Lunch with Edgar Mitchell

RIP Edgar Mitchell

I am saddened by the death of Edgar Mitchell (Apollo astronaut). One of the highlights of my life so far was having lunch with him in Lake Worth, just the two of us. He blew my mind wide open in a way that I’m still coming to terms with!

He was perceived as a bit of a pseudoscience kook. The reality is that he was an atheist and a scientist and an open minded skeptic who firmly believed that if something happened, there was a natural explanation for it and that science could explain how it was done.

He was also kind and gentle and understood completely why his detractors felt the way they did about him. He didn’t care. He just kept doing what he thought needed to be done. There is a lesson there about not caring what people say and doing your own thing anyway. Very few people have the courage to be wrong like that and humble enough to admit, what they dedicated their lives to was indeed, questionable. Why was he doing it? He truly wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t.

While I don’t know enough about the underlying science of his work at the Institute of Noetic Sciences to comment on the validity of his various projects, what impressed me about him was how his skepticism manifested as a gentle openness. His approach to skepticism was not to debunk, but to understand. If something happened, it was natural (and not supernatural) and could therefore be studied. His approach has had a profound impact on how I manifest my skepticism and curiosity.  

The stories he told me about things he experienced that he could not explain blew my mind. What was cooler than his story about finding a lost cufflink in a closed lab manifesting out of thin air was how he intellectually approached the experience. Of course it was a trick. What he wanted to know was how exactly it had been done.  Teleportation isn’t real – except he had experienced it. A cufflink that he had lost 20 years earlier in a house he no longer owned appeared in a closed lab in a different state manifesting in what appeared to be thin air. He wanted to understand the physics behind how it happened. The psychic he was studying who claimed to have done this wasn’t even in the room at the time it happened. His insistence that this experience was grounded in natural physical laws accepted by science has had a profound impact on me even as I doubted his story.

Edgar was intensely curious about everything, while firmly refusing any concept of supernaturalism. If you have ever heard me talk about how there is no such thing as supernaturalism. If something happens, it has a natural explanation, understand that comes directly from Edgar. It’s a concept I embrace as a way of life. It’s about embracing science as a tool for understanding. It requires an openness to finding out you are wrong and how wonderful and amazing that is when that happens. And further, how amazing it would be to find out that something we currently consider to be supernatural and therefore not real is actually real.

He was open to being proved wrong in a way most people aren’t. Being wrong isn’t something to fear. It’s fabulous when it happens. How much happier and less fearful would the world be if they loved being proven wrong?  The moral of the cufflink story was – what if teleportation is possible within the laws of physics. If we can understand how something happens, then we can control it happening and that opens up new technology. How would our changed understanding of physics change how we view ourselves and the world we live in. Did he know how it happened? No. But it happened and he experienced it and that was exciting. Yes, it was clearly a trick. But how was it done. That is what science is for!

Open Skepticism, according to Edgar was about being curious. It was about not just writing the implausible off as impossible, but investigating to see if it was real or not. It was about understand the science and the physics of how things happen. It is about being open to things you think aren’t real, perhaps being real. The problem obviously is that so much of what we call pseudo-science is not real at all. How can we be open about the possibilities and not find ourselves getting sucked down into the wormhole of non-science nonsense?  

The trick, as he told me in a diner in Lake Worth over salads, was to be open to the possibilities, but not so open that your brain falls out. The first task of any scientist is to verify the phenomenon in question actually happens. In other words, is it real? If it is, you can study it. If it isn’t, don’t waste your time.

What impressed me the most is how kind he was, to me and to the people he disagreed with. He just didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. We talked about the people who challenged his “science.” But he wasn’t defensive about it. There was no need. Either the science would prove him right or it would prove him wrong. He was ok finding out he was wrong because his goal wasn’t to be proven right. His goal was to understand WHETHER he was right or not. He had no need to defend his reputation. If you have never been around someone who is that humble, you have no idea how profound an experience it is.

We all have egos. I like to say, don’t let your ego get in the way of being right.  I learned that from Edgar in a single lunch with him. When people challenge me, I’m ok with that. I don’t need to challenge them back.  After all, I might be wrong and I’m open to learning that.  Since adopting Edgar’s attitude, I’ve found I’m much less stressed and I’m in conflict with other people a whole lot less AND, when people are in conflict with me (and it happens), I have the emotional space required to allow these situations to play out without me interfering in them. Humility to be wrong and to embrace being wrong. . It’s amazing how much that simple change in outlook can change your life and how you approach it.

Edgar was smart to the point of being brilliant. I have only been around 2 other people in my life as brilliant has he was. One was my father. I feel as I always have about that lunch so many years ago, intensely lucky to have had an opportunity to pick the brain of such a brilliant yet compassionate and humble person.

I’ll leave you with the advice he left me. Be open to the possibilities, but not so open that your brain falls out. Thanks for that mind expanding lunch Edgar. I’ll miss you.