A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How did Uri Geller bend spoons?

August 26, 1988

Dear Cecil:

How did Uri Geller bend spoons?

Cecil replies:

By the sheer force of his powerful mind — powerful, that is, compared to those of the dopes who bought his line of baloney. 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 of 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.

I'm a believer

Dear Cecil:

Ouch! I found the way you dispensed with Uri Geller uncharacteristically simplistic. I personally witnessed two examples of Geller's powers, and I can't believe I was taken in by sleight of hand.

I and two colleagues interviewed Geller in 1975. We met in a small, well-lit office we had borrowed for the occasion. Geller was dressed simply in a long-sleeve shirt. We saw no wires, tools, unusual paraphernalia or bulges in his clothes.

During the interview we tried various drawing tricks that didn't amount to much. Then Geller asked if we had any metal. He rejected various things we had brought, so my colleague offered a heavy silver ring off his finger that he had bought in Spain. Geller liked that. My colleague gave the ring to me since I sat closest. Geller asked that I not give the ring to him but instead hold it between my thumb and index finger. As I did so, he stroked it gently. It slowly warped and collapsed until it was unwearable. The ring never left my hand from the time it was handed to me till the time I passed it around, bent. We set it on the desk and it continued to change perceptibly for another minute. No substitutions (my colleague recognized it as his own ring). No heat or acid. No physical force.

Later we went outside. Geller asked again if I had any metal. I produced my car key. He placed it on the sidewalk and covered it with his outstretched hand. When he removed his hand the key was found broken in half. It was my key, identifiable by its serial number. We had the key examined under an electron microscope. This revealed a crystalline alignment typical of a thermal break (meaning it had melted) rather than a flexion break. To confirm this, the folks at the lab broke another Volkswagen key by flexion and examined it. There was no similarity.

I think it is right to call Geller a showman. But a magician? I think not. His repertoire is too narrow, boring, and undependable. I found both your explanation and other lengthier exposes shallow, unconvincing, and objectively less believable than what I experienced. Give it another shot, would you?

Cecil replies:

Honestly, David, aluminum-siding salesmen must love you. Think about what you've just said. All of us have seen convincing examples of table (i.e., close up) magic. The difference with Geller, according to you, is that his repertoire is "narrow, boring, and undependable." In other words, he's not good enough to be a fake, so he must be real. Puh-leeze.

I've consulted with Geller debunkers Ben Harris and James Randi, both professional magicians and the latter a winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant. Given the lapse of time, here's the best we can offer on the tricks you saw: (1) You say the ring never left your hand. That's what many of Geller's victims say. Careful questioning or video analysis afterward usually reveals otherwise. A common ploy in magic is to take an object from someone and then hand it back, saying, "Whatever you do, I want you to hang on to this the whole time I'm talking to you." If you're as suggestible as most people — and I'm not saying I'd do any better — you'll forget the magician was holding it to begin with.

Similarly, the magician can drop the ring on the table and say, "Look! It's still bending!" It's not, of course, but you're so caught up in the moment you think it is. Silver is easily bent by hand; that's why Geller rejected the other items. In Gellerism Revealed Ben Harris explains several tricks in which items seem to bend while a spectator is holding onto them.

(2) Geller could easily have stuck your car key in a crack in the sidewalk and snapped it off with his foot. A hasty electron microscope test proves little. A tragic demonstration of this occurred in 1972, when Will Franklin, a professor at Kent State University, reported that a ring Geller had allegedly bent psychically showed "unusual fracture surfaces" when examined under an electron microscope. These "provided evidence that a paranormal influence function was probably operative." Five years later Franklin publicly confessed he'd misinterpreted the test results; the fracture surfaces on the ring were easily explained. (He persisted in the belief that other items had been bent psychokinetically.) Don't think you're any less susceptible to illusion.

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