The Nick Nelson Report
IIG Investigation of Nick Nelson and the ‘Shrink and Grow’ Effect.
By Mark Edward and Dave Richards
In January of 2008 the Independent Investigations Group received an application for the IIG $50,000 challenge from Nick Nelson of Columbia Falls, Montana. Mr. Nelson’s claim was in response to our investigation of “gravity hill” where we found that objects that initially appeared to roll uphill were in fact rolling downhill. Nelson contended that there were such things as vortexes [sic] where real effects like this could be objectively observed and documented.
In his initial claim, Mr. Nelson said that in one of these vortices he could make himself look larger or smaller in photographs taken only a few moments apart, using this phenomenon. In trying to describe what happens, Mr. Nelson explained:
|“The most simple answer is that the phenomenon exists within my body, AND (sic) surrounds me a ways out from it… Therefore things in the near vicinity to me are altered with me.”|
The IIG began the serious IIG consideration of this claim beginning in February 2008. Several concerns were raised with his suggested protocol, including the fact that someone can easily alter their posture and stature from one moment to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally. So the first response from the IIG suggested that the subject to be used in photographs would have to be an inanimate object rather than a person. We also proposed that a measuring tape or device should appear visible in the photos as a reference.
Mr. Nelson sent the IIG the following message on Feb. 05, 2008:
“I agree to a stipulation that some sort of measuring device be used in the demonstration.”
Nelson objected to a measuring tape being present, because he said the vortex would act equally on the subject as well as the tape, in other words the tape would shrink or grow along with the subject of the photo, so the tape in the picture wouldn’t indicate a change.
Thus began a long exchange of communication in emails and phone calls between the IIG and Nick Nelson. Early on, Nelson offered to pay the expenses for two IIG representatives to travel to Montana to conduct tests at a “Mystery spot” type of site that Nelson is connected to there. The IIG was willing to do that, but we never seemed to be able to firm up details with him to make that happen.
Several months went by with sporadic contact with Nick Nelson, where he maintained he could produce the phenomenon, but we couldn’t seem to agree on where or how to meet with him in order to conduct the initial demonstration of the effect, that if successful, would then lead to the actual test for the $50,000 prize.
In March 2010 Mr. Nelson sent the IIG a document he’d written that was several pages, covering the history of the Shrink and Grow effect, and described all the ‘Mystery’ or vortex sites around the country he was aware of. It included several photographs representing examples of the effect in action. No one from the IIG Steering Committee was quite sure how to respond to that submission, and there was no response sent. This was about the time the IIG began setting up a new committee that would become responsible for tracking communications and responding to emails.
Mr. Nelson re-sent the same document again in June 2010 to IIG member Jim Newman. The topic was discussed at the June IIG general meeting. It was suggested that David Richards review the submission, since it mentioned the IIG investigation into “gravity hill” and Richards had been one of the lead investigators and authors of that report. Dave also has a background in physics, optics, and photography and as such was qualified to write a document responding to the main points in Mr. Nelson’s submission. This new document was reviewed by the IIG Steering Committee and sent to Nelson in July 2010.
Richards’ response raised questions about some of the conditions under which the photographs were taken. Specifically, questions were raised about why people in the photographs may have appeared to be different sizes. An alternative hypothesis was suggested, that everything in the photos demonstrated normal perspective, with no mysterious effect from a vortex necessary, and certainly not proven.
As part of drafting this response Richards contacted Matt Lowry, “The Skeptical Teacher”, who had been in touch with the IIG. Lowry visited the site of the Montana Vortex in 2006. Lowry’s report may be found here.
Richards didn’t feel that Lowry’s report fully accounted for the phenomenon, since it focused heavily on whether the ground was level at the site where photographs were taken. Richards felt that non-level ground was not responsible for the effect, but could potentially assist in disguising the real cause of the effect in photos, which is that two people or objects that were allegedly the same distance from the camera when the picture was taken, actually weren’t the same distance. Because of the distance being different, when two people switch places their relative size appears to change. The non-level ground may be used to disguise normal perspective from an object being further away.
For example, if two people are standing in front of a camera on flat, level ground, and one is slightly further away, normal perspective would cause the further person to appear smaller and shorter, their head would be lower than the other person’s but their feet would also be higher, i.e. further from the bottom edge of the frame. This is a normal effect of perspective; the ground appears to rise with distance. By the ground not being level, for example if it slopes down toward the side where the further person is standing, this can cancel out the effect of the person’s feet being higher in a photo – all of the effect will then be transferred to the top of their head, and their head will appear to be lower than the other person, even if the two people are really the same size. This effect may be assisted further if the background horizon is comprised of hills, or is sloping in a way to assist the illusion. But it isn’t the non-level ground or the sloping horizon that makes the person smaller in the photo, that’s a distraction (a magician would call it misdirection). The real cause of someone being smaller in the photo is the fact that one person is further from the camera than the other person.
