Wishful Thinking

June 10, 1998

It had been more than three months since my last visit to Princeton, long enough for the wounds to heal. This time I was the invited guest of PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research), a controversial project that has rankled many scientists for nearly two decades. The PEAR study's hypothesis and conclusions, if true, would constitute nothing less than a breakthrough of Newtonian proportions, so there's a great deal at stake. All of this has received only scant mention in the general press, but it's creating a lot of heat in academic circles.

In a nutshell, what the PEAR people claim to have discovered is a new force in nature, perhaps the elusive "fifth force," and that force is, well, me—and you, and everyone else. All of us, it seems, have the ability to influence physical events—with our thoughts. That is, we can "will" things to happen the way we would like them to by simply concentrating. According to the PEAR study, anyone can make a tossed coin come up heads more often than tails—and vice versa. They don't know why it happens, but it does, and they say they can prove it. It's a discovery that will have the most profound influence, not just on football games, but the future of the human race and, to a lesser extent, the animal kingdom.

I've always believed in the collective will and desire of millions of people having an effect on the outcome of major events (witness World Wars I and II; the '69 Mets; Wrestlemania IV), so I felt compelled to write a letter to Dr. Robert Jahn, the founder and Director of PEAR, asking if I could come out to Princeton for a visit. Before I received his reply I wrote him a second letter, announcing my intention to just come out there and drop by; and then, instead of mailing the letter, I hopped in my car and called him on a cell phone to tell him I was on my way. (I did have to make up a little background story about myself to keep the discussion brief—I was on the bridge, after all.)

Unfortunately, my car died on the New Jersey Turnpike. Dr. Brenda Dunne, Jahn's associate, was kind enough to pick me up and give me a ride to the Princeton campus. "I concentrated really hard, but it wouldn't turn over," I joked. "Get a Honda," she said with a straight face, her hands firmly gripping the white 2-door Accord's steering wheel. I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or merely offering advice. Not that it mattered, I'm sticking with my Zil, especially given the large number of Russian auto mechanics in my area. She asked me how I could possibly maintain highway speeds with such a small engine (two cylinders, 52HP). I told her it wasn't easy—I'd been ticketed three times in the last six months—for going too slow. She laughed. Nice lady, I thought, but a little nosy. "What was your Pulitzer for?" she asked. "I've forgotten by now," I confessed.

The basement of the Princeton School of Engineering is a vast gymnasium-like area where scores of undergraduates perform a variety of experiments—from trying to identify shapes and objects over the telephone, to making a tennis ball move without touching it. One student, probably a freshman, was trying to raise the volume of a boom box—telepathically. Two students just stared at each other, saying nothing, occasionally writing down (the other's?) thoughts. And, of course, the old standby: tossing a coin. There were dozens of students tossing coins, calling out "Heads" or "Tails" and then writing down the result. This was for credit. (Last I checked, it costs about a hundred thousand dollars to attend Princeton for four years. And that's not including the coins.)

Dr. Dunne introduced me to Dr. Robert "Bob" Jahn, the director of PEAR and an imposing figure by dint of his intense focus. "We've found another force in nature!" he shouted directly into my left ear, rendering me deaf for several seconds. "You don't have to shout," I pleaded, backing away. "Oh, sorry," he said at normal volume, "I thought you were hard of hearing. Why would I think that?"

"I told you earlier that he might have a hard time hearing in this room," she explained. "You know—with all the noise in here. It's very echo-y."

"Oh, sorry," he muttered, quite chastened.

"Tell me," I asked, putting on my journalist hat, "aren't you concerned about the flak you've been getting? Some of your colleagues are saying the PEAR study has proven nothing and that you're simply encouraging the kooks and the crackpots who make a living on so-called paranormal abilities. What's your response?"

"They can say anything they want, but if what we believe to be true is true, then we've stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in history."

"And what if you're wrong?"

"We're not," he responded quickly. "We have proof. We've been at it twenty years and the proof is in the pudding. We've got vast amounts of data. Why? Who have you talked to? Did you talk to Anderson?"

"No. Why?"

"He's an asshole. Pardon my French." Jahn was visibly upset. (Note: Princeton Physics professor Philip Anderson is a PEAR critic, calling Jahn's statistics "unconvincing.")

"He's a jerk," Dr. Dunne added. "He never has a nice thing to say about our work, our data. Everything's legitimate. We don't understand it ourselves."

I was impressed with her frankness.

"The fact is, it exists," Jahn continued, "whatever it is. It's measurable, verifiable, and it could turn out to be either the most useful—or the most destructive—force in human history. A great reporter like yourself should appreciate this."

"Yes, of course."

"It's about time you guys at The Times gave this story it's due."

"I'll make sure they hold the late edition," I boasted.

"How would you like some proof?" she proposed. "It won't be hard."

"What do I do?" I replied enthusiastically.

They nodded knowingly to each other, and then a little less knowingly to me, and then led me to a bare wooden table in a far corner of the room. Dr. Dunne sat down on one side. Jahn gestured to me to sit down across from her. He pulled out a deck of playing cards.

