Helmut Schmidt, Rest in Peace.

I only just learned that Helmut Schmidt, a German parapsychologist I’d researched, died on August 18, 2011. How sad that I heard about this two years after the fact. From my book:

Many years later [I was writing about the 1940’s] Helmut Schmidt, a German physicist who worked at Boeing’s research laboratory, and later for Rhine, would develop a PK experiment involving a device called a random number generator. Using the process of radioactive decay to randomly illuminate a circle of lights, subjects were asked to influence which direction the lights lit. The results were so impressive that when referring to later versions of this test, scientist and skeptic Carl Sagan would grudgingly concede that “by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers,” unable to resist pointing out that modern PK tests, like the telepathy tests, indicated a weak effect, as if weak effects are trivial or unimportant. The effect of aspirin in reducing hearts attacks is even weaker, but nonetheless life-saving. The fact that the effect of PK is weak does not in itself diminish its significance.

Schmidt’s time working for J. B. Rhine was not a happy one alas, and when I tried to talk to him about it he told me he found the memories so hurtful he didn’t want to discuss it. I do know that he later reconnected with one of Rhine’s daughters. I believe through her the wounds were healed.

That is Helmut Schmidt in the photograph below. From the caption that came with the photograph:

A recent development in the testing of precognition is the electronic machine shown.  It emphasizes elements of fun and challenge to prevent build-up of emotional blocking mechanisms in the subject.  The four lamps of different colors light up in different sequence: The subjects task is to predict which one will light next and push the corresponding button.  The machine uses single quantum processes which may form nature’s most elementary source of randomness.  And electronic counter that counts (at a rate of 10 to the 6th power per second) in the sequence 1,2,3,4  1…is stopped at the random time when an electron emitted by a radioactive source (strontium 90).

This machine and others is on display at the Museum at the Rhine Research Center.
Helmut Schmidt, Random Number Generator

Parapsychology Foundation Lecture Feb. 22: Andrea Fodor Litkei

Andrea Fodor Litkei, author, artist, musician and daughter of famed psychical researcher, journalist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Nandor Fodor, will give a talk as part of the Perspectives Lecture series.

WHERE and WHEN: Wednesday, February 22, 7:30pm, at the New York Open Center at 22 East 30th Street in Manhattan.

DONATION: $10 at the door

RSVP: 1-212-628-1550

From the email I received about the event:

“Dr. Nandor Fodor wrote and lectured extensively on parapsychology and psychical research, particularly on poltergeist phenomena. He collaborated often with PF’s founder, medium, Eileen J. Garrett most notably in the investigation of the Ash Manor Ghost case. Amidst myriad publications, perhaps Dr. Fodor is best known for his Encyclopedia of Psychic Science and the Haunted Mind. Following an illustrious career in journalism and psychical research as a psychoanalyst he achieved international recognition with his many publications one with an introduction contributed by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

His daughter, Andrea Fodor Litkei has had an equally multifaceted career. An award winning poet, artist and musician her credits include soloist and Prima Ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera, an original screenplay, a solo painting exhibit in New York, and lectures and publications in parapsychology.

Mrs. Litkei will generously share her insights and conclusions drawn from her father’s and her own career paths.

Dr. Lawrence LeShan, a long time friend and colleague of Parapsychology Foundation, has graciously agreed to share in a free flowing discussion following Mrs. Litkei’s presentation. His most recent published work is A New Science of the Paranormal: The Promise of Psychical Research.

William G. Roll 1926 – 2012

William G. Roll
Everybody interested in parapsychology knows who Bill Roll was. He came to the Parapsychology Laboratory in 1957 after studying at Oxford. Rhine was excited about his arrival due to Roll’s interest in poltergeists, and the very next year Roll would help them investigate one of the biggest poltergeist cases the lab ever investigated, the disturbances at a house on Seaford, LI (written up in my book).

But the relationship between J. B. Rhine and Roll grew tense, and when one of Rhine’s contributors expressed interest in starting up a foundation to research survival issues only, Rhine recommended Roll to head up the new Psychical Research Foundation (PRF). From then on (1960/61) hauntings or poltergeists and cases like it were typically handed off to Bill Roll.

