“Federal agencies like the CIA, the DIA, the ONR, the OSR—all of them quickly displayed that they had critical interest in this.” Professor Jahn lifted himself from his living room couch with a grunt and walked slowly to a bookshelf. Brenda Dunne, Jahn’s laboratory manager of twenty-eight years, started to explain Washington’s rather far-fetched interest in weaponizing the discoveries of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR). Professor Jahn returned laboriously and handed me a yellowed hardcover book in a faded red sleeve: Psychic Discoveries behind the Iron Curtain.
Professor Robert Jahn had been known as a pioneer in the field of rocket propulsion. A plasma physicist by training, Jahn served as Dean of Engineering at Princeton University from 1971 to 1986. In the mid ‘70s, an unusual senior thesis sparked Professor Jahn’s interest in more aberrant scientific pursuits. In 1979, he started PEAR to test the influence of the human mind over randomly occurring physical events. The study of mind−matter interaction is one subject area of parapsychology, a field investigating paranormal or psychic phenomena. Other areas of study in parapsychology include ESP, clairvoyance, and poltergeists. Unsurprisingly, the University administration was outraged, but professors were technically allowed to conduct research in fields of their choosing so long as they could obtain outside funding. Fortunately, Jahn had an ardent supporter in aerospace tycoon and fellow Princeton alumnus, James McDonnell. In a 2003 New York Times article, Jahn recounted how “old Mr. McDonnell” had expressed concern to him that his jet fighters’ electronic systems could be compromised by “the subjective radiation coming from the pilot’s mind.”
Earlier that week I had sat down with Herbert Mertz, a Princeton graduate and former volunteer with Dunne and Professor Jahn in the PEAR lab. Mertz was an older gentleman, slight in stature with bright blue eyes. “When Robert Jahn started the PEAR lab he didn’t want to use the word ‘parapsychology’ … so he just called it anomalies research.” Mertz had become an ardent believer in Jahn’s ‘anomalies research’ during his time in college. As an undergraduate he had served as an “operator” in thousands of trials, staring at a microwave-sized Random Event Generator (REG) for hours at a time. The operator would try to affect the output of the machine by concentrating on either high or low numbers as the REG flashed integers on a red electronic display. The hope was to compile enough data to find a link between consciousness and the physical world with statistical analysis. The team eventually logged millions of runs, years spent in a tiny room staring at the endless numerical output of their REGs.
“The answer after all the research is that the effects are small. They’re there but they’re small,” said Mertz. Jahn had outlined his initial results in a paper, “The Persistent Paradox of Psychic Phenomena: An Engineering Perspective,” published in 1982. It stated that the machines were responding to the operators’ intentions a fraction of a percentage more often than probability would predict. For Jahn, it was the evidence he was looking for. Human consciousness was affecting physical phenomena.
Mertz held out a palm-sized black metal box. “This is a Psyleron REG. You can plug this into your computer and run your own trials to replicate the PEAR experiments.” Mertz co-founded Psyleron in 2005 with a recent graduate of Lehigh University, investing $360,000 of his own savings. The company sold REG equipment meant to allow customers to test their capacity to affect the physical world with their minds. Mertz was also working on a book detailing his involvement at PEAR and Psyleron, along with his own theory explaining the PEAR experimental results. He gave me the short version. “Rather than looking at ESP or psychic stuff as an energy phenomenon, it’s more like we are able to guide the future along a more probable path.” The idea had caught on in some quarters. The producers of The Secret, a 2006 film based on a book of the same title, recently contacted Mertz. They were hoping to feature him in the sequel.
I arranged to meet with Brenda Dunne and Professor Jahn at Jahn’s house a few days later. Dunne picked me up from campus in a red mid ‘90s Acura Integra. At Professor Jahn’s house, Dunne entered without knocking: “Bob, I’m here with Alejandro!” After a few long minutes, Robert Jahn emerged. The professor was 85 years old, thin and pale with a patch of white hair and the modest features of a lifelong engineer. He soon began talking about federal involvement with the PEAR laboratory. “In dealing with us, the government could get straight answers, plus and minus, and did not have to deal with, forgive me, the ‘hokey-dokey’ part of the field.”
The scientific community had not shared Washington’s interest in PEAR’s research. “The opposition is not logical,” explained Dunne. “It is clearly emotional, rabid actually.” Criticism of Jahn’s work was indeed harsh. A follow-up study performed simultaneously at two German universities and PEAR failed to replicate the lab’s initial results, as did a related study performed with Professor Jahn’s help at York University in Canada. In a subsequent phone call, Dunne explained that the failure to replicate was due to the subjective nature of psychic phenomena. “The German groups were approaching the experiment from a psychological and physiological perspective. We, of course, were replicating reluctantly. We had already proved our point, so of course that’s going to change the outcomes of the experiment.”
Replication of findings has been a persistent problem for the PEAR experimenters. Mertz’s dream of customers documenting thousands of home-run psychic trials using his technology failed to pan out. “Our most popular product is a random event generator built into the bottom of a lamp,” he admitted. “It’s a very attractive lamp that glows different colors and the colors change depending on what’s going on in the random event generator.” Mertz’s co-founder of Psyleron eventually finished earning his master’s degree at Princeton and took a job with McKinsey on the West Coast. Mertz moved the company’s product out of their rented space along with all of PEAR’s old REG equipment, which was put into storage. He did not want me to visit where he worked now, but he usually spent afternoons in town, reading or working on his books at the coffee shop. He offered to send me a manuscript.
Professor Jahn never had much success publishing his findings in mainstream scientific journals. One editor told Jahn that he would publish a PEAR paper if the scientist could send it to him telepathically. Federal agencies eventually lost interest and the University administration never stopped trying to shut down the lab. In 2007, the PEAR laboratory finally closed. Bob and Brenda said it was time to move on; after twenty-eight years, they had proved everything they set out to show.
Mertz’s unpublished book did not seem to indicate that Psyleron’s business had ever achieved much financial success. Mertz and his business partner had become increasingly estranged as Mertz poured himself into consciousness studies, testing and retesting his own psychic output with his Psyleron REGs.
At Jahn’s house, the professor explained a more recent paper he had written, titled “The Science of the Subjective.” “What does science do with subjective phenomena? … What does it do with our feelings? Does it only allow the psychologists and the philosophers to deal with that? Or does it acknowledge that there’s some there there?”
Dunne interrupted: “Well, the psychologists don’t acknowledge it, either. They only look at brains now.”
“Well, whatever.” Jahn looked at me. His gaze was steady. “You see the issue. When I go out and look at the sunset, and enjoy it, doesn’t this happen? … Can you get a scientific vocabulary for that? Can you get a scientific procedure? How do you formalize the science of the subjective? That is a big issue in my concern, and it is one that I am interested in continuing.”
Dunne added that science itself is inherently subjective. “What a scientist sets out to investigate will affect what she finds.” I nodded silently.
Professor Jahn shook my hand before I left for Dunne’s house to pick up some of their co-written books. He smiled for the first time in two hours and told me that I should not hesitate to call him if I had any more questions. He had spoken for only a fraction of the conversation.
Mertz had described Professor Jahn as “a man of two very distinct parts. He’s a top-notch scientist, analytical, brilliant. But he’s also got a very humanist side. He’s always felt that there was more to life than meets the eye. That’s why he started this lab.”
We pulled away from Jahn’s house and Dunne started explaining how the mind’s influence on future events was akin to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. From the driveway, Professor Jahn was visible standing behind the screen door. He did not motion or wave as we drove off. He just watched us leave.