"An ordinary deck of playing cards," he intoned.

"Card tricks?" I asked.

"No." He spread the deck out, face down. "Pick one, but don't show it to her."

I picked a card and didn't show it to her. She stared at me, eyes riveted on my forehead, about where my frontal lobe is situated, and she continued to stare, unblinkingly, for more than a minute. I could hear the sucking sound as my brains were being vacuumed out of my head and into hers, where she had to sort through the muck and find the playing card I'd just looked at, the four of clubs.

"Eight of hearts," she said convincingly.


She looked at me again, and stared, although not quite as long—there wasn't much left—she'd sucked most of my brains out already.

"Six of diamonds."

"Nope. Sorry."

She didn't suck out my memory of music, so I started thinking about John Coltrane's solo on "All Blues," from the classic "Kinda Blue" album when he was with the Miles Davis Quintet. This was around 1959, before Coltrane had his own quartet in the sixties.

"Jack of spades?"

"Sorry, no." Coltrane's solo, a mature, twisting lament on tenor, provided the perfect post-modern counterpoint to Cannonball Adderley's up-tempo melodic mainstream bop contribution. When Miles himself takes over, he—

"You like Coltrane?" she asked.

"What!?" How did she know?

"You must like Coltrane, you've been humming his solo from "All Blues."

"Oh, yes, I—you like Coltrane?

"Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Mingus..."

"That's amazing."

"King of hearts?"

"Huh? Oh. No. It's not the king of hearts."

She went back to thinking, staring—for at least a minute, and then...

"Four of clubs."

"That's right! Very good. That was pretty quick."

"Want to do it again?"

"Sure." I picked another card. This time it took her twelve guesses before she got it, but that's still better than the odds. We did it again. This time it went to fifteen. She kept beating the percentages, consistently, and getting better. She guessed the card on the first try several times. I was convinced.

"Your turn," she said as she gathered up the cards, picked one, looked at it, and put it down. Now I had to guess.

"Ten of spades."

"Whoa, take your time. The idea is to think about it. Think.

"Okay." So I thought. And thought. And thought.

"Ten of spades."


It went on like this, for another half hour or so. Sometimes I'd get it quickly, sometimes, not so quickly, but always better than the statistical projection. Always better than random.

"I need a drink," she said.

"Sounds good to me." I was pretty much thought out.

She signalled to Jahn, who was playing a video game and too engrossed to notice her.

"Can't they get some new ones! This one sucks! It's impossible!" He banged it on the table some more. Then he saw his colleague and stopped, looking a little embarrassed.

"Join us for a drink?" she asked him.

"No, I've got work."

We proceeded without him to a local micro-brewery.

"How do you do it?" I asked her as we picked up our oversized steins of beer—excuse me, ale—and found a cozy booth away from the crowd of collegiates babbling their typical collegiate babble.

"Do what? Guess the cards? You tell me. You were doing pretty well yourself."

"How far are we from Atlantic City?" I wondered, semi-deadly serious.

"It wouldn't pay," she said. "The effects are too slight. You'd do better buying savings bonds."

"How about the track? If you keep wishing for the longshot to come in... that should pay off pretty fast."

"Maybe," she pondered, "but isn't that what people usually do?" She had a point.

"Then what good is it? If you can't go out to the track and make a killing..."

"Here, I'll give you an example. Let's say a giant meteor is headed for earth. We can't blow it up or divert it by physical means. Let's say six billion people concentrate at once, intensely..."

"And it blows up."

"Or its course is changed ever-so-slightly and it misses us."

"Well, which would it be?" I asked. "Either we all concentrate on it blowing up, or we concentrate on it changing course."

"Well, I'm sure the world's leaders would work it out beforehand. Don't you?"

"I guess. But then there's always the Dr. No factor—the madman bent on world destruction who convinces millions to think of something else."

"Now you're being silly."

"What if it has nothing to do with thinking?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm serious. What if the reason we seem to be able to "will" things to happen the way we want them to is because we've already experienced them—the future's been engrammed on our cerebral cortexes. We know we're going to win the world war—so we will it to be so."

"What about the Germans? Did they will themselves to lose both world wars? Did they foresee their eventual crushing defeat?"

"This is great beer—I mean ale."

"And besides," she went on, "our experiments have involved the most mundane kinds of things, like flipping coins, the types of things that wouldn't get engrammed on our consciousness, if you were to accept the concept of "seeing" the future as plausible in the first place, which I don't. This is good beer—uh—ale."

I hadn't thought about it before but, after taking off her glasses and letting her hair down, she was quite beautiful. Maybe it was the ale talking, but that was what I was thinking when, without warning, I was hit in the head by a very solid fist, then drenched with beer and ale, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a micro-brewery brawl. Being an Ivy League school, these kids all have powerful lawyers for fathers, meaning instant immunity from damage suits relating to injuries sustained by an innocent bystander. So, the four hundred dollars to repair a chipped tooth will have to be paid mostly by my health insurance.

Later, back at the PEAR lab, the last of the coin-flippers was gone, and the only experiment still in progress was Dr. "Bob" Jahn versus the Super Mario Brothers in a war of wills.

