Do we have proof or not, Dick Burgess wanted to know. He was driving us back from Vernal on a crisp October evening in 1995, and in the light of the occasional passing car we could see him grin.

It had been a trip in search of qi, or as it's sometimes spelled in the West, chi — the invisible life force that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, flows through our bodies and through the universe. According to this belief, a person can learn to control his own qi energy to promote his health and the health of others.

China might be the best place to study qi, but Vernal is closer. So Burgess had driven us there to visit a man named Arn, a kung fu master who wore a baseball hat that said "Arn's Woodhouse." Some people say that Arn Ufford knows how to "direct his qi," and Burgess thinks this might, in fact, be true. But he isn't sure. Once, at the Golden Corral restaurant, Burgess saw Arn move a piece of paper without touching it, and it seemed remarkable. Later, though, Burgess wondered if maybe it wasn't so much qi as it was a breeze caused by Arn's hand moving really fast.

Burgess is a neurophysiologist at the University of Utah. He is also president of the Society for Integrated Health, a group of Utah health-care professionals, scientists and lay persons interested in what is usually loosely referred to as "holistic medicine." A dozen or so members of the group journeyed to Vernal that day.

"I've seen qigong masters take neon signs that weren't plugged in and get them to light up," Arn told us. One time, he said, he was thrown from his motorcycle and had to crawl four hours with broken bones, controlling his blood flow with his mind. That afternoon, we watched Arn bring some of us to our knees by pressing lightly on our hands. We watched him stop the second hand of a watch, although from where we were sitting some of us couldn't exactly see the watch. Later that day, when we were ready to leave, he "poured his qi" from his hands to ours and some of the people in our group said it felt like a waterfall.

Later, on the way back from Vernal, Burgess was happy to see we were as perplexed as he was. He talked about the experiment he had conducted a few years before. He had Arn come to his laboratory at the U., where Arn directed his qi at bacteria growing in test tubes. Those bacteria that received qi grew at a greater rate than those bacteria not in the path's of Arn's qi.

It wasn't a very thorough experiment, though, Burgess will be the first to admit.

Science demands rigor, he says. It demands blind studies and reproducible results. It demands grant money. Scientists, even scientists who feel the pull of unorthodox ideas, want proof.

The why of x

If you are a scientist, studying qi will not exactly make you popular. It will not necessarily advance your career.

At the beginning of his career as a brain scientist, Burgess did research into pain physiology. And then one day in 1973 he gave a lecture about a recent trip to China, where he had watched doctors perform operations using acupuncture instead of chemical anesthesia. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works because it enhances the flow of qi.

After the lecture, a physical therapist came up to Burgess and asked if he could show him something. Put out your arm, the physical therapist said. Now try to keep me from pushing your arm down. Burgess is exceptionally skinny, but he was able to hold his own.

Then the therapist made an imaginary "x" over Burgess's body. Now put out your arm again, the therapist said. This time, when he pushed down on Burgess's arm, it went right down, despite Burgess's effort to hold it aloft.

"He told me he was breaking the energy field," remembers Burgess, who was so intrigued that he started doing the trick on other people. "I was going around x-ing people all over the place." The x-ing, coming as it did right after his introduction to acupuncture, made Burgess curious about the concept of qi.

He decided to switch his research interest from pain physiology to motor control, so he could study the x-ing phenomenon. He secured a small grant ("Unexpected Changes in Human Motor Performance") from the National Institutes of Health after he x-ed an NIH administrator, who then arranged for him to x the head of the grant program, a 6-foot 4-inch, 200 pound man whom Burgess was able to literally push over.

Burgess's preliminary experiments seemed to prove that the x-ing effect could not be explained by straightforward explanations (that, for example, the person pushing on the arm might actually be pushing harder after he x-ed his subject). But the grant money ran out before Burgess could do a more conclusive test using a motorized pushing apparatus. He'd still like to do that experiment, plus other qi experiments, but he knows that he has to focus first on what he calls his "conventional research."

Going around doing all that x-ing of people is scientific suicide, his friends told him. "You remember cold fusion" says Burgess. "This is, in some ways, worse."

Invisible life force

In the West, we believe in blood and hormones: body parts we can see and systems we can measure.

According to traditional Chinese belief, qi is an invisible life force that controls all the body's other systems. When our qi is blocked we get sick. That's our internal qi. There is also external qi; that is, an ability to affect objects and bodies outside ourselves.