Rhine provided office space at the Lab for the PRF, but by 1963 something had changed and Rhine asked Roll to find another home for the PRF. “One does not invite a poacher into the park,” he said at the time. “Rhine was highly competitive,” Roll responded when told of Rhine’s comment. Roll left the Lab and worked out of a home office for a few years, then later the PRF moved into two small houses on the Duke Campus. By this time the PRF had become “a sponsored program” within the Duke Department of Electrical Engineering, because of their work with Electrical Engineering professors John Artley and William Joines, and the interest in psi by the Electrical Engineering Dean at the time, Dr. Alexander Vesic.

I wrote about one case Roll investigated, a 1961 Newark, New Jersey case which involved a boy who was living with his grandmother. Five years earlier his mother had murdered his father, a former Golden Gloves champion, and the disturbances were attributed to the dead father. (I’m always drawn to the sad cases.) But Bill Roll worked on many of the most well-known poltergeist cases that happened during his lifetime. He coined the term RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis) to describe them, and later, with William Joines, he incorporated developing theories of quantum mechanics to help explain them.

I’m glad that the Rhine Research Center organized a PRF reunion in 2007. It was an opportunity to show him and his co-researchers that their work was still honored.

Rest in peace, Bill Roll.

These are some pictures I scanned from Roll’s book The Poltergeist. They’re from a 1967 case in Miami.

Tropication Arts Poltergeist Case 1967

The picture of Bill Roll came from the web pages of the Parapsychology Foundation.

Jessica Utts Lecture

I came across this lecture given last year by statistician Jessica Utts (Department of Statistics, University of California, Irvine) titled: The strength of evidence versus the power of belief: Are we all Bayesians?

From the description on the page for this lecture:

“Although statisticians have the job of making conclusions based on data, for many questions in science and society prior beliefs are strong and may take precedence over data when people make decisions. For other questions, there are experts who could shed light on the situation that may not be captured with available data. One of the appealing aspects of Bayesian statistics is that the methods allow prior beliefs and expert knowledge to be incorporated into the analysis along with the data.

“One domain where beliefs are almost sure to have a role is in the evaluation of scientific data for extrasensory perception (ESP). Experiments to test ESP often are binomial, and they have a clear null hypothesis, so they are an excellent way to illustrate hypothesis testing. Incorporating beliefs makes them an excellent example for the use of Bayesian analysis as well. In this paper, data from one type of ESP study are analyzed using both frequentist and Bayesian methods.”

From that description it sounded kinda scary and that the lecture would go over my head, but I’m listening to it now and I’m able to follow it. Utts is explaining everything very simply and clearly—I have to believe she’s speaking with the idea that people like myself might be in the audience.

Ted Serios

I don’t really know a lot about Ted Serios. He was said to be able make images appear on Polaroid film by using his mind. He called them “thoughtographs.” Gaither Pratt, a scientist formerly associated with the Duke Parapsychology Lab, tried to replicate the phenomenon under controlled conditions at the University of Virginia, but ultimately was unable to do so (Exploratory Investigations of the Psychic Ted Serios, 1967).

Serios had to get a little drunk in order to function and it was funny to read Gaither write about something like this in a sober, serious and professional manner. “A session would begin with Ted imbibing a portion of alcohol in the form of a beer or dry martinis until he felt he was ready to begin ‘shooting’ … Sessions usually continued until about fifty or more trials had been made. A session ended when we felt that Ted was too intoxicated to continue …”

Serios and Pratt couldn’t be more different but they liked each other. Ian Stevenson, the co-author of the paper, described Serios as “the most lovable subject with whom we had ever worked …” and when Gaither died, “Ted wrote me a touching letter about him.” I’d love to see this letter.

There’s a wonderful video of an experiment with Ted Serios on YouTube.  The picture is a screen grab from this video.  For more information, Michael Prescott has an informative post here.

