If your child is too young to read this, ask him or her to take a spoon or fork, stroke it gently, concentrate hard and then will it to bend.
Don't expect the bending necessarily to take place immediately. Check the spoon or fork a few hours later, and check it tomorrow.
"But don't pick one of your best spoons," Peter R. Phillips admonished with a chuckle.
Phillips is no magician looking for a child to join his act. But he is eagerly looking for children who can will a spoon to bend.
Phillips is a professor at Washington University, with an undergraduate degree from Cambridge University in England and a doctorate from Stanford University in California. Both degrees are in physics -- the science of the changes in matter that involve mechanics, heat, electricity, light and sound; the science of matter and motion.
Perhaps for this reason, psychokinesis (the influence exerted on matter by mind alone) is the aspect of psychic research that most interests Phillips. He recently received a $500,000 grant from the McDonnell Foundation to set up the McDonnell laboratory for Psychic Research.
With some of that money he will hire other experimenters. He is looking for young persons with advanced degrees in any of the sciences and a long-standing interest in psychic research. The three other main areas of inquiry are telepathy (perception of the thoughts of another), clairvoyance (perception of information directly (as an X-ray can penetrate a wall) and precognition (reception of information on events before they happen).
"I will not try in any way to influence their choice of area for research," Phillips said. "The experimenter's own intensity, his own belief, seems to be an essential ingredient for success."
Parapsychology, as psychic research is commonly known, formally came into being with the formation in 1957 of the Parapsychological Association, a group of biologists, chemists, engineers, physicists and other scientists interested in PSI, the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, which is often used in scientific equations to stand for the unknown. a
It gained a certain intellectual respectability in 1969 when the association was admitted to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
But there is one large difference between scientists working on parasychology and those doing research in traditional areas. "The validity of all scientific discovery always comes down to "Do you trust the experimenter?" he said. "In the other sciences we usually say 'Yes' almost automatically. But in this business the effects are so bizarre that the first question must be the trustworthiness of the experimenter."
In 1937 the Institute of Mathematical Statistics ruled that statistical relation to chance was a completely valid means of evaluating parapsychological research. Since then, many psychic researchers have used experiments based on numerous trials -- a famous one had subjects try to roll high or low dice combinations -- and relief for validity on the odds over chance.
Phillips is not going to go the statistical route. "I feel there is another way -- documentation of the intense happenings, the large-scale phenomena," he said.
One of those phenomena is the apparent ability of some children to bend spoons and forks at will.
On Nov. 26, 1972, Israeli psychokinesist Uri Geller appeared on a BBC television program for children and suggested that his young viewers try to bend spoons and forks themselves, using their will alone. Six-year-old Belinda Hart and several other youngsters were highly successful, according to published reports.
Phillips says that it is not an experiment for a first-grade class to try -- "the child's friends would think he was weird if it worked." Home is the best place, he said, because it is where the child is most relaxed and comfortable. Phillips said a spoon or fork seems to be more physically malleable than, say, a strip of aluminum, because of its familiarity to the child.
In addition to trying to find children with metal-bending ability and documenting it on film or videotape, Phillips is going to work with two persons "in the Midwest" around whom psychokinetic phenomena have occurred over a period of years.
Poltergeists (a German word meaning "noisy ghosts") traditionally have been called the forces behind the psychokinetic events that laymen have heard about for centuries -- a jar will jump off a shelf; a chair will skitter across a room.
Almost all manifestations of poltergeist activity are reported to have happened in homes where there is an adolescent; some students of the subject believe that poltergeists are really projected hostility and guilt feelings. Phillips will leave that to the psychologists.
What is he going to do with those two persons "in the Midwest?"
Standing guard at their homes would be fruitless even if it were practical, said Phillips, who will devote half his time to teaching physics and half to psychic research in the five years for which the grant is funded. "Whatever it is that causes these things to happen seems to be people-shy, but not camera-shy."
In the homes of these persons with persistent histories of psychokinetic events, Phillips intends to set up a camera in a basement or attic, in a place in the home that is seldom visited. "I will put an object on a trigger that will activate the camera if the object moves. Then I will write instructions to the spirit asking it to move the object."
A colleague of Phillips performed a remarkable experiment in the home of one of the persons Phillips wants to work with, he said. "He asked the spirit to write a message about the Fourth of July. Writing materials were put in a box with a camera focused on it. Later, in a very poor handwriting, the message 'The Glorious Fourth' appeared on the paper in the box. I want to try that. Duplicate writing is one of the surest signs of an intelligent agency."
An intelligent agency? This from a physicist?
"Yes, there are laws in physics, but I am used to living in mysteries. I am not the kind of physicist that expects physics to explain everything," he said. "Especially where people are concerned."