[2008-09-12] Eppu si muove

On Thursday, the 4th of September, 2008, at about 10:50 local time, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, I experienced what I can only describe as a supernatural phenomenon. I reconstruct the event, here, from notes I took and carefully stored immediately after the fact. I have not written or spoken of it publicly, before now, because as an aspiring chemist I felt my career depended very much on my reputation for reliability, rationality, and level-headedness. Now, though, with my position and standing in the industry firmly established, I feel safe in saying to all who will listen: I have observed a happening which cannot be plausibly explained by the laws of science as I understand them.

I was walking eastward on the East Mall, on the southern sidewalk, passing the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and approaching the ROTC building on my right. I was a graduate student at the time, working on an MS/Organic Chemistry, and my 9:30 Chemical Biology class (with Dr. Lara Mahal) had just let out and I was on my way to the Jackson School of Geosciences to meet my friend Ellie for lunch. There was construction on the East Mall, and the sod on my right-hand side, as I walked, had been overturned, and in place of green lawn there was only churned earth and sand, littered with orange plastic barrels, scraps of lumber and barrier tape, and other construction debris.

A brief aside is necessary to fully explain what happened next. I was, at the time, living in West Campus, on the southeast corner of 26th and Rio Grande (this was only a couple of years after the Colton Petonyak murder, which took place at my condominia, although not in my unit). Gas prices had become really prohibitive for the first time in my life, and because the campus area is a functioning pedestrian community anyway, I was in the habit of walking everywhere I went, as much as it was practical to do so. A habit I had picked up, during my walks, was collecting litter, which I first got into by way of an interest in found-object art. My complex relationship with trash is another story altogether; suffice to say, for now, if I passed a piece of obtrusive litter on the street, I was likely to bend and pick it up and carry it with me at least until I found an appropriate trash container to leave it in.

That Thursday morning, then, while walking on the East Mall, I passed a cast-off aluminum soda can that had been crushed into the dirt beside the path amidst the other wreckage of construction. I had my eyes on the ground a few feet ahead, and was preoccupied with the chemistry I'd just been listening to in lecture, but I saw the can out of the corner of my eye as I approached. Because I was eastbound on the southern sidewalk, and was, according to convention, keeping to the right-hand side of the path, I was immediately next the edge of the pavement. As I passed the can, my right hand swung over it naturally with the motion of my arms as I walked. When I again noticed the can, my reflex, from long habit, was to pick it up and take it with me. My conscious mind rejected the idea because I was in a hurry, but not before I had turned my right hand palm downward above the can, as if I were going to stoop and pick it up in an overhand grip.

Exactly at that moment, as I walked past the can and turned my palm toward it with the briefest intention of picking it up, the can shot from the dirt and up into my open hand without any apparent motive force at all, a distance of some 75 cm through the air, and a little cloud of dust rose from the ground where it had lain, half-buried in sand. My fingers curled reflexively to catch as it struck my palm, and I came up short, suddenly, standing in the path, staring dumbfounded at the object in my hand. A short Latina nearly ran into me from behind, and she cast me an annoyed glance over her shoulder as she passed. I stepped aside, off the sidewalk, and looked around to see if anyone else was watching. At first, no one seemed to be paying any attention, wrapped up in themselves as men and women walking in a busy place will be.

Then: "How did you do that?"

He would've been 22 at the time--a stocky, athletic young white man whose name, I would later learn, was Stephen*. He had been walking in the opposite direction on the same sidewalk and had seen the anomaly occur, and had walked on a few meters before he decided to turn back and investigate. He approached me with a bemused look on his face.

"Did you see that just happen?" I asked.

He nodded and replied, "Did you...? I mean...is it some kind of magic trick?"

"No," I said. I knelt where the can had been half-buried and started scratching at the dirt with my fingers, trying to uncover something that might explain what I'd just experienced. There was only dirt.

Stephen did not, at first, believe that I was innocent of deception. We talked for several minutes, during which time he solicited me a dozen times to admit that I'd just performed some kind of stage illusion. It was summertime and I was in short sleeves, but I held up my right hand and arm and allowed him to inspect it for appliances of any sort. I handed him the can for his inspection. He kept turning it over and over and shaking it, listening to the odd grains of sand rattle around inside the crushed folds of metal. I returned the can to approximately the same place on the ground and attempted to recreate the event, and was of course unsuccessful. Stephen seemed eventually to be persuaded that I was, at very least, not actively trying to deceive him, and we ended up exchanging phone numbers in case either of us ever wanted a corroborating witness. Both of us were gradually becoming more and more excited, and when we finally parted ways I, at least, was giddy.

I was very late for my lunch date, and probably was somewhat incoherent when I found Ellie waiting for me in the JSG lobby. I told her what had happened, and she laughed at the story, but became increasingly uneasy as she began to understand I was serious. I felt embarrassed and told her that I knew how it sounded. Eventually she said the smartest thing about the event that I ever heard from anyone. It reminded me why she and I are friends. "If you say it happened, I believe you, and I'm excited to know that things like that can happen. But if you can't explain it and you can't reproduce it I would keep quiet about it."

And so for 19 years, I did.

I still have the can. It is pictured here. I have, on various time-scales, measured its mass, volume, dielectric constant, and magnetic permeability-- all are invariate and appropriate. Its properties are entirely ordinary, and I have never found reason to believe it is anything besides what it appears to be. I do not, to this day, have any reasonable explanation for the motion Stephen and I observed. In formulating my best hypothesis, I am inevitably reminded of a thought experiment which is often proposed in lectures on statistical thermodynamics: Consider the molecules of gas that make up the atmosphere of a room. Their motion is completely chaotic and random, and essentially all possible arrangements of those molecules within the space of the room are equally likely. Thus it is entirely possible, albeit infinitesimally likely, that all of the available O2 molecules might happen to convect at the same instant into a remote corner of the room and leave its inhabitants unable to breathe. Perhaps a similar, hugely improbable fluke of molecular motion was responsible for the apparently causeless movement of the can from the ground into my hand. By such an absurdly unlikely happenstance, it seems at least theoretically possible that heat might be converted spontaneously to work, and, in the absence of any other plausible cause, I would be prepared to accept this explanation were it not for the fact that the lifting of the can corresponded exactly with my intention to lift the can. This is perhaps an irrational position; the spontaneous conversion of heat to work, on such a scale, is in itself so tremendously improbable that to add the coincidence of my personal intention does not really stretch credulity that much further. And yet I find it is this fact, the fact of my intention to lift the can, that I cannot let go.

I have since tried many times to move the can or another object by intention alone, even going so far as to perform the experiment on a sensitive analytical microbalance to detect even the very slightest perturbation of weight. I have never observed even so much as a hint of an effect. My inner experimentalist whispers to me that perhaps the telekinesis I experienced cannot be consciously invoked and requires a kind of subconscious intentionality which is impossible to achieve deliberately, something like the power of flight in Doug Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Taken to its logical extreme, this line of thought suggests that it may be impossible for anyone who remembers producing such an event to produce another. Or perhaps, like an atheist at a revival, it is my skepticism itself that impedes the miracle. At any rate, I find such speculations tend very quickly to degenerate into mysticism: perhaps I should pray, or consult an astrologer, or make an offering of blood.

I do not think the can will move for me again.

More often than not, these days, I find myself wishing that it never had.

Minimalist car stereo faceplace is entirely blank except for small AUX jack in lower left corner.

*I spoke to this other witness before deciding to publish this account and he asked not to be directly named. "Stephen" is an arbitrary pseudonym.

last modified 2027-11-02