"I'm winning more than my share!" he cackled as soon as he was aware of our presence. "What happened to you?" he asked, noticing the blood streaming down my face.

"I bet his fist hurts," I mumbled. It was hard to talk. Besides being a little tipsy, my jaw felt like it had relocated to where it was during the Cro-Magnon period. Dr. Dunne handed me a towel. "He was the unfortunate recipient of an errant punch," she explained.

"Thrown by who?" Jahn wanted to know.

"Some guy with a Roman numeral after his name," I moaned. "I warned him this may become an issue at his Supreme Court nomination hearing some day, but he just threw up on my shoe."

"You're going to need a ride to your car," Dr. Dunne reminded me. "Where was it towed to?"

"The service station at the Vince Lombardi exit."

"That's on the Southbound side. Oh well." She grabbed her sweater and we started out.

"You sure you can drive?" I asked.

"You watch me," she slurred.

Within twenty minutes we were pulling into the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino (which paid for this mention). On the trip down to Atlantic City (a thrill ride despite the modest performance characteristics of the Honda Accord), I went over the various odds involved in blackjack, roulette and craps. We decided our best chance would be at the roulette wheel, not in terms of the percentages, but the ability to focus on one number, one wheel, and one small ball.

"Zero or double zero," I asked her, having decided one of those would be the best numbers to fixate on.


"Zero it is."

"Place your bets." There were two others at the table besides us: a short, squat guy wearing a yarmulke and an obese woman who held her chips in her fist as if she were trying to crush them. We had ten twenty dollar chips and placed the first one on zero. We both stared intently, concentrating deeply on our number. The croupier spun the ball, which circled and circled and then, once free of its orbit, it bounced about until finally it settled on... "Seventeen. Black." We dropped another twenty down. Again, the ball spun around and around and... "Thirty-six, red."

We lost nine straight times and were down to our last twenty dollars when Dr. Dunne dropped the last chip on zero and grabbed my hand. I wasn't expecting that, but she'd already had two gin and tonics since our unlucky string began and, even though we were both staring at the roulette wheel thinking supposedly of nothing but the number zero, my mind was somewhere else.

"Zero. The bank pays zero." I don't think I heard it right away, but she did. "Yes!" Seven hundred dollars. The croupier shoved a bunch of chips toward us and Dr. Dunne, Brenda that is, reeled them in.

"Let's go for it." "What?" "Let's go for it. Seven hundred on zero." I just looked at her as she stacked up the $100 chips on our favorite number. "Let 'er ride!" she boomed, drawing the attention of a few other patrons, always a good sign when you're looking for psychic support.

The croupier dropped the ball, it spun around and around and around, then it stumbled about, and then... it settled at...

"Zero. Zero is the number." Brenda shrieked. I was stunned. At 35-1, $700 becomes $24,500! I don't know why, but all I could think of was that it was enough money to buy three Zils! A crowd was forming. This was fun!

"Let 'er ride!" she called out. I just watched as the croupier looked off in the distance for a signal, got one, and released the ball. Everyone stared, jaws agape, as the ball made its way around, and around, and around, bouncing, bouncing, and finally coming to rest at...

"Zero again! Pay the lady!" Brenda threw her fist in the air. I nearly passed out. The croupier pressed a button and within seconds two very nattily-attired gentlemen were escorting us upstairs, to meet—no, not Donald Trump—but someone who has definitely met him or at least talked to him on the telephone.

"Thomas Wainwright," the man behind the desk introduced himself. I shook his hand, but Brenda was very suspicious, and getting a little sick, to boot. "Have a seat, folks." We did.

"Do you realize that you've just won an awful lot of money?" He looked at us like she wasn't a Princeton professor and I wasn't a phony reporter for The New York Times. He looked at us like we were complete idiots which, after all that alcohol, we were.

"How much is it again?" I asked.

"Eight hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars."

"How many Zils would that buy?" I said to myself.

"What's he talking about?" Wainwright asked. Brenda, green as a leprechaun, staggered to her feet and started to say something, then lunged forward and threw up—all over Wainwright's desk, engulfing his crystal paperweights in an ale and gin-driven lava flow which quickly made its way, Niagara Falls-like, into his waiting lap. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly he could do nothing but just sit there, the perfect foil.

"We'll pay for the cleaning," I offered. Brenda rushed out, about to hurl a doubleheader. I then excused myself and ran down the hall after her. Wainwright was frozen in place.

I don't know why, but after we cleaned ourselves up, we got in the car, which I drove, and left, without the money, and headed for the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. As it turned out, my car needed a hundred and eighty dollars worth of work. I put it on a credit card and wished my new friend farewell, first making sure she was sober enough to get home to Princeton.

"You guys deserve a MacArthur, at least," I told her, referring to the big money grants given out each year to artists and academics. "And if you do get one, put it all on zero." She laughed. We said good bye.

Since my Pulitzer Prize is now a foregone conclusion, all I can say is: thank you. I'll be taking some time off. In Las Vegas.

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