Posts tagged ‘James Randi’

(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.

Continue reading ‘Great Conferences I Have Attended, No. 1’ »

I found some notes about Sir Arthur C. Clarke that I had filed somewhere and didn’t have handy at the time of his unexpected death, so they got left out of the things I wrote about him at the time. So here they are:

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Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur wasn’t a religious man in any usual sense — in the instructions he left for his own funeral, he was emphatic that there be no religious aspects to the services. He thought — as is described in The Last Theorem — that the most valuable function of a church was to provide a Sunday school for you to send your children to, on the principle that exposing them to religion in childhood, like inoculating them against polio, would prevent serious religiosity later on.

He wasn’t much of a believer in psionics or any of the other New Age fads of the 20th century, either; he was a hard-headed skeptic who didn’t believe in anything that didn’t provide good evidence of its reality. But bear in mind his famous declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The obvious corollary to that is that some kinds of magic could perhaps represent a previously unknown technology.

You can see traces of that thought in some of the best Clarkes, like Childhood’s End or the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And he did confess to me once, over a meal at the restaurant next to the old Hotel Chelsea, that he was kind of wondering if it was possible that Uri Geller, the notorious psychic spoon-bender of the 1960s, might really have some new kind of power.

I’m proud to say that I was the one who rescued Arthur C. Clarke from that particular flimflam. Then and there, in the restaurant that evening, I did the Geller spoon-bending trick before his very eyes.

The Amazing Randi

The Amazing Randi

I hadn’t been smart enough to figure it out for myself, but I was lucky in my choice of neighbors. One of them was my good friend, the former stage magician The Amazing Randi, who had taught me how to do it.

Unfortunately, I can’t teach it to any of you, because I am bound by the stage magician’s creed not to reveal any other magician’s secret tricks. Ah, but you say, how can that be, Fred, since you aren’t a stage magician yourself? Simple, I say. Randi gave me honorary magician status. He couldn’t really avoid that, since one of his best effects was levitating a beautiful girl. The beautiful girl was usually one of my beautiful daughters, Randi not having any of his own, and the muscle-supplying levitator was my muscular son, so I was going to find out his secrets anyway.

Also, Johnny Carson had just had a magician on his show who was able to order his trained dog to go to any specific person in the audience and take from his or her lap any one specific item — pair of gloves, scarf, handbag, whatever — and bring it up to him on stage. Randi couldn’t figure that one out, but I could: I had read an animal psychologist’s piece in, I think, Nature about how to train animals or pre-verbal children to do something like it, and I had clipped the article. I explained it to Randi, so he owed me.

By the way, if any of you happen to pass near the Hotel Chelsea — West 23rd Street near Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, NYC — take a look at the plaques around the entrance. As I remember they have several, including one for Brendan Behan, the Irish author of Borstal Boy, who stayed there when in New York and wrote some of his works there. Well. Arthur did much the same thing and, I believe, rather expected much the same treatment. What I don’t know is whether he got it.

Related post:

Sir Arthur and I