London University, Friday, 13th June, 1969
Friday 13thJune, 1969, was unlucky for my lab mate James, but a lucky day for me: the Brittle Stars that James had ordered from the Marine Biological Association’s Laboratory, Plymouth, had lived up to their name since an orgy of self dismemberment had produced a sad pile of spines, lifeless arms and pentagonal coin-like bodies; for me it would be the day when I would conduct one of the most significant scientific experiments of my career.
Without any specimens to use for his experiments, a bored James extracted a cylinder of wood from his brief case and headed down to our workshop on the ground floor. Puzzled, I continued with my own experiments until he came back into the lab half an hour later with a wooden spindle he had turned on the lathe and then attached to a leather thong.
In answer to my puzzled face and raised eyebrows, he explained he planned to use his new pendulum for some radiethesia, experiments. He also handed me a slim paperback book entitled “Radiethesis – the Art of Pendulum Dowsing”- one of the occult books he was prone to read in the lab rather than cope with his capricious Brittle-Star experiments.
As James lifted the pendulum from the bench with one hand, it began to rotate in his motionless hand by what seemed to be an invisible external force. I leafed through the Radiethesis book and sceptically reviewed all reported uses for the pendulum: diagnosing medical problems, locating objects using a map, divining the future, and many other spurious uses. He claimed that one of the simplest proofs for the pendulum’s ability was its reaction to the metal in coins. If the pendulum was held above a penny (steel coated with copper) it rotates clockwise, while held above a half crown (minted from a silver alloy) it rotates anticlockwise.
“Here – try it for yourself,” he suggested.
By now I was highly sceptical, but after further persuasion, I reluctantly held the end of the pendulum thong in my hand as directed. To my utter surprise, even when I concentrated on keeping my hands and fingers perfectly still, the pendulum immediately leapt into violent action rotating like the blade of a miniature helicopter. Holding the pendulum over different coins produced, as James predicted, different rotation directions.
“You’re a natural” James concluded. “You’ve a much stronger reaction than me.”
By this time, the unusual activity in our corner of the lab attracted another research student, Mike who could best be described, if there is such a thing, as an evangelical materialist and atheist. Mike was also James’s nemesis – the two sparred on almost a daily basis about the occult and the paranormal.
“That’s an easy demo to debunk,” Mike insisted.” You see the coin with your eyes and your unconscious mind directs your hand to rotate the pendulum in different directions. I’ll prove that right now. Stay here Nigel, I’ll organize a simple experiment to disprove this ridiculous idea.”
I continued putting my prepared tubes in the incubator while, out of sight on the opposite corner of lab, Mike began to set up his experiment.
“Nigel – over here please – we’re ready,” Mike called from the back of the lab.
I protested that I thought this was all an utter waste of time: I was totally sceptical about the exercise.
“Never mind – I just want to show Malcolm this pendulum business it total hocus-pocus.”
On arriving at Mike’s part of the lab, I was confronted with a line of ten numbered circular filter papers along the length of his bench. I guessed a coin lurked unseen under each filter paper.
“Right Nigel,” Mike ordered me, “Start at this end with filter paper 1, and then walk along the line using your pendulum and telling me which coin, a penny or half crown, you think is underneath each filter paper.”
The challenge seem to go smoothly, I called out penny or half crown depending on the pendulum’s direction of rotation over each of the numbered filter papers.
“Right, satisfied Mike? I want to get back to work on a proper experiment,” I commented on reaching the end of the line of filter papers convinced the pendulum had moved at random.
“Not yet!” Mike barked impatiently, “I want to repeat the experiment. Angus take Nigel out of the lab please into the corridor away from the window,“ he asked his Scottish friend and fellow atheist and sceptic who had just joined the growing audience, “I don’t want there to be an chance of him seeing me set up the next test.”
Reluctantly, I was led out of the lab convinced it was all a total waste of time.
On re-entering the lab when Mike called, I was confronted with twenty filter papers laid out across two benches. I noticed this time, however, more than one piece of filter paper had been place over each coin.
I repeated my trudge from filter paper to filter paper, reading out the number on the top paper and predicting the type of coin underneath it. Without comment when I had finished, Mike left the lab and went down stairs on a mysterious errand. He returned ten minutes later with two transparent polythene bags, the ones used by cashiers – one bag was full of pennies, the other with half crowns. I learned later he had persuaded one of the ladies in our cafeteria (referred to as the ‘refractory’ in UK university parlance) to let him burrow the coins for an ‘experiment’. I was pretty annoyed that after completing this second trial, I was banished from the lab again. On returning to the room, I noticed a couple of changes in the experimental protocol. First, no filter papers were visible: the blue tops and bottoms of Whatman filter paper boxes had been placed at random over the coins. Secondly, the number of experimental stations had now grown to thirty. At first, walking down the long rows of boxes things went as before, the pendulum moved in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. Suddenly, a little down the first line of boxes, the pendulum refused to move over some boxes or showed very little movement, alternating between a clockwise and anticlockwise direction as I moved the position of my hand a little.