After David Richards’ evaluation of Nick Nelson’s document was sent to Nelson, Nelson responded with admissions of errors in a few of the points claimed, but reiterated other of the claims. The emails started coming faster, with Nelson getting bolder and more confident.
During this period IIG Steering Committee member Steve Muscarella had taken over primary responsibility for interacting with Nelson on this claim and application. Muscarella began pressuring Nelson to “put up or shut up.” Nelson began to indicate that he’d be willing to come to the Los Angeles area to demonstrate the vortex effect to the IIG in person.
In one of the contacts with Nelson in early 2011, he said that he was planning a trip to the Los Angeles area in a few months and would be willing to demonstrate the effect for the IIG at that time. Steve Muscarella left the IIG Steering Committee at that time as he was moving, and Mark Edward took over Lead Investigator responsibility for communicating with Nelson.
In March and April serious discussion of a protocol for the demonstration (and ultimately, a test) was begun and David Richards wrote a draft for a protocol, which would involve taking photos of a scene containing two identical poles, both the same distance from the camera.
Nelson told us he’d identify a site with a vortex within a short driving distance of Los Angeles. The plan was for Nelson to pick out a site and the IIG representatives would meet him there to do the demonstration. The date of Saturday, April 30 was agreed on for Nelson to meet with the IIG.
After Nick Nelson arrived in Los Angeles and a few days before his scheduled appointment, IIG Chair James Underdown contacted Nick by phone to verify he was coming, and to discuss logistics for the event.
Nelson agreed to come to the offices of CFI-Los Angeles on April 27 to meet with James Underdown and sign the application for the Challenge, sign the test protocol, and to bring the two poles that would be used for the photos. When Nelson and Underdown met that day, Nelson gave Underdown the good news that Nelson would be able to create a vortex on the CFI property, that no traveling to a field site would be necessary.
Two mock-ups were built by Dave Richards. One showing the set-up as it would be constructed on level ground (See Fig. 1) and another (not shown) showing that even if the entire tabletop model was set on a slant, it would not affect the measurements. (Imagine Fig. 1 lifted up two inches on one end to see this effect.)
|The Mock-Up Model (Fig. 1)|
On the morning of the demonstration, an area was laid out in an upstairs room at CFI-LA. Nick’s poles were set up five feet apart, and a camera was set up on a tripod 12 feet from the two poles. Thin wall steel pipe was used as a measuring stick to determine that the distance from the camera lens to the top and bottom of both poles was the same, to within about 1 inch. This was about the limit of accuracy attainable due to the fact that the poles were wood and not perfectly straight. (Fig. 2)
|The Set-Up (Fig.2)|
Nick Nelson arrived and began his stated claim of “creating a vortex.”
A test photograph was made. (Fig. 3)
The Measuring (Fig 3)
The memory chip was removed from the camera leaving it in position, and the chip was transferred to a computer so it could be printed.
Three judges used calipers to measure the height of the poles to determine they were equal, within the precision of measurement possible. For this part of the test, he opened a briefcase and removed several small magnets and a magnetized pendulum (See Fig. 4).
Nick then began a series of perambulations and visual measurements that involved seemingly careful placement of magnets followed by what appeared to be visual sight alignments. The group that was assembled to watch this test sat in rapt silence.
|Nick Nelson "Pedulizing" (Fig. 4)|
During this time, told some truly fantastic yarns in what quickly became recognized by this performer as careful memorized tour guide style shtick. I’m sure Nick is a great asset to any tilt-house tour, but his vortex tales literally fell flat on deaf ears. Using techniques of suggestion and telling anecdotal tales may work on the carnival midway or at such places as The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA., (See Fig. 5)
|Mark Edward experiencing a “vortex” at The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA., where like in many other roadside tourist attractions, easily understood scientific principles are sold to tourists as “unexplained phenomena.” (Fig. 5)|
Unfortunately for Nick, at least in this carefully calibrated laboratory environment, such prevarications only come off as desperate rationalizations.
Nick was watched like a hawk to make sure he never got near enough to the centered poles to jostle or otherwise re-position them in a way that would have affected the photographs. A technique Uri Geller has used on occasion has been to intentionally wear down the attention span of investigators to the point where they become so bored or fatigued they looked away for one brief second – at which time he would bend the spoon or do any dirty work he needed to do.
