Savants and Psychics, Beauty and Buddhists at Promega

Savants and Psychics, Beauty and Buddhists at Promega

A mathematical savant, virtual reality experts, renowned nature nature film-maker, well known author, “remote viewer” and assorted new-age folks were part of Promega’s BioPharmaceutical Technology Center’s annual forum on consciousness, Awakening Through Our Senses, that took place May 18-19. It was a mixed bag of amazing science and technology, unmatched beauty, the preposterous, odd and forgettable. There was something for everyone across the intellectual spectrum.

Science and Beauty

John Padgett, who lives in Tacoma, once was a struggling futon salesman who was never much of a student. He did not like math, had to repeat his senior year of high school and was a “hard partying, goof-off.” One evening, he was jumped from behind and beaten by two thugs who wanted his jacket. Padgett suffered a concussion, but soon found that he had a new and unique way to look at the world. He described how, once viewing a rainbow, he realized that it represented the number Pi and explained this to us. He was correct. He began seeing numbers and equations as figures and drew them and not knowing the language of math, he developed his own terms and symbols. He has what is called Acquired Savant Syndrome and is a genius number theorist. He published a book of his experience, Struck by Genius, which is being made into a major motion picture by Sony Pictures and Channing Tatum. He also is a TEDx speaker. From a futon genius to a fractal genius all because of a punch in the head. Someone hit me!

Andrea Won, an Assistant Professor at Cornell University described her work developing “mixed” virtual reality tools for health applications. One tool she showed creates and shows an avatar (hence “mixed”) of the viewer. The viewer can visually follow her own movements in 3-dimensions. The goal is to use this as a therapy tool to help people with limb damage (say from a stroke) work to regain function of the affected limb. Other uses are being developed for PTSD patients. With mixed reality, the patient can, while in a safe environment, gradually relive the trauma that triggered the disorder so he can learn to respond to it differently.

The beauty came from Diane Ackerman and Louie Schwartzberg. Ackerman, an, “interpreter of science” and well known author, read a piece she wrote about the senses and described how, in nature, she tries to see the world from an animal’s perspective. She described being an owl, including what it was like swallowing a small furry thing then regurgitating it. Nice. Her writing is like poetry, it is beautiful. That is not surprising since she wrote the best seller, The Zookeeper’s Wife, which was recently released as a critically acclaimed motion picture.

Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned Los Angeles-based film producer. His recent releases include the 3D IMAX film Mysteries of the Unseen World with National Geographic and narrated by Forest Whitaker. He also filmed Wings of Life, a Disneynature documentary, narrated by Meryl Streep. His stunning imagery is seen in films by Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and others. You can view his work in films like American Beauty, The Bourne Ultimatum, Crash, Erin Brockovich, E.T., Independence Day, Jerry Maguire, Men in Black, Twister and others. He specializes in time-lapse and high-speed cinematography and wowed the audience with videos of flowers opening, cocoons opening and humming birds and bees visiting flowers. They were absolutely stunning.

Preposterous, Odd and Forgettable

Then we were entertained by a tall, thin, Caucasian Buddhist monk and “sound healer,” John Preston, who regaled us with the Buddhist Top 40 using gongs and bowl-like things. He and a helper used something like a toilet brush to stroke the instruments so they made loud humming sounds. Sometimes Preston chanted. He explained that our “senses are a perfect, empty invitation into the awakening on our way to perfection.” Ok. He described his five years of meditation in a Thai monastery as “rising into the cosmos, until gravity brought him down.” Ok. And there was this tidbit, “Understanding you are nothing, means you are everything.” Hmm. There were people in the audience nodding their heads with their eyes closed. You will have to ask one of them what the session was about. I guess I am not perfected and have never risen far into the cosmos.

Along with this were Lisa O’Connor and Malynn Utzinger, both from Promega’s Integrative Practices department. O’Conner, tattooed and wearing flowing, silk orange and saffron colored robes and pink pants, continued the other-world concert by playing mournful sounds on some sort of bellows device she squeezed with one hand, while waving the other and emitting long, vocal, random notes designed to “walk you home, into the deep codes of contentment, seeded in our essential nature.” She implored us to “authenticate our pericardium in order to soften our hearts.” Sheesh. Utzinger, who also is a family physician at the UW Hospital, specializes in mindfulness, Ayurveda and “other mind-body practices.” Her “talk” was to lead the audience in some breathy guided meditation. It seems that being breathy is required by those who meditate. She had us slowly raise our hands and inhale, then exhale while bringing our hands down to the center of the electrical field in our chests. For this, the audience gave her a standing applause.

These “talks” reminded me of the book, Fashionable Nonsense, which is about two Columbia U scholars who made up an article using vague, vacuous, new-age language and had it published in a respected journal. It was lauded as breaking new ground but was deliberate nonsense. It revealed the unclothed emperor that is well and alive in academia and in Madison science companies.

And there was Joe McMoneagle, the remote viewer. He talked about his history of remote viewing and how it has been used by the army, CIA, DIA and NSA in order to spy on the Russians. He gave some amazing stories about being able to visualize CIA files locked in a vault (as a test) and identify a huge submarine the Russians were constructing in a secret location in central Russia. He said that he alerted then CIA Russian Desk Director Robert Gates (later to be head of the CIA) about the sub, who threw the report in the trash. But, McMoneagle was able to convince someone to direct satellite surveillance on the building and sure enough, he claims, the world’s largest sub was born. These and others were fantastic stories, and even me, as a skeptic, had a hard time discounting because the events he described were allegedly witnessed by several people high in the government. But, he lost me when he described his ability to predict the future. That was beyond understanding. In his talk, he mentioned in passing about being divorced twice. I asked him why he could not foresee the divorces and he replied that his emotions got in the way of his foresight. Darn emotions.

Do You Know What I Am Thinking?

Promega is a company that makes tools for science, forensic and medical laboratories. Why is it hosting a forum that (with a few exceptions) features new-age, paranormal, unscientific speakers like this? Bill Litton, the founder of Promega, told the audience that as a child of the 60s, he has an abiding interest in things like human energy states and the paranormal. So, his fingerprint was all over this forum. I too am a child of the 60s and have never felt a pull from these things. I am a scientist. Science and pseudoscience do not mix well.

Well, I think I will go find some inner perfection for an hour or so on my sofa.


Steven S. Clark, Ph.D., is a former professor and medical researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. More recently he directed research development at the Milwaukee Institute for Drug Discovery and consults for universities, biotechnology companies and healthcare organizations. His blog BioScience Biz can be read at

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