In science, breakthroughs aren’t primarily driven by pasty professionals in sanitized lab coats. The history of scientific discovery is full of dedicated amateurs. And kooks. And those who are a little bit of both.
William Herschel, the eighteenth-century composer, gave schoolboys everywhere fodder for their favorite science joke when, in his spare time, he invented the modern telescope, pointed it toward some nether regions, and discovered a new planet, which he named Uranus. Albert Einstein, the world’s favorite nutty professor-type, developed a lot of his revolutionary scientific theories while working as a pencil pusher at a Swiss patent office. Then there’s Guglielmo Marconi, “inventor of the radio,” who conducted pioneering work at a villa in Italy with the help of his butler.
And in a Pflugerville subdivision, 15 miles north of Austin, there’s Gary.
By day, Gary Heseltine is a doctor researching infectious disease at the Texas Department of State Health Services, but in his off time, he’s one cog in an international community trying to prove that thought exists outside of the mind, that human consciousness is a thing. Not just a formless idea, but something measurably real, like light or sound. And if he’s right, his work would have paradigm-shifting implications of cosmic proportions.
“It’s not much to look at,” Heseltine said leading me into his workroom and showing me the device at the heart of his experiments. It’s called a Random Number Generator but is also belovedly referred to as “The Egg,” a bit of a misnomer considering it’s rectangular. The Egg, which is smaller than a pack of cigarettes, relentlessly spits out a digital stream of random 1s and 0s, all of which are automatically sent to a database near Princeton, New Jersey, for analysis by the Global Consciousness Project (GCP), which was founded in 1997 by Roger Nelson, a clinical psychologist and former research coordinator for the now defunct Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab. The GCP is a volunteer-run organization attempting to unlock the mystery of collective human consciousness by collecting random data generated by 130 different eggs around the world. Nelson has called his project an attempt to “take an EEG of the planet.”
Basically, global consciousness fits somewhere between Carl Jung’s mostly-metaphorical idea of a “collective unconsciousness” and Abbie Hoffman’s mostly-insane attempt to levitate the Pentagon using collective good vibes.
Random Number Generators, named for the exact function they perform, were invented in the forties and came into more popular use during the seventies. They’re great for data encryption—for hiding informational needles in digital ones-and-zeroes haystacks. Nelson, Heseltine and the others invested in the GCP, however, say something happens with the Egg data around the time of psychologically significant world events. Namely, patterns appear out of the randomness. Something is making the randomness not so random, they say. Moments before 9/11, for example, GCP analysis suggests global patterns emerged from these random number streams. Nelson’s team also observed patterns after a group of Buddhist monks meditated really, really hard.
There are, of course, skeptics. Legions of them. Or rather, dedicated skeptic groups citing semi-anonymous pieces and blog posts debunking the GCP work. The number of expert takedowns is few. In an independent study, NASA’s Jeffrey Scargles said (pdf) the definitive claims of Nelson-like acolytes was “unwarranted” and “unconvincing,” though he did recommend further research. The wonderfully named James P. Spottiswoode and two of his associates were less kind. Reviewing GCP’s claims of unusual activity around 9/11, Spottiswoode and company called GCP’s conclusions post hoc, at best (pdf). A statistical inkblot. With so much random data coming in, it seems impossible to say what’s a “pattern” and what’s not. But skepticism from the scientific community hasn’t stopped the GCP from continuing to place Egg-probes to the world’s skull, with the help of volunteers on every habitable continent. Of the 32 stateside devices, Heseltine is the only Texan with an Egg.
But, when I visited this fall, Heseltine was more interested in discussing the box of radioactive material perched on a high shelf, part of his other consciousness-related experiments.
“It’s got some cesium, a little tiny piece,” he said, waving in the general direction of the radioactive material. The walls of his work room were lined with ancient computers and Boomer-geek kitsch—a Bart Simpson doll, a scientist-themed Far Side cartoon, some lefty protest posters, and a Roswell postcard. “It’s not, like, toxic,” he added in a tone as neutral as his beige carpeting.
Apparently, radioactive decay—when particles fly off unstable atoms willy-nilly as they’re wont to do—is great at generating randomness. And Heseltine analyzes computer mappings of this radioactive randomness to see if he can’t find patterns. Just maybe his “intentions—whatever they are” can manipulate the willy-nilly.
“You get these disturbances,” Heseltine said. How or why is not clear. But Heseltine believes intentions—everything from those of meditating monks to those of psychopaths inflicting terrible pain—register in his records of the radioactive randomness.
“You’re basically dealing with randomness to understand randomness, for which we have no definition,” Heseltine said. Yet, “it seems like there’s clearly something going on.”
If this sounds a bit of a stretch, remember that we couldn’t measure gravity, real as it’s always been, until the late seventeenth century. And Isaac Newton’s first passion, it should be noted, wasn’t gravity. It was occult studies. The man loved alchemy, spending more time wondering how to turn an apple into gold than how an apple fell out of the tree. Maybe Heseltine is just another Copernicus, a heliocentric in a world of geocentrists.
Heseltine is open to the idea that there’s something physical and “psychological-maybe-slash spiritual” about actual consciousness. But even so, he can’t shake his hunch that thought, even if it is of divine origin, can be quantified. And if human consciousness can be counted and understood, then it can be harnessed to influence seemingly “random” things like number generators, and if it can influence RNGs, then can’t Heseltine guess the winning numbers of the Texas Lottery?
Heseltine thinks so.
“If I can predict a random number, which I think you should be able to way above chance, consistently, then that’s the prize,” Heseltine told me.
Gary Heseltine wants to win the Powerball. For that’d be the ticket to winning the proverbial lottery, too. It’d be the payoff for all the years of amateur scientific tinkering after his day job.
Gary doesn’t, however, theorize as to whether he’d actually be allowed to keep the winnings. The experts can sort that out.