The Chinese have believed in internal and external qi — and have practiced a form of exercise and meditation called qigong — for at least 5,000 years. The belief and the exercise went out of favor during the Cultural Revolution but resurfaced in the 1970s. Scientific investigation of qi and qigong in China began in the 1980s.

Burgess, who recently became the editor of the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, tries to stay on top of the Chinese research. This summer, for example, he reviewed a paper called "Seeds Induced to Germinate Rapidly by Mentally Projected 'Qi Energy' Are Apparently Genetically Altered."

The paper is typical of the kind of work coming out of China in the field of qi research, says Burgess; that is, at once remarkable and vague, full of both promise and unanswered questions.

The paper details experiments in which Chulin Sun, "a woman with exceptional powers," induced plant seeds to grow shoots and roots centimeters long within 20 minutes using a mentally projected qi energy. According to the paper's authors, Chulin Sun was able to change the seeds' DNA.

But the paper raises some questions it does not answer, including, for example, why, if there were so many changes in the seeds' DNA, none of these mutations was lethal to the plants. Or why the scientists didn't test whether the DNA mutations were passed on to the next generation of seeds. Still, whether the seed DNA was changed or not, there still remains the matter of Chulin Sun's ability to make the seeds grow so rapidly.

The paper is just one of more than 100 published in China in the past decade that seem to prove that external qi can produce measurable results, says Burgess. Others, for example, show that qi transmitted from 1,000 kilometers away can change a substance's rate of radioactive decay.

But for qi to be believed by Western scientists, he says, it would help if Western scientists conducted their own experiments. Experiments not on humans at first but on what scientists call "non-expectant systems." Seeds. Bacteria. Things that can't be fooled. Situations where no one can say "it's just the placebo effect."

But most Western scientists, says Burgess, view qi as a fiction. And of those who think it could possibly be true — maybe 30 percent of the scientists he has talked to — "the number of people willing to work on it is in the fractions of 1 percent," he says. And the number of those willing to publish their work is even lower.

Burgess would like to invite Arn Ufford back to his lab to do another, better experiment with qi and bacteria. But even a fairly simple experiment would cost $50,000, he says. He applied for funding from NIH last year, but his proposal was turned down. Although Burgess's intent is "laudable," wrote one of the proposal's reviewers, "the chance of getting a convincing answer seems vanishingly low."

Qi's ramifications

"Science always takes the most conservative hypothesis that explains the facts," says Burgess. So even doctors who have given a thumbs up to acupuncture usually explain it with talk about needles activating sensory nerve fibers that in turn activate endorphins. A doctor who accepts this view of acupuncture doesn't have to mention qi at all. "And they can still remain respectable," says Burgess.

When Western doctors say that, yes, there might be something to "mind-body" medicine — the notion that our minds can help heal our bodies — they often talk about physiologic changes — to the immune system, for example — that are simply a result of stress reduction.

But if qi could be measured, if science could prove that we can direct our qi to make plants grow or heal wounds, the ramifications are huge. As Burgess wrote in his grant application: "If such an energy is real and can be mentally controlled by the average individual for self-healing and the healing of others, it seems no exaggeration to say that Western science and medicine will be transformed."

Beyond that, he says, it might transform the way science views the mind.

It might surprise you to know that the average brain scientist does not hold the mind in very high esteem. The brain, in their view, is basically a neuronal machine: that is, when a neuron fires, it's because other neurons acted upon it. In this view, when you decide to pick up a pencil or order a pizza or get married, all those movements and decisions are simply biochemical and mechanical reactions. You may think that your consciousness played a role, but most neuroscientists would disagree. Consciousness, they would say, is just a by-product of your brain.

But if science could prove that humans can direct their qi to make bacteria grow or seeds germinate, it raises the possibility that our conscious minds are separate entities, with powers greater than science had supposed.

Unshakeable concept

In the meantime, Burgess does his qigong exercises nearly every day, moving his arms slowly in the "Mixing the Heavens and the Earth" exercise.

He's not positive, but he thinks he can feel his own qi now. And if he stands in a room with his eyes closed he can find true east now, he says, within 10 or 15 degrees. He feels it as a warm, tingly presence across his face, unlike anything else he's ever felt, he says.

On the other hand, sometimes you call Burgess and you have a conversation like this:

Burgess: We've been trying some candle snuffing experiments where we try to put out flames using qi.

You: How's it going?

Burgess: Not that well.

Then he will laugh.

He knows it all sounds so bizarre. And yet, the evidence is mounting, he says, that qi is real.

"I'm still in suspended judgment," he says. But it's been 25 years now since he first was introduced to the concept of qi. "And it just won't go away."