t get past the fact that he had been an officer in Hitler’s SS to take the initiative.

But then came an evening at Spec Tech when we had all been invited to a barbecue on the far side of the island. It was an automobile road away, and there weren’t enough cars to go around. So we doubled up. And for half an hour there I had Wernher Von Braun sitting in my lap. . . . Oh, it didn’t overtly change much, but after that I couldn’t help thinking of him less as a Nazi slave-labor driver and more as a human being who shared the same interplanetary ambitions as I did. I don’t think I would have done what he did to get there. But I wouldn’t have got as far as he, either.

There were forty or fifty participants in the conference, from every branch of science and engineering. Both old friends and new all had interesting things to say, too. Marvin Minsky, my artificial intelligence mentor from the robot works at M.I.T., was urging the audience to help him find practical uses for some very small robots he was working on. I don’t know if he got any good ideas. (And I certainly am not going to tell you what my own suggestion was. It was too silly.) But these days the miniaturized artificial intelligence programs that might have guided those mini-robots are now in your iPod, your camera and many of the systems in your car.

And Astronaut Ed Mitchell, one of the last human beings to set foot on the surface of the Moon, let it be known that, yes, he had attempted to send telepathic messages from the Moon to associates on Earth. (The experiment was not exactly a success, although some argued that the fact that their success rate was so much worse than chance would predict could be considered as suggesting that some external psychic force was deliberately jamming their transmissions.)

A couple of the participants, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff from SRI International, formerly known as the Stanford Research Institute, objected that the subject matter of the conference wasn’t speculative enough. They wanted discussion of what John Campbell called the “psi” sciences (and others called the psi “sciences”). Since Pezdirtz had been open-minded enough to invite as participants a couple of science-fiction writers, Arthur Clarke and me, they argued that he certainly should let psi have a spot on the program.

As no one could think of a good counter to their arguments they won their place on the program, causing George to have to find a chairman for the session. The hard scientists he approached unanimously turned him down, so he awarded it to me.

It wasn’t a particularly revolutionary session. Most of what Puthoff and Targ wanted seen was a film they had made of a couple old Russian ladies in Moscow and Leningrad, whom they had made a special trip to the USSR to interview. What the old ladies did was to put onto a table a couple of the lightweight aluminum tubes some high-priced kinds of cigars come in. Then, by moving their heads around a foot or so over the tubes, they made the tubes move in any direction anyone cared to name without any visible physical contact.

I must say the films didn’t much impress me. It wasn’t just that films can so easily be made to lie, it was that I recognized that trick as one related to a whole class of amateur conjurer tricks my friend and neighbor, whose stage name was The Amazing Randi, had been teaching my son. (And, sure enough, when Randi came over for Sunday dinner shortly after I got home, I told him what the Russian ladies had done. He sighed, pushed the tablecloth back and did everything the Russians had done on our dining-room table.)

Targ and Puthoff, however, had one more string to their bow. They had brought a machine designed to educate the user in psi powers. That is, if you used their machine assiduously enough it was claimed that you would become capable of extra-sensorily predicting certain kinds of future events.

The machine was about the size of a box of Kleenex. It had a row of three colored slides visible along one side, numbered 1 to 3 and each showing a different scene: a seaside, a mountain, a city street. There was also another window which did not, at first, display anything at all. And inside the machine was a random number generator.

To use the machine the first thing you did was turn it on. Then the random number generator went into action, generating a number that it did not reveal. It then subtracted the nearest lower multiple of 3. That is, if the number it had generated was 637 it subtracted 636, leaving the number 1, corresponding to the first of the three available scenes.

Then you begin your training course by trying to guess which scene it had thus chosen, pushing one of a row of three buttons on top of the machine to mark your choice. The machine then displayed its previously made choice and showed your own guess at what it would be. And it gave you a score.

There being three possible answers, your chance of being right each time you played was one in three. So if you played the game 15 times and guessed right five of those times that was only the chance expectation and gave you a score of zero. If you got six out of 15 right that was one more than chance expectation, which the proprietors expressed as one sigma—seven right, two sigmas; eight right; three sigmas, etc. Contrariwise, if you only got four right that was minus one sigma, three right was minus two, and so on.

The contention of Messrs. Targ and Puthoff was that playing the game with the machine would strengthen your predictive powers, in accord with the principle that exercise of any function of the body makes it stronger. Whether that was true or not I cannot say, although I do doubt that you can strengthen a function that you don’t have in the first place. But that little box quickly became one of the most popular features of the symposium.

Incidentally, you don’t need the box to play the game. All you need is three people and one die. One person is the Experimenter. The second is the Judge, making sure the Experimenter can’t see what the third player, the Box, is doing. The Box rolls the die, to get a random number from one to three. (If he rolls a 4, 5, or 6 what does he do? He rolls again, that’s what he does.) The Experimenter tries to guess what that number is. That’s it.

But it’s more fun with the machine. And it was a lot of fun at the conference.


  1. Ken Houghton says:

    Oh, don’t bother to roll again. If it rolls a 4, 5, or 6, just subtract three from the number.

  2. Nate says:

    Interesting post, but I feel compelled to ask why the experimenter would reroll the die in question. Couldn’t you just divide the result by two and round up? Or in some other way assign two of the faces to one outcome?

  3. David Goldfarb says:

    Instead of re-rolling the die half the time, why not just divide the result by 2, rounding up?

  4. David Ratnasabapathy says:

    Do you know how they moved the tubes?

    Since the tubes were lightweight, one obvious way to make them move is to blow gently on them.

    Another possibility is to conceal a strong magnet in one’s hand or mouth. But if Randi could do it on the spot without preparation that doesn’t seem likely. Unless he has a habit of carrying magnets around on his person :-)

  5. SM says:

    I had the homour to meet Mr. Randi in his recent speaking tour of Canada. He\’s still fooling audiences and criticizing fools with that marvelous wit. Nine cities from coast to coast in nine days- the mind boggles.

    I would be interested to know if he and de Camp ever met … both wrote on skeptical topics, but de Camp seemed to be less enraged by con men and cheats.

  6. Jay Borcherding says:

    I prefer the subtract three suggestion to the divide and round up suggestions.

    Good post! I respect your caution regarding Von Braun, which I suspect was a minority view, but am glad that your 30 minutes of forced intimacy was pleasant enough.

    There’s a quaint quality to the whole business regarding Psi. The magic box story made me think of Scientology’s E-meter: pseudo-science for the gullible, more a gag for parties than a serious scientific instrument.

    Oh and Fred never gave us an update regarding your insane Dell: has the problem been fixed?

  7. Robert Brown says:

    I love the image of you and Sir Clarke awkwardly jousting on a bicycle, trying to avoid meeting your collective doom as the bike totters forward, Clarke shouting instruction to you as you struggle to push the pedals…

    Not something I could have made up. Truth is stranger than fiction.