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Charles Panati (born March 13, 1943) is a former college professor, industrial physicist, author and science editor of Newsweek. Panati has written about topics as diverse as the source of the cosmos to the origin of the Oreo cookie. He has been a frequent guest on Oprah, Regis and Letterman. One of his books was the basis for the television series The Start of Something Big, hosted by comedian Steve Allen.
Charles Panati was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His family has had a long professional relationship with the Miss America Pageant, and Panati, in his early twenties, served as an escort for several contestants. After graduating from Villanova University (1961–65) with a B.S. in physics, Panati obtained a master’s degree in Radiation Health Physics (1966) from Columbia University and worked in cancer research at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
After joining Newsweek in 1971, Panati became interested in parapsychology and published his first book, Supersenses: Our Potential For Parasensory Experience (1974), which Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing called “a breakthrough look at extrasensory perception.” Its success led to an introduction to Israeli psychic Uri Geller, who suggested Panati collect and publish 22 research papers by scientists around the world who had investigated the spoon-bender's alleged abilities. The Geller Papers (1976), edited by Panati, caused controversy when it was published. Several prominent magicians came forward to demonstrate that Geller’s so-called psychic talents could be easily duplicated by magic. Panati’s interest in the field waned. He remains on good terms with Geller, whom he regards as a charismatic showman.
In Death Encounters (1979), Panati investigated the phenomenon of clinical death, in which subjects report being drawn toward a white light while wrestling with the will to live. The stories became the basis for the television show In Search Of Life After Death, produced by Alan Landsburg and nominated for an Emmy award. Panati fictionalized one of those stories to produce his first novel of psychological suspense, Links (1978), optioned by Universal Studios. While working on the film (which was never completed), Panati became friendly with Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. Roddenberry was looking for a science project to adapt into a television series. Panati interviewed scientists he’d come to know over the years as Newsweek science editor and produced material for the show, as well as for another bestselling book, Breakthroughs: Advances in Science, Medicine and Technology (1980).
In the early 1980s Panati was approached by producer Al Masini about turning his latest book, The Browser’s Book of Beginnings (1984), into a weekly TV show. The book became the basis for the Sunday-night hit The Start of Something Big, co-written by Panati and writer-celebrity Robin Leach, and hosted by Steve Allen.
Viewers of the show wrote in each week asking questions about the origins of ordinary, everyday things, which gave Panati the idea for a second book of origins: Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things(1987). Isaac Asimov said of that work: “An extraordinary compendium. You’ll be astonished at an average of one per page.” Panati followed up with Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World’s Religions (1996). He then published Sexy Origins of Intimate Things (1998), and continuing with the origins theme, he looked at popular phrases such as “Honesty’s the best policy” and “Charity begins at home” in Words To Live By: Origins of Common Wisdom Expressions (1999).
A sixth book in the series, Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias: The Origins of Our Most Cherished Obsessions (1991), presented a comprehensive survey of one hundred years of American popular culture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Panati has written about endings in Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody (1989).
A second foray into fiction resulted in a psychological thriller, The Pleasuring of Rory Malone (1982), in which the lead character, a teenage boy with psychokinetic powers, discovers that his psychic energy becomes cross-linked with his awakening sexual energy to disastrous consequence. Panati denied suggestions made at the time that the protagonist was based on psychic Uri Geller.
As a radiation health physicist, Panati was deeply concerned about the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in March 1979. A partial core meltdown resulted in the most significant accident in the history of American commercial nuclear power. Coming on the heels of a popular movie called The China Syndrome, concerning a nuclear disaster, there was considerable public fear, so Panati decided to write a book explaining both the benefits and dangers of radiation, from X-rays to microwaves to nuclear. Teaming up with his brother, Michael Hudson, a fellow Newsweek writer, they produced The Silent Intruder: Surviving the Radiation Age (1981). Written in a question-and-answer format, the work is still considered a definitive popular examination of the interaction of radiation and human tissue.
Panati has a residence in Manhattan and a home on Long Island, NY, where he breeds birds. He is a passionate animal lover, owns several cats, and is working on a book on the origins of the practice of keeping animals as household pets. In the 1980s Panati learned that he is not a Panati by blood, but through the adoption of his father, who was born Charles Hudson. Panati legally changed his surname to Hudson, but continues to publish under the name Panati.