This is a method that anyone considering testing a psychic should be wary of. We doubted Nick had mastered such shifty techniques, but we watched him non-stop just the same. Nobody is above suspicion when there’s $50,000 and the reputation of the IIG on the line. We had made sure everything was scrupulously measured and securely taped down. In addition, everything was being monitored and video-taped by several IIG members to counter any such methods. (See Fig. 6)
|Some of the cameras in use (Fig.6)|
After walking through his various motions for about 45 minutes, Nick started looking a little uncomfortable. Like the rest of us, he had noticed some of the members in the assembled group who were gathered to watch him start to show some body language that suggested they were getting bored. Just how long does it take to create a vortex anyway? When arms started crossing, heads nodded to chests and sighs and yawns became manifest, Nick trotted out the most tired of excuses to try to bolster his claim. His once confident dialogue then took a left turn and he said:
Nick: “I feel like a fool. There is a problem here.”
Jim U: What’s the problem?
Nick: All you you.
Jim U: All of us? We could clear the room. We need a couple of people here to observe.
Nick: “Like I said, I feel like a fool. How many people are here?”
Jim U: “Tell us what you need. You’re in charge of making yourself comfortable. So, do you need half the people to leave? Do you need 3/4 of them to leave the room?
Nick: “I’m not sure that would work, you’ve all been exposed to me”
Jim U: “Well, we could have them move out for a minute”
Nick: “Could you do that?”
This new addendum to the signed protocol concerning so-called “negative energy present in the room” was a surprising twist – but not an entirely unexpected development.
Mediums (as well as other believers and pretenders) have tried to use this dodge to get out of carefully controlled laboratory conditions for decades. Whether this display of uncertainty was an example of this alibi or a heartfelt apprehension of foreboding or mistrust of the general conditions that were present is not in the purview of this report, but claiming that someone in the crowd was countering his best vortex summoning efforts offered yet another chance for Nick to deliver a colorful anecdote (that several of us would hear spoken again word for word after the test) suggesting this has happened to him in his past.
Veering slightly away from the agreed upon protocol, all observers but Dave Richards, Jim Underdown and Mark Edward left the room. Nick then doubled-down his intensity and started a entirely new set of floor patterns with his magnets, a measuring tape and pendulum. The poles remained stationary in their original spots, the camera remained fixed and the three remaining observers took up strategic positions in the room to verify nothing would change with our set-up. (See Fig. 7)
|The Cleared Room Scenario (Fig. 7)
Some of the potential opposite-vortex creators removed from the testing area
Some of the group relegated downstairs.
After another 45 minutes of re-adjusting, sighting and generally getting frustrated, Nick finally gave up. He continued to insist that if we were on his own home turf, there would have been no problem in creating a certifiable “vortex.” (See Fig. 8)
|Nearing the End of Three Years of Investigation (Fig. 8)|
Soon after, Nick began packing up his tools and the group that had previously been watching was allowed back into the room. We all thanked him and he seemed happy that we had not in any way denigrated him or made him feel bad about losing the test.
We remained professional throughout and reminded Nick that he could re-apply again for the $50,000 in one year. Cameras were turned off and the U-Stream was closed down.
Afterwards, IIG member and Media Committee member John Rael asked Nick what it would take to ‘falsify’ his claim. He told all of us that if we went up to Montana to one of his “confirmed” vortex locations and he still couldn’t produce results that his theory would be proven wrong. We all were in agreement that this is not likely to ever happen. If and when such an event occurs, rest assured that with the same set of dedicated investigators, prepared with scientific guidelines, measurements and protocol, the results would be the same.
Once again, IIG proved that no manner of simple elucidation, implication or suggestion can controvert reason when science is applied in a no-nonsense environment. It’s fun to visit a tilt-house and experience a momentary feeling of disorientation and the other-worldliness of optical illusions close-up and in your face, but it’s a whole other world when the show is over.
In a continuation of a long tradition of mediums, psychics and other claimants who choose to not take the graceful path and leave well enough alone, IIG Chair Jim Underdown received a letter from Nick Nelson on Monday, May 9, 2011. The rambling missive made several excuses and allegations that need not be re-printed here. Here is a pertinent excerpt that neatly sums up Mr. Nelson’s attitude:
“My last sight of the IIG people was when many of them were heading up the sidewalk toward the restaurant where the “victory” lunch was to be held. At the head of the group was the leader, James Underdown. I have that picture tattooed on my brain cells. All Mr. Underdown lacked was a staff and a flowing robe.”
IIG is a group of dedicated researchers who work hard in the service of separating nuggets of truth, if possible, from the world of the paranormal.
Just to underscore that Nick's version of the universe isn’t quite so scientifically accurate; Jim Underdown drove his car to the House of Pies that day, and so could not have been at the head of the group -- staff and robes notwithstanding.
Maybe Nick should get a few of the tattoos on his brain corrected.
Link to protocol
Live Ustream recording of test (New window)
More images of event (Coming soon)
Mark Edward’s blog on “Nick’s Big day” at Skepticblog (New window)
Mark Edward and Susan Gerbic’s video of the Nick Nelson Preliminary Test (New window)