Deep in the basement of a dusty old library in Edinburgh lies a small black box that churns out random numbers. At first glance the box looks profoundly dull, but it is, in fact, the ‘eye' of a machine that appears capable of peering into the future.
The machine apparently sensed the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center four hours before they happened, and appeared to forewarn of the Asian Tsunami.
"It's Earth shattering stuff," says Dr Roger Nelson, Emeritus researcher at Princeton University in the USA. "But unfortunately we don't have a box for predicting the future that we can sell to the CIA. We're very early on in the process of trying to figure out what's going on here. At the moment we're stabbing in the dark."
Dr Nelson's Global Consciousness Project - originally hosted by Princeton University - is one of the most extraordinary experiments of all time. It aims to ‘sense' whether all of humanity shares a single unconscious mind that we all tap into without realizing it. Some might refer to it as the mind of God. But the machine has also thrown up another tantalizing possibility: that scientists may have unwittingly discovered a way of predicting the future.
Although many would consider the project's aims to be little more than fools' gold, it has still attracted a roster of 75 respected scientists from 41 different nations. Researchers from Princeton - where Einstein spent much of his career - work alongside scientists from universities in Britain, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. The project is also the most rigorous and longest running investigation ever into the paranormal.
"Very often paranormal phenomena evaporate if you study them for long enough," says physicist Dick Bierman of the University of Amsterdam. "But this is not happening with the Global Consciousness Project. The effect is real. The only dispute is about what it means."
The project has its roots in the extraordinary work of Professor Robert Jahn of Princeton University during the late 1970s. Professor Jahn was one of the first modern scientists to take paranormal phenomena seriously. Intrigued by such things as telepathy, telekinesis and ESP, he was determined to study the phenomena using the most up to date technology available.
One of these new technologies was a humble looking black box known was a Random Event Generator. This used sophisticated technology to generate two numbers - a one and a zero - in a totally random sequence, rather like an electronic coin-flipper. The pattern of ones and naughts - ‘heads' and ‘tails' as it were - can then be printed out as a graph. Pure chance dictates that the generators should churn out equal numbers of ones and zeros which produces a more or less flat line on a graph. Any deviation from this shows up as a gently rising curve.
During the late 1970s, Professor Jahn hauled strangers off the street and asked them to concentrate their minds on a number generator. In effect, he was asking them to try to make it flip more heads than tails. It was a preposterous idea at the time, and to many it still is.