Robert G. Jahn, a long time Princeton University professor and Engineering School dean who died on November 15 at the age of 87, was a scientist with a great interest in both outer space and — for lack of a better term — inner space. This latter interest made him a highly controversial figure within the academic and scientific communities.
His first area of research involved advanced rocket propulsion systems that are now routinely used for global satellite positioning and will soon power deep space travel. In 2012, Jahn received a lifetime achievement award, honoring his leadership in the field and more than 200 publications. His work, initially viewed with skepticism by some scientists, laid the groundwork for electrically charged particles to provide rocket thrust rather than conventional chemical fuels. The lab he started more than a half century ago is now Princeton University’s longest running laboratory.
Of equal importance to Jahn’s interest in outer space was his interest in the inner space of the human mind. He is most popularly known for this work, and in some circles most infamously known for it. He set up a laboratory on the Princeton campus to study how the mind might directly impact sensitive physical devices — in what is often called “mind-over-matter.” Jahn changed the terminology to the more technical sounding “man-machine interactions.” And instead of the overall area of study being called parapsychology he framed it as “anomalies research.” Anomalies are events that currently have no physical explanation.
Jahn’s lab for this inner space research was called the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory (PEAR lab). It operated for nearly 30 years though it never garnered the same university support that the rocket propulsion work had because of the subject matter. The PEAR lab seemed to be something of a pariah to the university’s self-image. As noted in the university’s obituary for Jahn, “These investigations set Jahn at odds with many colleagues, some of whom objected to any such research on campus. Jahn reached an agreement with university administrators by which he could continue the work but only with private funding and without graduate students.”
I met Professor Jahn in 1971, when he became dean of the engineering school, and I was an entering freshman. I soon joined the aerospace and mechanical sciences, which was Jahn’s home department. We all knew him as serious but informal, and for most of us, he was “Bob.” He was highly successful as a dean, doubling the number of undergraduates in the school, streamlining operations, and helping to make it into a world class institution. During his early years as dean his main focus of research remained his propulsion lab. He had not yet been introduced to what he would later characterize as “the role of consciousness in the physical world.”
In the spring of 1976 Bob had an encounter with an undergraduate student that would change the course of his life’s work. The student approached him with an unusual question. Could he help her find a professor to oversee an independent research project on the subject of “mind-over-matter”? Of course, to even suggest such a thing within Princeton’s hallowed halls is like swearing up a blue streak in the University Chapel. The Engineering School was known for its theoretical approach to complex engineering problems, and none of the professors she had approached would go near the subject. But Jahn, always open and inquiring, asked her to describe what she wanted to do. Based on a prior study she had read about, she wanted to see if people could mentally influence the output of a random number generator such that it would give unexpected or skewed patterns of numbers.
In spite of Jahn’s focused area of expertise and impressive mainstream credentials, he agreed to oversee the project himself. He had one condition, however. The guiding philosophy was that the results would have to speak for themselves. There would be no wishful thinking, only hard data making the case for or against the proposition.
Against all reasonable expectations, the results of the study turned out to be highly positive. The data supported the hypothesis through statistical analysis that people could in fact mentally direct changes in the behavior of a physical device. Jahn was forced to accept his own position, namely that research results trump our preconceived notions. So, without necessarily believing that human minds had created the effect, he concluded that the subject warranted further study.
The rest of the school quickly forgot the research, including the student who had initiated it. But Jahn did not. If there were indeed such an effect, it would have huge implications as to how we think about reality. And it could even mean that parts of our infrastructure could be at risk for sabotage. By the late 1970s he had secured funding for new a lab from a Princeton alumnus, James McDonnell ‘21, founder of the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Company. Jahn recruited developmental psychologist Brenda Dunne from the University of Chicago to be the lab manager, and he was in business. In 1979, Jahn and Dunne officially opened the PEAR lab.
