Its Dubious Provenance

The Invitation

My late father, a physician, used thermography as a diagnostic tool in his practice. He recognized its usefulness--it gave him valuable information no other method could--but he had no illusions that there was anything mystical about recording heat patterns.

Ah! but this was the early 70's, when psychic phenomena, pyramid power, Kirlian photography, and human auras were popular. When some physicians who catered to celebrities started using thermography, it, too, became popular and quasi-mystical (after all, it's about a "human aura," isn't it?)

To his (and our) astonishment, my father received an invitation to present a paper on medical thermography at the First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics (to coin a phrase, I'm not making this up) to be held in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in June 1973! Following the Congress, those delegates who wished to would continue to Moscow and Leningrad (remember Leningrad?) to tour some laboratories and do a lot of sightseeing.

Recognizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, my father proposed we attend as a family. We had a fabulous trip filled with beauty (Prague, despite almost unbearable air pollution, is one of the world's most beautiful cities), romance, and excitement. The Congress wasn't too shabby, either.

The Congress

The First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics was like any high-class technical conference--elegant facilities, good food, plenary sessions, multiple tracks for presented papers, and even simultaneous translation for most of the languages spoken--but, oh! the subject matter! Had CSICOP existed then, they would have had to publish an extra-large special issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Charming people for the most part, but even I, young and impressionable, could spot nonsense when I heard it. I heard a lot. The delegates made, and received, claims of extrasensory perception, telepathy, telekinesis, out-of-body experiences, dowsing, levitation, and stuff I never heard of with the same tone and manner one might use to describe uncontroversial findings in biology or physics. That wasn't enough; everything had to be couched in phony "scientific" jargon (complete with obscure "mathematics.") Apparently, skepticism would have been rude.

The paper that sticks in my mind as typical of the event was a "quantitative" analysis of the question, "How high am I?" which transformed statements of the obvious, like "People who are down tend to bring others down, and people who are up tend to bring others up" into profound discoveries, expressed in terms of "individual vs. group psychic energy levels." The presenter even defined a "psychic mass!" Of course, the formula for psychic energy had the form E=mc2, since that's much cooler than, say, ½mv2 or perhaps mgh but, alas, his psychic mass has opposite effects from a real mass, so he had to use (1-m) in his mass-energy equation. What then, is c? Why it's "space/time," whatever that means.

To be fair, there were a few honest research papers that presented interesting observations without wild claims; for them, sadly, the audience was reserved in its acclaim.

If, like me, you deplore the public-speaking skills of the average conference presenter, you'd have found little comfort here. This was obviously the first conference for many of the speakers and much of the audience. Worse, the conference sponsors made no effort to enforce the schedule, to the point where speakers droned on for several hours. Particularly nice for presenters scheduled later in the day--if they got to speak at all, they had to cut it down to ten minutes! My Dad was the only one who complied. Sigh.

The only instance of skepticism I saw concerned Dr. Julius Krmessky, who actually demonstrated something specific and concrete. He bored us all for two hours (four times his allotted time), and then redeemed himself by demonstrating a number of delightful devices, purportedly moved by telekinesis. In addition to the cylinder I describe, I remember an object that floated in a pan of water (he made it come toward his hands and move away from them) and a thin rod with a pivot in the center that also followed his hands. Roughly half a dozen delegates shot him down; not vague enough, I guess.

Of course, no such conference would be complete without Uri Geller, the Man Who Bends Spoons With His Mind. Alas, he couldn't make it, but we got to see a lot of him on film. My notes record my disgust that the films show the spoons in various stages of bent-ness, but never actually in the process of bending! I'm proud to say this was quite a while before Uri's secret came out.


Thermography is simply "heat photography;" a heat sensor scans the field of view and records temperatures as color-coded pixels in an image. In particular, the temperature patterns on the skin reveal the flow of blood beneath it and provide useful clues to injuries, circulatory problems, muscle spasms, and inflammation.
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, an organization that "encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public."
Uri's secret
Uri would get very excited during these sessions, fidgeting, squirming, and moving his chair back and forth. He bent objects by pressing them against the frame of his seat when he grabbed it to move the chair.

Ted Ruegsegger Free Software Foundation Associate Member # 33