Td Serios

Rest in Peace Garrett Husveth

I only just heard today that Garrett Husveth, a long time paranormal researcher, died on April 30, 2011.  He was only 43!  According to the Bernardsville News he died at home, after a long illness.

Garrett was one of the first people I met when I started researching my book about the Duke Parapsychology Lab.  He’s been investigating the unexplained, particularly in New Jersey, for a long time, and I went to him to learn about EVP (electronic voice phenomena, thought by some to be the voices of the dead). He was just so kind and generous. From my book:

Skeptics answer that the recordings are in fact white noise that only sound like voices.  However audio engineers and linguistics experts and others have been working for decades on speaker identification and evaluation systems and they know what human speech looks like.  A forensics audio examiner was once hired to determine whether a sound from a recording of a fatal accident was a door loudly squeaking or a woman screaming (it was, sadly, a woman screaming).  Garrett Husveth, the President of Latent Technologies, who conducts forensic audio analysis for corporate clients and who also records examples of EVP says, “Forensically, we can prove that they are voices.”

I also learned from the Sturges Paranormal website that Garrett was a contributing editor of Ghosts of Central New Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills, by Gordon Thomas Ward. A book on paranormal investigating based on his 21 years of field work.”

In fact, the last time I saw Garrett was in 2009, when he and Gordon generously interviewed me for their Haunted New Jersey podcast series.

I had no idea that he was ill and this is just so shocking to me.  According to the Bernardsville News, Garrett “is survived by his wife, Krista, and their two daughters, Elisabeth and Katherine; by his parents, Ray and Susan; and by his two brothers, Jason and Ted, and two sisters, Kate and Lara … In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be given in support of the children’s future education.  Checks should be made payable to Barbara Oberding, with ‘Husveth Children’ written in the memo portion, and sent to Peapack Reformed Church, Box 253, Gladstone, N.J., 07934.”

George R. Price

Sally Rhine Feather mentioned this book to me, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

George Price was a scientist who wrote an article in 1955 for Science attacking parapsychology and accusing Rhine and others of cheating (Science and the Supernatural, August 26, 1955). He then got into a nasty exchange with Rhine, and Price was so particularly, shockingly hostile that a book with “kindness” in the title along with his name was so jarring it got my attention. I read the first few pages and was immediately sucked in.

I skipped to the section about Rhine and got even more sucked in. There are just so many interesting revelations. It turns out that Price went after Rhine because he thought the purpose of Rhine’s experiments were to promote Rhine’s Christian beliefs. But Rhine was not religious, he was something between agnostic and atheist. Price apologized years later, both publicly in a letter to the editor in Science (January 28, 1972) and in a letter to Rhine. They started writing each other again, and it was friendly at first, but apparently Price lost it again. He had since converted to religion and was now attacking Rhine for his lack of belief.
Price had actually grown up believing in ESP and even wrote Rhine when he was an instructor at Harvard in the 1940’s. But at some point he decided instead that Rhine was cheating. Also, Price’s mother regularly communicated with the dead (she believed) and it looks like Price wasn’t any kinder to her then he was with Rhine. After the Science article came out in 1955, at least one New York journalist got a letter from her saying that she was psychic and knew her son was wrong. (That wasn’t in the book, that I got from the Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke.)

Price never comes off like a very nice guy, but after his religious conversion he dedicated his life to helping the homeless and he killed himself by slashing his throat with a pair of nail scissors on January 6, 1975, because he couldn’t help the homeless enough! Christ. Nail scissors are tiny. The only people at his funeral were five homeless men who he’d been kind to.
Due to various deadlines I haven’t been able to get to reading the entire book, but I wanted to mention it because it’s so well written and looks like such an incredible story.

Price’s article caused a flurry of responses for a while. The following is from a letter from Rhine to his daughter Sally, when she asked him about the scientific method. “I have always thought of scientific method as simply the best developed way mankind has found as yet of finding the most satisfactory answer to questions about nature …” I also have letters between Price and Upton Sinclair, discussing Mental Radio, Sinclair’s book about his wife’s telepathy experiments. Price is pompous, Sinclair is patient.