Natalia's claim, put forth by her lawyer, was that she could both read and discern colors while blindfolded. How? By sheer mental perception. She had willingly submitted to the Million Dollar Challenge, a test proposed by investigator James Randi and agreed to by her lawyer and by her coach, Mark Komissarov, a Russian chemical engineer and expatriate who now specializes in teaching pupils to develop what he considers to be their innate paranormal powers.
While video cameras rolled, Natalia's mother covered her daughter's eyes, first with black duct tape, and later with a black, sponge rubber blindfold. During the nearly hour-long "warmup" period that followed, her coach, occasionally speaking to her in Russian, passed a series of cards, each imprinted with a simple word, and sheets of colored paper in front of her. Natalia strained, turning her head from side to side, tilting it forward, grimacing, contorting her face, occasionally rubbing her chin against one shoulder or the other, and calling out words and colors.
JONATHAN SAUNDERS FOR TIMENatalia Lulova
Finally, she pronounced herself ready. How many of the ten words would she recognize, she was asked. "All ten," she said confidently, and then proceeded to do so, as well as correctly identifying the colors of paper sheets passed in front of her face. As the blindfold was removed, Natalia could not hide a triumphant smile. A miracle? Not so fast.
Now it was Randi's turn to test. He outfitted Natalia with a pair of swimmer's goggles, the lenses blocked by sponge rubber and aluminum foil, and asked Komissarov again to demonstrate his pupil's talents. After another warmup, and under close scrutiny by Randi, Natalia was successful once more. Undaunted, Randi placed duct tape around the edges of the blindfold, taking care to place an extra strip across the bridge of Natalia's nose. "Please speak only in English," he admonished both coach and pupil, "and Natalia, please do not rub or pull on your face" (actions that Randi knew were intended to loosen the masking tape). Suddenly, Natalia's powers vanished. Time and again, she flubbed her identifications of words and colors. After more than an hour, her lawyer conceded defeat.
Randi's explanation of Natalia's earlier success was simple. He had noticed an unusual concavity in the bridge of her nose and discerned, from the sideways turning of her head, that she was using her right eye to look left or the left eye to look right through tiny, hairline gaps between the blindfold and her distinctive nose. By placing duct tape over the bridge, he had, so to speak, unmasked Natalia's (and Komissarov's) deception.
For many years, as a master debunker of the paranormal, Randi had offered $1,000 and then $10,000 to anyone who could, in a test agreed upon by both Randi and the challenger, prove supernatural powers. But five years ago, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur and admirer of Randi called and said, in effect, "Ten thousand simply doesn't cut it these days." He promptly dispatched a million dollars to Randi's foundation, which purchased negotiable bonds and placed them in a special account where they await the first successful challenger. It promises to be a long wait.
Most of the challengers to date have been minor players in the world of the paranormal: a nurse who practices therapeutic touch, assorted dowsers, medical quacks and psychic readers. All have failed. But despite Randi's specific challenge to several of the big guns, none has risked being exposed. Among those who have refused are Israeli psychic Uri Geller, French chemist and mystical homeopathy buff Jacques Benveniste, "Crossing Over" host John Edward and University of Arizona scientist Gary Schwartz, who claims to have validated Edward's claims that he hears from the dead. Noted psychic Sylvia Browne, who months ago brashly promised on the Larry King show that she would indeed take the Million Dollar Challenge, has since avoided Randi's calls and has yet to be heard from.
What are they afraid of? Charlatans, fakirs, mystics, and dreamers alike, they are all too aware that James Randi's meticulously-devised tests can destroy their reputations, such as they are, and make fools of them all.