While having dinner and drinks with a few friends late the other evening, a friend of mine mentioned to me about local performer that I’d never heard of named Alain Nu. Although the original context of the conversation had been lost somewhere deep in my 40-year old brain, his name and the fact that he was some sort of stage magician stuck enough that I found him and “liked” his “Public Figure” profile on facebook and didn’t think much more about it.
On the morning of July 16th at approximately 5am, apparently there was an earthquake in Maryland. I didn’t experience it, but I woke up Friday morning to find it all over the news. According to the Baltimore Sun, it was a 3.6-magnitude quake centered near Germantown, MD, and did very little but startle people (I did find this picture of some earthquake damage). Although this is news, it’s only slightly interesting because earthquakes happen all the time around here, the only difference is that this was much stronger than most.
The really interesting bit happened later in the morning, when my friend (you know, the one that originally mentioned Alain Nu) copied and sent me this status update from Mr. Nu’s facebook page:
“Alain Nu was literally trying to use pk at exactly 5am this morning to move a pendulum in a lab in TX (I’m involved in a scientific challenge– more later), when a 3.6 magnitude earthquake hit Montgomery County, MD. At first I couldn’t believe it was happening, but then I rationalized it was just a low flying plane, but it shoo…ked my entire house and it’s now all over the news. Could that have been me?” – July 16 at 7:05am
Later in the day Mr. Nu followed up with a more detailed blog post, “Pendulums to PK Earthquake!“
Having just returned from TAM in Las Vegas, where there was a million dollar challenge demonstration, I was very curious about his involvement in a “scientific challenge”, not to mention the open-ended claim that he might’ve caused an earthquake. Did he actually think he had psychokinetic powers (pk)? What kind of “scientific challenge” could he possibly be involved in? Did he really think he caused an earthquake?
It seems that every kid at one point or another gets a magic kit. I remember having one as a kid with the disappearing coin trick, you know the one, that little plastic case in which you place a nickel, close the case and when you reopen, the coin has mysteriously vanished. This was a simple gadget based trick, where the case is built in such a way that the coin is hidden within the tray. Most of the kid versions of this trick were so poorly made that everyone could see how it worked, but played along anyway.
As an “old guy,” I’ve developed a interest in deception, both how people fool each other and how we fool ourselves. A magician’s performance is an example of both; While the magician attempts to fool the audience, the audience chooses to be fooled (a form of self-deception) and the result is a wonderfully entertaining experience.
Alain Nu performs Mentalism, which according to wikipedia, “is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities.” From the clips I’ve seen online, this is exactly the kind of show he performs, but perhaps with a little twist; Many of his tricks appear to show that audience members themselves have some sort of extraordinary mental power.
Here are a few videos that I’ve found:
I think his act looks pretty cool, and I’d love to see him bend spoons, divine numbers, mysterious card tricks, hypnotize people, or other freaky things. I’m even trying to track down a copy of his TLC miniseries “The Mysterious World of Alain Nu” (I heard something about him driving a car blindfolded!?). But I don’t think what he does is real – I’m not an expert on magic, but nothing he does seems too far away from what I’ve seen other performers do, even some that openly disclaim any supernatural powers.
While researching a bit about Mr Nu online, I came across one of his sites with a contact number for his promotional manager and an additional number, “To send a message to Alain”. I called the number expecting to leave a message asking for a brief interview, and not expecting a call back (since I’m just some blogger and he’s probably very busy – understandable). Surprisingly, he answered the phone! Completely nervous and unprepared, I introduced myself and he happily indulged my bumbling questions for about an hour. Most of the following is from that interview, condensed and garbled through my brain.
Mr. Nu been performing for over 20 years and was one of the first mentalism acts in Las Vegas. He believes he’s a bit different that magicians and traditional mentalists because of his interest in “consciousness studies” and traces this interest back to his training as a hypnotherapist. He also uses hypnosis in his act.
Mr. Nu didn’t try to convince me that what he does on stage is real, but he does believe there is something interesting going on. He says there have been frequent points in his performance where the results turn out more perfect, more often than should be expected. He describes a version of the “any card/any number” trick that has an element of chance in the results. Despite the element of chance, he claims to get a direct hit %30 of the time – even convincing Charlie Frye (a very talented juggler that does the trick on skill alone) during a conference in New Castle, UK. Mr. Nu performed 3 shows and in one of them, no doubt, he encountered a direct hit. He didn’t offer an explanation for this observation, but he did elude to some of the work done by PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) Laboratory, which claimed to have collected a large body of evidence that human thought can influence the output of machines that produce random events.
Although Mr. Nu wouldn’t release the name of the organization or individual that is executing the “scientific challenge” he’s involved in, he was willing to divulge a few more details about the experiment. There are two pendulums, suspended in some sort of sealed container, being monitored continuously by two cameras at different angles. He is to concentrate on one of the pendulums that has been predetermined, record the times, and then email them in. Later the results will be correlated with any movements of that pendulum, checking for movement by the other to eliminate any local physical disturbances (A truck rolling by or a local earthquake should disturb both pendulums). He doesn’t think he’ll be able to actually move the pendulum, but he’s hopeful, and confided that he might suggest to the experimenter, for another trial, that the pendulum be cut in half, so that he could be holding one of the halves while concentrating. He uses quantum entanglement as a possible reason for this to improve the results.
Deception: 1, Malice: 0
What do I think of all this? Well, I’m not a psychologist but it’s my understanding that Mr Nu’s on-stage experiences could be explained by some sort of confirmation bias, and I’m not a physicist but I’m pretty sure that quantum mechanics does not apply to anything larger than individual sub-atomic particles. Plus, the work of PEAR and the related organization ICRL (International Consciousness Research Laboratories) has been discredited by physicists such as Robert L. Park. The refreshing thing is that I don’t doubt that Mr Nu would be open to these explanations, although it’s clear he’s more open to explanations that I wouldn’t consider.
Mr Nu is an honest deceiver, who deceives as part of his act, and he truly believes that there is something else beyond the tricks he portrays on stage. My only hope is that he doesn’t blur the line too much, and continues to be open to real scientific explanations and not just the dreams of organizations like the Society for Scientific Exploration.
If you like his flavor of stage performance, make sure to check out his website, sign up for his mailing list, and “like” him on facebook. Also, If you’re interested in his views on physic abilities, check out his book, “Picture Your ESP!: Reveal Your Hidden Powers With ‘The Nu ESP Test’“