Was fear of the unknown behind the departure of a University of Nevada researcher probing psychic phenomena? Tim Cornwell investigates
Cries of protest are making themselves heard at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas where, not so long ago, Dean Radin was busy conducting psychic research under university auspices. He investigated, for example, whether gambling pay-outs were influenced by the phases of the moon, a subject close to Las Vegas's heart (he concluded they were). His departure, he says, is an act of academic censorship on a par with the Spanish Inquisition.
In the gambling study, using figures provided by a sympathetic casino manager, Dr Radin claimed to show that big jackpots coincided with the full moon. In other laboratory work at UNLV, he used the "ancient technique of mirror-gazing", or open-eye meditation, in the hope that volunteers would see apparitions while he monitored the environment for radioactive or electromagnetic activity. The instruments showed nothing, pointing to apparitions being in the mind.
It is easy, as Radin observes, to make fun of his work. He believes the university became "uncomfortable" about the impact on its image. But Nevada officials say the decision to offer Radin a terminal two-month contract after four years was based on sound "financial and professional" considerations. To make its case that there is no issue of academic freedom, it cites the recent appointment of Charles Tart, a scientist whose work explores many of the same fields as Radin, to its new chair of "consciousness studies".
The UNLV has about 20,000 students, and, like Las Vegas itself, it is growing exponentially. It is one of very few major US universities to have provided a permanent platform for the scientific study of psychic phenomena, a move that has dismayed some faculty members. The reason is Robert Bigelow, a wealthy real estate developer and native Las Vegan who has spent millions from his personal fortune funding his interest in UFOs and the possibility that consciousness does not end with death. He has been a major donor at UNLV, funding the health sciences building named after his father Robert, and the physics building for his dead son Rod, a some-time student.
Bigelow essentially brought Radin to the university, where he funded his consciousness research division to the tune of $100,000 a year. Radin, author of the recently published book The Conscious Universe, is a prolific parapsychologist and one of the best known figures in the controversial field. He recently held a parapsychology fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. His credo, in his own words, is that "if you look at the empirical data over the last century or so you can make very strong statements about the existence of psychic phenomena, like clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and psychokinesis, or mind-matter interaction".
Bigelow promised funding for two years, Radin said, and after that it ceased. Bigelow's interest was in after-death consciousness; Radin said he was increasingly interested in "precognition". This year, with a $3.7 million grant from the Bigelow family, UNLV established the Bigelow chair of consciousness studies for a series of visiting professors. The first to fill the post is Tart, who says: "No other university has anything like this." Along with a part-time assistant, Tart will be teaching courses on "altered states of consciousness and parapsychology, running the questions by students of who are we and what evidence is there of life surviving death". Tart adds: "I want them to see that there is some empirical evidence of survival."
Radin has protested his removal on the Internet and in the local press, saying he was academically too hot for the university to handle after the publication of his book. His supporters include the Nobel laureate Brian Josephson.
UNLV insists his research was no longer "fiscally viable". He fires back that he had sources of funding other than Bigelow, and could have raised more if the university had given him unpaid leave of absence.
The university has told local newspapers of other reasons for Radin's dismissal. But Donald Baepler, a former chancellor of UNLV and Radin's departmental boss has written that Radin himself asked for two complaints about his research conduct to be examined. He was "formally exonerated of all charges by the university's own investigators", the letter states. "In the four years that he was with us, not one of the nearly 200 volunteers who participated in his research ever complained about any aspect of his program."