By this time, I had moved into town and was working for Educational Testing Service doing engineering design for their perception research studies. I continued my career with positions in management at Trac Lease and Seacastle, I kept track of the PEAR Lab’s work, as the study of mind and consciousness had always been a dream of mine. Over the years I helped with some of the early equipment and volunteered as a subject in some of the studies. Jahn and Dunne’s first book, published in 1987, was called Margins of Reality. It covered a number of findings including gender differences in mind-matter results, as well as the odd fact that people do their best work when they first start. For some reason their effectiveness declines over time. They also found that distance between the subject and the device doesn’t seem to make a difference; the process seemed to work just as well from across the continent.
The lab’s work covered another major area of study called remote viewing. Remote viewing involves the ability to envision the setting of some remote location and gain information about it by thought alone. The lab’s work ran simultaneous to the U.S. military’s secret “Stargate” program hoping to gather intelligence by remote viewing. Both programs continued into the 1990s with highly provocative results. PEAR focused on protocols to judge how well subjects described the target setting, and the military focused on how they might use the information that had been gained. The military program was shut down when it became clear that the wider chain of command wouldn’t accept its findings as the basis for any proposed action. It wasn’t “actionable.”
When Jahn and Dunne finally closed the doors in February of 2007 the lab had produced more than 60 publications. It was also clear that everyone involved was pretty worn out. Getting the scientific community to accept real data of this nature was just short of impossible. As one scientist told Dunne, “I wouldn’t believe it even if it were true.” That final afternoon about 20 of us sat around the lab for hours reminiscing. The New York Times ran a feature story on the lab’s closing and all the controversy that it had created. Jahn stated in the interview “It’s time for a new era, for someone to figure out what the implications of our results are for human culture, for future study, and — if the findings are correct — what they say about our basic scientific attitude.”
Jahn was calling into question the way that unconventional subjects are accommodated within a scientific setting. Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, published an essay in 1939 entitled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Knowledge can seem useless when it is outside the current frame of reference, but once understood in a new context it can spark a revolution.
Within the past few weeks the New York Times reported on a secret Pentagon project to investigate reports from various military pilots who had seen unidentified flying objects. Former Senator Harry Reid championed the project but kept the funding secret so that it would not be subject to public debate. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Reid told the Times. Admitting that he did not know exactly what the objects were, Reid added, “If anyone says they have the answers now, they’re fooling themselves. We do not know.” But, he added, “we have to start someplace.”
After the lab shut down Jahn and Dunne wanted to continue their work, particularly editing and publishing books related to the subject of anomalies. So, we packed up the lab and moved over to Harrison Street near the Princeton Shopping Center. By then I had left the corporate world with the financial freedom to cofound a company, Psyleron, to commercially produce the random number generators to sell to other researchers and the public. Since I owned this new building, we set up Psyleron there as well. Dunne remained in charge of what was called the International Consciousness Research Laboratories, and Jahn popped in almost daily for discussion.
When Jahn contracted pneumonia last November, probably on a recent plane trip, he was admitted to Princeton hospital. I sat with him on a Friday and we chatted amiably about the future of the field. I was optimistic that he would recover even though he looked so frail. The next day, however, he took a turn for the worse, and a few days later died. He is survived by his children Eric, Jill, and Nina, and seven grandchildren — and his black lab Percy.
On our PEAR group listserv, for those connected with the lab in some way, there was an extraordinary outpouring of feeling. Few people may be aware of how many academics and professionals around the world are (secretly) interested in this kind of consciousness research. Most remain anonymous for fear of career reprisals. But this is finally starting to change, and no doubt in part because of Jahn.
I can only imagine that there was a similar outpouring from within Jahn’s propulsion engineering community. He guided 34 students to PhDs in addition to many students earning masters degrees. They have gone on to dominate the field of ion propulsion, and become engineering leaders in the effort to take us to Mars and the rest of the solar system. Robert Jahn was an extraordinary spirit with a lasting legacy. Most of us would be honored to make original contributions in a single area. To do long-term, rigorous, groundbreaking research in two such vastly different areas of interest takes creativity to a level that is almost hard to fathom.
Herb Mertz is former executive vice president and COO at Trac Lease Inc. and Seacastle Inc., the world’s largest lessor of international shipping chassis. He is completing a book on his personal experience with REG (random event generator) devices.