In January of 2008 the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) received an application for our $50,000 challenge from Nick Nelson of Columbia Falls, Montana. Mr. Nelson’s claim followed 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 where real effects like this could be objectively observed and documented.
In his initial claim, Mr. Nelson said that in one of these vortexes he could make himself look larger or smaller in photographs taken only a few moments apart. In trying to describe the phenomenon, 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 turned its attention to this claim 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. The IIG suggested that the subject used in photographs should be an inanimate object to avoid this possibility. We also proposed that a measuring tape or comparable device should appear visible in the photos as a reference.
On February 5, 2008, Mr. Nelson sent the IIG the following message:
“I agree to a stipulation that some sort of measuring device be used in the demonstration.”
Nelson objected to a measuring tapebeing used because he said the vortex would act equally on the subject as well as the tape, with the tape shrinking or growing along with the subject, making the phenomenon impossible to measure.
Thus began a long exchange of 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 between Nick Nelson and the IIG in which Nelson continually maintained that he could reproduce the phenomenon but an agreement could not be reached as to where and when to carry out the initial demonstration of the effect, a prerequisite for the actual test for the $50,000.
In March 2010 Mr. Nelson sent the IIG a document he’d written that was several pages long covering the history of the Shrink and Grow effect in which he also described all the ‘mystery’ or vortex sites around the country he was aware of. It included several relevant photographs. No one from the IIG Steering Committee was quite sure how to respond to that submission, so there was no response sent.
Mr. Nelson re-sent the same document again in June 2010 to IIG member Jim Newman, which was brought up 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 on that claim and an author 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. He posited that everything in the photos could demonstrate a normal perspective, and that the photos certainly weren't proof of anything definitive.
As part of drafting this response Richards contacted Matt Lowry, “The Skeptical Teacher”, who had been in touch with the IIG and had visited 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 and did not account for other possible factors at play. Richards felt that the non-level ground was not responsible for the effect, but could potentially be disguising the real cause, which could simply be a result of the fact that the two people or objects that were allegedly the same distance from the camera when the picture was taken weren’t actually at the same distance. If the distance were different, when the people switched places their relative size would appear to change.
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. If the ground is not level, if it, say, 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 further amplified 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. A flurry of emails from Nelson followed, 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 indicated that he’d be willing to come to the Los Angeles area to demonstrate the vortex effect to the IIG in person. In early 2011, Nelson 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 to move out of the country, and Mark Edward took over as lead investigator responsibility on Nelson's claim.
In March and April serious discussion of a protocol for the initial demonstration began and David Richards drafted a protocol which involved 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 and asked IIG representatives would meet him there for the demonstration. The date of Saturday, April 30 was agreed on.
After Nelson arrived in Los Angeles and a few days before his scheduled appointment, IIG Chair Jim 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 and the test protocol, and to bring the two poles that would be used for the photos. When Nelson and Underdown met that day, Nelson informed Underdown that he would be able to create a vortex directly on CFI property.
Two mock-ups were built by Dave Richards, one showing the setup 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.)
On the morning of the demonstration, Nick’s poles were set up five feet apart in an upstairs room at CFI-LA, 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 one inch. This was about the limit of accuracy attainable due to the fact that the poles were wood and not perfectly straight. (Fig. 2)
Nick Nelson arrived and a test photograph was made. (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. Nelson opened a briefcase and removed several small magnets and a magnetized pendulum (See Fig. 4). He then began a series of perambulations and visual measurements that involved seemingly precise placement of magnets followed by what appeared to be visual sight alignments. The assembled group watched in silence.
During this time, Nick told a series of vortex-related anecdotes.
The IIG made sure everything was scrupulously measured and securely taped down. In addition, everything was being monitored and videotaped by several IIG members. (See Fig. 6) Nick was under constant observation so that he had no opportunity to get close enough to the centered poles to re-position them in a way that would have affected the photographs.
After about 45 minutes of tinkering, Nick started looking a little uncomfortable. Some of the members in the assembled group were gathered were exhibiting body language that suggested they were getting bored. Nick spoke up about his discomfort.
The request for observers to be asked to leave the room, citing discomfort or "negative energy," is fairly common in the world of paranormal claimants and mediums. Veering slightly away from the agreed upon protocol, all observers but Dave Richards, Jim Underdown and Mark Edward left the room after Nick delivered a colorful anecdote (that several of us would hear spoken again word for word after the test) suggesting this problem happened to him in his past. He then worked even more intensely, starting an entirely new set of floor patterns with his magnets, a measuring tape and pendulum. The poles remained 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)
After another 45 minutes of readjusting, 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)
Soon after, Nick packed up his tools and the dismissed IIG members were allowed back into the room. We all thanked Nelson and reminded him that he could re-apply again for the $50,000 in one year. Cameras were turned off and the u-Stream was closed down. Nelson expressed no dissatisfaction with the test at this time.
Afterwards, IIG 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.
IIG Chair Jim Underdown received a letter from Nick Nelson on Monday, May 9, 2011 in which he made excuses for his failure and lobbied allegations against the IIG. Here is an 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.”
In fact, 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.