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The Straight Dope



How did Uri Geller bend spoons? --Ms. Tified, Hollywood, California

By the sheer force of his powerful mind--powerful, that is, compared to the nits who bought his line of booshwa. Geller, who recently began making appearances again after a long hiatus, was able to convince millions he had psychic powers when he was really just a talented showman using a few simple tricks. He even fooled a team of scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, which just shows you can have an MA and a PhD and still fall for the same old BS.

Geller's best known stunt was making a spoon or key bend by merely rubbing it. In reality he'd surreptitiously bend the spoon or key beforehand, then keep the bent part concealed in his hand. When showtime came around, he'd display the spoon or key to the audience with the bowl or flat side facing out, from which angle it looked straight. Then he'd commence rubbing, all the while keeping up a furious line of chatter. By and by he'd extrude the bent part of the spoon or key from his fingers, if you follow me, giving the appearance that it was bending before the audience's eyes.

It sounds like there's nothing to it, but that's like saying the Sistine Chapel is just paint on plaster. Execution is everything to a magician, and Geller is a master of the art. Witnesses would claim they'd never taken their eyes off him, but videotapes would later show he'd distracted them just long enough to make whatever preparations he needed. Occasionally somebody would slip him a key or spoon too stiff to bend, in which case he'd claim his powers just weren't up to snuff that day. Paradoxically, these failures reinforced the idea that Geller was for real--if it was a trick, it'd always work, right?

Other tricks were even more simpleminded. To "see" a drawing inside a sealed envelope, Geller would secretly hold it up to the light. An assistant would signal the right answers to him when he was doing mind-reading demonstrations. He'd copy down license plates and makes of cars in the parking lot to dazzle audiences with his uncanny knowledge about their private lives. A child could do it. You could do it. For more detail, see The Truth About Uri Geller, by James Randi, or Gellerism Revealed, by Ben Harris.


Considering some of the dope you dish out, I'd expect your mistakes to be equally spectacular, and you've certainly outdone yourself this time. The mind (mine, anyway) boggles at the magnitude of error in your recent dissertation on snowflakes in which you said that over the history of the earth there have been "unimaginable googols of flakes." A googol is one followed by 100 zeroes (10[100]). My calculations show that since the earth was formed four billion years ago, the estimated number of flakes (not counting you and me and your other readers) is only about 10[28]. That leaves a difference of 10[72].

Let's try to get a handle on the size of that error. The difference between the diameter of a carbon atom's nucleus and the diameter of the known universe is about 40 orders of magnitude. That still leaves about 32 orders of magnitude to sweep under the rug, or about the difference between a carbon atom and the Milky Way. To put it another way, the number of protons, neutrons and electrons in the known universe is much less than one googol. You've exceeded that by a margin of unimaginable to the unimaginable power. I knew you could do it, Cecil. Congratulations. --Josef D. Prall, Carrollton, Texas

I knew some smart ass was going to call me on this. I am well aware that the number of snowflakes falls short of a googol by a considerable margin. However, swept up in a fit of literary grandiosity--I mean, come on, how often do you get to use a word like "googol" in a sentence?--I decided to fudge it. I'm so embarrassed. Incidentally, by my calculations, the number of flakes is actually about 10[30], a difference of 10[2] from your figure. (You goofed up the multiplication for the number of square feet in a square mile, judging from your work sheet.) I guess it's like you said--big people make big mistakes, little people make . . . well, no point rubbing your face in it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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