When you see a professional magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, it is a fairly safe bet that the animal was hidden somewhere underneath the table. But what if you saw something materialise in thin air and then drop down in front of you? What would that do to your sense of reality?
The spontaneous materialisation of objects (SMO), however bizarre and unlikely it seems, is in fact a recurrent theme in the annals of mysterious phenomena. In poltergiest cases, for example, unexplained showers of stones have been reported for centuries, appearing out of nowhere to pelt the outside of houses or falling inside sealed rooms.
Coins, too, have sometimes been observed falling out of thin air. Many other typical poltergeist manifestations, such as unexplained leaks, puddles of water or even blood, may come into the same category.
Several mediums of the so-called Golden Age of Spiritualism (roughly 1850-1940) were also able to produce, sometimes on demand, a wide range of materialised objects or, as they were named, apports. Typically, these would be semi-precious stones or small items of jewellery and would either be given to sitters by 'spirit hands' or dropped spontaneously onto their laps, to be taken home as souvenirs. People sometimes worried that the apports had been physically stolen but the 'spirits' explained that they had, in fact, been recovered from the sea-bed.
Different mediums had their own specialities. Mrs Agnes Guppy, for example, favoured fresh flowers and vegatables. Alfred Russel Wallace, a leading Victorian biologist who attended several seances with Mrs. Guppy, recorded that on one occasion the table was showered with a floral display which included fifteen chrysanthemums and four tulips.
On another occasion she rustled up a 6ft tall sunflower, complete with earth and roots. This may have been Mrs. Guppy's most spectacular feat unless you count the reported teleportation of the medium herself across London in 1871.
Another medium of the period, the Australian Charles Bailey, preferred to apport living creatures. Rodents and lizards were the small change of his seances; more remarkable materialisations included a turtle, a 3ft long snake and a small shark. On one occasion he produced a bird's nest complete with eggs and brooding mother, apparently untroubled by her unusual adventure.
Sceptics, predictably, had fun suggesting how such phenomena might have been hoaxed. Tables might have been rigged, especially where seances were held in the medium's own house, or objects might have been dropped down through holes in the ceiling. The apports might have been carried by accomplices in the audience or even hidden up the medium's skirts: this was the age of crinolines. Since seances were often held in dim light, sometimes in almost total darkness, a fradulent medium would have been able to produce small apports quite easily.
None of this means that all mediums were necessarily fraudulent - some at least were able to produce apports under test conditions - but we may never know the full truth. Fortunately, though, the evidence for SMO is not restricted to century-old tales of the seance room.
Present day poltergeist investigators have collected compelling evidence (including film) that the phenomenon is a reality. And there are still people today who claim to be able to produce materialised objects on demand.
By far the best known 'materialiser' of recent years is the Indian holy man and miracle-worker Sai Baba. Now in his 70s, when an adolescent he claimed to be a reincarnation of a famous sadhu (holy man), Sai Baba of Shirdi who died in 1918. He also began to perform the acts of materialisation that have made him renowned throughout the world.
Over the years, Sai Baba has apported thousands of items for his followers: statues of gods, stones, crucifixes, pendants, gold and silver ornaments and photographs. He has even performed a modern version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, producing hot snacks for an entire crowd. During most of his demonstrations, though, he distributes handfuls of materialised white ash which, according to many of his followers, is endowed with miraculous healing properties.
Sai Baba remains a controversial figure in his native country. Revered by many as an avatar or living god, to his detractors he is simply an ingenious conjuror. Many scientists have watched him at work and several have come away convinced. However, sceptics have highlighted his refusal to participate in laboratory experiments. Sai Baba counters that the miracles are of minor importance compared with his true message, which is to unite different religions and bring about world peace.
Perhaps the greatest problem standing in the way of a more widespread acceptance of SMO is its obvious similarity to conjuring tricks. Any magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat and a good close-up performer can make things appear and disappear at least as impressively as any supposed psychic. So is there any reason, other than wishful thinking, to believe in paranormal materialisations? Well, there are a few eye-witness accounts.
For example, Professor Arthur Ellison, former president of the Society for Psychical Research, has described what he saw when a medium apported a rose in front of his eyes. As we watched, in clear light, a 'pink glow' began to form above the medium's hand. Slowly, a shape formed inside the glow. This turned into a solid rose which dropped down onto the medium's hands, no more than a foot away from where Ellison was standing. No magician can do that.
Then there is the impressive, though contraversial evidence produced by a long-running experiment carried out in the USA by the SORRAT (Society for Research on Rapport and Telekinesis) group. Originally formed in the 1960s by the spiritualist Dr. John Neilhardt, SORRAT met for 20 years, during which time they achieved some spectacular poltergeist-style effects.
In the late 70s, the parapsychologist William E. Cox (who had long been involved with the group) devised what he termed a 'mini-lab;' an upturned aquarium, locked and monitored by a camera, in an attempt to produce incontrovertible proof of psychokinesis (PK). Inside the mini-lab Cox placed a variety of objects such as small beads, rings, paper and pens. Over the next few years the mini-lab succeeded beyond anyone's expectation. Film revealed objects moving around, as though lifted by invisible hands. Writing appeared on paper left inside the mini-lab and solid rings linked together. In time, materialisation events became commonplace; small objects appeared out of nowhere, while others vanished from the box. At one point members of SORRAT began using the mini-lab as a psychic post-box. Unsealed and unstamped envelopes placed inside the mini-lab would disappear, only to be delivered a few days later through the regular mail, correctly postmarked - although often, for some reason, bearing foreign stamps.
When subjected to close analysis, however, the film of these events raised as many questions as it answered. There are no shots of half-materialised apports and none of the slow materialisation reported by Ellison and others who have seen mediums at work. Objects appear or vanish instantaneously, between frames. In fact, this is in line with what is usually reported in poltergeist cases. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the mini-labs were independently checked and sealed, there have been accusations of fraud. The phenomena, perhaps, seem just too good to be true. What is needed, as always in science, is replication and there have in fact been various attempts to carry out mini-lab experiments elsewhere, with limited success. To date, though, SORRAT's results remain unparalleled.
The sceptics' trump card is the acknowledged fact that, according to the known laws of physics, SMO is impossible. But is it? An interesting theory has been put forward by a Professor who tested Uri Geller in the early 70s and who was afterwards plagued by a series of poltergeist-style manifestations so disturbing that his wife threatened to leave him!
The Professor sees teleportation as a manifestation of quantum non-locality. In the quantum world it is perfectly normal for a subatomic particle to jump from one place to another without passing through the space in between. He has stated that this power could be harnessed 'within 50 or 100 years - except that it will be very dangerous in that your head might come off or something like that.' We seem here to be in the realms of science-fiction.
But SMO might just be more common than we realise. Far from being restricted to Victorian parlours and poltergeist-plagued houses, it could be happening all the time.
How often have you been mystified by something not being in the place where you 'could have sworn' you had put it just a few minutes ago? Most people have from time to time found objects lying around the house that do not seem to belong there. Often these finds take the form of small amounts of money which can always be explained as fallen out of pockets. Yet some people come across foreign coins or antique ones in places that are regularly cleaned. Others report finding jewellery, old books or small antiquities. In past centuries such events were often put down to fairies, ghosts or mischievous spirits. But with the decline in traditional beliefs, they are simply ignored or put down to absent-mindedness.
Perhaps, though, such common-sense rationalisations can occasionally lead us to overlook encounters with the unknown. It may be that almost everyone, from time to time, experiences PK in the home - but hardly anyone notices.