R.I.P. Prof. John G. Taylor

I just received an email from Ian Ridpath pointing out that Professor John G. Taylor had died back in March 2012. The news had passed me by, and I’m quite surprised that there’s very little about this news on the internet with the exception of a brief announcement from the Department of Mathematics at King’s College London:

The Department is very sorry to announce the death of Professor John G. Taylor (JGT) on 10th March. John Taylor was appointed to the established Chair in Applied Mathematics at King’s College London in 1971. His research interests were wide, ranging over high energy physics, superstrings, quantum field theory and quantum gravity, neural computation, neural bases of behaviour and mathematical modelling in neurobiology. He was formidably energetic and remained actively engaged in research until his death.

His name came up on a post of mine a while ago of which the following is an excerpt.

In the 1970s, when Uri Geller was at the height of his popularity,  Professor Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people. This is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that.

3 Responses to “R.I.P. Prof. John G. Taylor”

  1. Yes; as I understand it, what finally debunked Geller is that a few magicians were able to show that they could produce exactly the same effects by trickery, David Kaiser has a good discussion of this in his ‘hippies’ book

  2. Christopher R R Smith Says:

    John Taylor supervised my PhD in mathematics in 1986. He was a remarkable & gifted mathematician & theoretical physicist. He was supervised by Paul Dirac (on generalised functions) while at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and subsequently by Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton. During my time at King’s he was conducting research into supergravity and superstrings; subsequently he reverted to neural computing which he had studied as neurobiology in the 1970s.
    In several conversations, at King’s, at the Royal Society, at Queen Mary College (with Mike Green), at his house in Islington, at the ICTP High Energy Conference in Trieste (1986) with Abdus Salam, he always gave the impression that he regretted the Uri Geller fiasco.
    In effect, there were too many “fixed” coffee percolators in front of the Nationwide news programme to make any dispassionate scientific enquiry possible. In the critical rationalist philosophy of science, Geller’s charlatanism or scientific fraud could never have been proven. He had a lucrative life, first as a male model & then as an oil exploration consultant to major oil companies.
    Sic transit gloria mundi

  3. Dr Douglas Watt Says:

    I had the enormous good fortunate and great pleasure of knowing JGT as something of a senior colleague and mentor in neuroscience. I had lost touch with him after the late 90’s, as I started going to different conferences, while we meet over coffee at the wild and crazy Arizona Consciousness Symposium in 1994. I was very saddened, although not shocked, to hear he had passed away, as I could not longer find any current work from him – and he would have produced it if he was still around. John was charming, gracious, brilliant, and always thoughtful and thought provoking. His genius was obvious, and widely appreciated, but his charm, decency and humor were in my estimation just as great gifts and left just as positive an impression on those fortunate to know and work with John. He was a great and good man and I’m sure he has been sorely missed. We need more people like JGT in science.

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