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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.”

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