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Science

A Princeton Lab on ESP Plans to Close Its Doors

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Robert G. Jahn founded a Princeton laboratory that is closing after almost 30 years of disputed research on telekinesis and the ability of the mind to influence machines. Brenda Dunne is the laboratory’s manager.

Published: February 10, 2007

PRINCETON, N.J., Feb. 6 — Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.

But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time.

The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university’s engineering building since 1979. Its equipment is aging, its finances dwindling.

“For 28 years, we’ve done what we wanted to do, and there’s no reason to stay and generate more of the same data,” said the laboratory’s founder, Robert G. Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton’s engineering school and an emeritus professor. “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.”

Princeton made no official comment.

The closing will end one of the strangest tales in modern science, or science fiction, depending on one’s point of view. The laboratory has long had a strained relationship with the university. Many scientists have been openly dismissive of it.

“It’s been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton,” said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist who is the author of “Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud.” “Science has a substantial amount of credibility, but this is the kind of thing that squanders it.”

PEAR has been an anomaly from the start, a ghost in the machine room of physical science that was never acknowledged as substantial and yet never entirely banished. Its longevity illustrates the strength and limitations of scientific peer review, the process by which researchers appraise one another’s work.

“We know people have ideas beyond the mainstream,” said the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, author of “Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States” and senior vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ”but if they want funds for research they have to go through peer review, and the system is going to be very skeptical of ideas that are inconsistent with what is already known.”

Dr. Jahn, one of the world’s foremost experts on jet propulsion, defied the system. He relied not on university or government money but on private donations — more than $10 million over the years, he estimated. The first and most generous donor was his friend James S. McDonnell, a founder of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.

Those gifts paid for a small staff and a gallery of random-motion machines, including a pendulum with a lighted crystal at the end; a giant, wall-mounted pachinko-like machine with a cascade of bouncing balls; and a variety of electronic boxes with digital number displays.

In one of PEAR’s standard experiments, the study participant would sit in front of an electronic box the size of a toaster oven, which flashed a random series of numbers just above and just below 100. Staff members instructed the person to simply “think high” or “think low” and watch the display. After thousands of repetitions — the equivalent of coin flips — the researchers looked for differences between the machine’s output and random chance.

Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000. If the human mind could alter the behavior of such a machine, Dr. Jahn argued, then thought could bring about changes in many other areas of life — helping to heal disease, for instance, in oneself and others.

This kind of talk fascinated the public and attracted the curiosity of dozens of students, at Princeton and elsewhere. But it left most scientists cold. A physics Ph.D. and an electrical engineer joined Dr. Jahn’s project, but none of the university’s 700 or so professors did. Prominent research journals declined to accept papers from PEAR. One editor famously told Dr. Jahn that he would consider a paper “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.”

Brenda Dunne, a developmental psychologist, has managed the laboratory since it opened and has been a co-author of many of its study papers. “We submitted our data for review to very good journals,” Ms. Dunne said, “but no one would review it. We have been very open with our data. But how do you get peer review when you don’t have peers?”

Several expert panels examined PEAR’s methods over the years, looking for irregularities, but did not find sufficient reasons to interrupt the work. In the 1980s and 1990s, PEAR published more than 60 research reports, most appearing in the journal of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a group devoted to the study of topics outside the scientific mainstream. Dr. Jahn and Ms. Dunne are officers in the society.

News of the Princeton group’s experiments spread quickly worldwide, among people interested in paranormal phenomena, including telekinesis and what people call extrasensory perception. Notable figures from Europe and Asia stopped by. . Keith Jarrett, the jazz pianist, paid a visit. For a time, the philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller visited regularly and donated money for research.

And many people, in and out of science, joined what Ms. Dunne called the PEAR Tree, a kind of secret society of people interested in the paranormal, she said. Many PEAR Tree members who are science faculty members will not reveal themselves publicly, Ms. Dunne said.

The culture of science, at its purest, is one of freedom in which any idea can be tested regardless of how far-fetched it might seem.

“I don’t believe in anything Bob is doing, but I support his right to do it,” said Will Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton.

Other top-flight scientists have taken chances. At the end of his career, Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate, came to believe that vitamin C supplements could prevent and treat cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Dr. Pauling had some outside financing, too, and conducted research and had plenty of media coverage. But in the end he did not sway many of his colleagues, Dr. Zuckerman said.

At the PEAR offices this week, the staff worked amid boxes, piles of paper and a roll of bubble wrap as big as an oil drum. The random-event machines are headed for storage.

The study of telekinesis and related phenomena, Dr. Jahn said, will carry on.

“It’s time for a new era,” he said, “for someone to figure out what the implications of our results are for human culture, for future study, and — if the findings are correct — what they say about our basic scientific attitude.”

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