“Look, I know this would not work – I’m wasting time. Let’s all get back to work,” I protested on reaching the thirtieth box.
In spite of my increasingly vehement protests, I was persuaded to repeat the 30-box experiment four more times before I was allowed to return to my own orthodox scientific experiments that I was keen to complete before the day’s end. Since the large desktop computer/clunky, late ‘60s computer was at my end of the lab, I could watch an exasperated Mike punch the results of our pendulum experiment into one of the statistical programs he normally used for his fisheries research.
Having as he put it ‘run out of zeros’, he sheepishly approached me with the results. Amazingly, I had predicted the type of every single coin correctly. According to Mike’s calculations, which began to shatter his world-view, the chances of me scoring 100% correct responses was millions, and millions to one against. He explained, as I should have guessed, the boxes for which I didn’t obtain any response were empty! More significantly, the other boxes where I obtained a weak, mixed response contained one penny and one half crown. He further explained that he switched to filter boxes to cover each coin since he thought there was a remote possibility that I might gain a clue as to the identity of the coin by the angle of the filter paper, or its distance from the surface of the bench. Those who have been subjected to a university Statistics 101 course will appreciate that using a minimum of thirty samples in the final five rounds of the experiment avoided the need to use the more tedious Student’s t-tests. Mike and Angus had to admit defeat and reluctantly agree that our experiment that day provided powerful support for one paranormal phenomenon.
As an afterthought, the former sceptics suspended the pendulum from a wooden stand over both types of coins. The pendulum remained totally stationary proving that the human body was an essential feature in the equation – the pendulum was not responding directly to the type of metal of which the coin was composed (Option 1 below).
The other two possibilities is that my hands were picking up some unknown stimulus from the metal coins (2) or that the coins were sending a signal to my unconscious mind (3) which in turn, sent impulse along motor nerves to my hand muscles.
At first sight, this pendulum experiment seemed to trivial, but the more I thought about it, the more significant the results appeared. The coins were sending information, via an unidentified mechanism to my brain. Just possibly, the metallic coins were modifying the magnetism of the area around them and this is what, by some mysterious mechanism, my brain was detecting.
I have often contemplated repeating the experiment since repeatability of results is obviously a very important element of the scientific method. The problem is that the first time I performed the experiment, I had a totally relaxed, sceptical state of mind. If I repeat the experiment this will certainly not be the case – I will be conscious of wanting to prove or disprove the hypothesis. This might well inhibit my unconscious mind’s involvement in the phenomenon.
Both my experience of canine ESP (Blog 1) and this pendulum experiment (Blog 2) proved fairly conclusive proof that my brain can both receive and transmit information perhaps by some form of undiscovered form of ‘consciousness radiation.’
A year later in the summer of 1970, I was to have my second convincing encounter with dowsing.
During a dry spell that summer, the previous owners of my parents’ property in Truro, Cornwall, informed my father that they had installed a water pipe and tap near the river to use when watering the big lawn. The tap, however, was now nowhere to be seen.
My parents learned of a dowser who had an excellent local reputation and had even been used by oil companies to help them prospect for oil off the coast of Cornwall. One afternoon the dowser dually arrived with his forked willow stick and headed off to the area of the garden where my father thought the tap might be situated. After ten minutes, the dowser started to explore other areas adding the cryptic remark “The river, he walked”. Then a further fifteen minutes and after he had moved nearly ten metres away from the river, he gave a grunt of satisfaction as the end of his forked willow stick dipped down towards the ground.
“There’s y’our tap me hansome, dig four and a half feet (1.37 metres) down, and yo’ll find y’our tap.”
The dowser marked the spot with a couple of rockery stones and then in his gravelly Cornish accent demanded “I’ll ‘ave my money now please and I’ll be off – Tis prop’er busy in town today!”
My father was none to happy at paying up until he confirmed the dowser’s location for the tap, but an outstretched gnarled hand demanded immediate payment.
Next day, my father asked our part-time gardener to dig down the predicted distance down through soft soil below the spot the dowser had marked with stones. Sure enough, there was the water pipe and a tap which was a little stiff but still working.
Following up a comment from a neighbour, a search by my father in the archives of Truro Town Hall cleared up the mystery of the ‘walking river’. During an unusually wet winter, the river flooded and damaged riverside houses in Truro. To prevent the floods recurring, the council brought in a bulldozer, built up the river bank along the bottom my parents’ garden, deflecting the river to the south. That explained why the discovered tap was no longer close to the river as expected.
This was my second confirmation that dowsing was a real phenomenon that merited further investigation.
Interestingly, European explorers have reported the remarkable ability of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa, and the Aborigines in the outback of Australia, to detect buried sources of water with no obvious clues on the surface of the ground.