An Overview of the Bidirectional Relationship Between Magic and Science
Imagine you are in a small magic theatre, the conjurer introduces two cups and two little balls. Using a magic wand, he commands the balls to dematerialise from his bare hands and materialise under the cups. The balls seem possessed by supernatural powers as they disappear, reappear and penetrate solid matter at the mere whim of the magician. This supernatural choreography ends with a giant pompom appearing under the cups, leaving the spectators mystified and amused. The video below shows a masterful performance of this ancient magic trick by the Dutch master of magic, the late Tommy Wonder.
Although the magician entertains the audience, a nagging thought lingers in their minds: /How did he do it?/ We know magic is not real but what Tommy Wonder just showed seems like a miracle. Among the spectators is a group of university colleagues who reflect intellectually on what they just experienced. They enjoyed the show as much as everyone else, but their questions are different to the rest of the audience. These issues are frankly a lot more interesting than knowing how the magician did the magic trick.
The psychologist wonders how it is possible that the performer so easily deceived his mind. How is it possible that people can be tricked to see something that contradicts our common sense view of the world? The psychologist’s friend, a professor of humanities also enjoyed the show. She wonders how the pompom appeared under the cups like everybody else, but she also asks questions about the cultural significance of magic why it has remained popular for millennia, across different cultures. Her husband, who works as an occupational therapist at the local hospital, is also an amateur magician. He contemplates the incredible hand-eye coordination and muscle control required to perform the trick he just saw, and he wonders whether he could apply magic skills to his profession.
Magic is a unique performance art that can teach us a lot about how humans relate to reality. Although magic tricks are always a game of wits between the spectator and the performer, a great magic show conveys a more profound message about our relationship with the world.
The Horizon of Reason explores how the mind relates to reality, using magic tricks as a metaphor. If you like to know more about the science of magic, then keep reading and feel free to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.
The Relationship between Magic and Science
Scientists often describe magic and science as opposed to each other. In this view, magicians break the laws of physics. They can change the world in ways ordinary people cannot. Our mind is conditioned to view the world as a chain of cause and effect. Reading somebody’s mind, mutilating pretty girls without harming them or cause coins to disappear without causality between the actions and the results is not possible in our everyday experience. This view diametrically opposes magic and science as two incompatible human endeavours.
Magic is a contrast between two situations, without a causal relationship
English science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed an alternative view to this perspective on magic. He described magic and science as a continuum of human experience, expressed succinctly in his Third Law of Prediction: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This law states that what is conventional technology now, would not all that long ago be considered magical.
It seems that there is no relationship between magic and science as they are each other’s opposites, but they have a lot in common. Magicians present theatrical illusions that seemingly breach the laws of the physical sciences, but they often deploy the principles of these and other sciences to create these illusions. Scientists are interested in magic because they seek to understand this unique performance art better. The relationship between science and magic is thus bi-directional. Magicians use science to create the illusion of supernatural magic, while scientists study magicians and their craft to learn more about the world around us.
The diagram below visualises the relationship between magic and science. The outer circle show the sciences that are involved with magic. Performers use some of these sciences as methods to create the illusion of magic. Scientists in most of these fields research magicians and their performances.
This complicated relationship between science and magic is what fascinates me about this performance art. Scroll down for a short overview of the two connections between science and magic. If you like to know more about the science of magic, then keep reading.
The Methods of Magic
Magicians are incredibly secretive about the methods they use to create the illusion of magic. Before the advent of the internet, the techniques of magic used to be difficult to obtain as magicians vehemently protected their intellectual property. Subscribers to the famous Tarbell Course in Magic were even given the option to purchase a secure box to store their lessons, away from prying eyes. These days, knowledge of the secrets of magic are is only a few mouse clicks away.
Magicians use the formal sciences as methods for magic tricks. Some tricks apply mathematical principles to create the illusion of magic. Magicians often call these tricks ‘self-working’ because they rely on a process, rather than a unique skill. This video of an old David Copperfield television show is a beautiful example of beautiful magic created by an algorithm.
The physical sciences study the lifeless world through physics and chemistry, which magicians apply to perform magic tricks. A famous example is a Light and Heavy Chest, which uses electromagnets to increase its weight apparently. This method was used by nineteenth-century magician Jean-Eugène Robert Houdin to convince Algerian rebels that the French were more powerful than them.
Most magic tricks deploy principles of psychology to create the illusion of the impossible. Misdirection is the fundamental principle of most magic. Many psychologists have studied this phenomenon in great detail. In a narrow sense, misdirection is about diverting the spectator’s attention away from the secret action that creates the illusion of magic. More accurately, misdirection is about directing the attention of the spectator to those parts of the performance that shape the narrative, instead of the technical method.
Magicians often build elaborate apparatus that requires a reasonable level of knowledge of engineering to make sure they are safe to use. Engineering, including information technology, can also be used as a method to create the illusion of magic. Many magicians are very creative in their design and construction of magical apparatus.
This short overview of methods in magic is surely not exhaustive. If you are interested to know more about techniques to create the illusion of magic and what that means for our knowledge of the world, then feel free to subscribe to the monthly Horizon of Reason newsletter.
Researchers and professionals from varied fields of endeavour are interested in studying magicians and their performances. Studying magic from these various perspectives teaches us about the world around us and how we perceive it. Magic tricks also improve the lives of people beyond frivolous entertainment as many professionals use magic in their job. The literature on these topics is diverse, and these paragraphs only give a snapshot of what is available.
Scholars in the social sciences and the humanities have extensively studied magic. Social scientists have researched gender issues in magic. The vast majority of magicians are male, and women mostly perform a passive role as they are the ones being cut in half. Why is this the case, is magic a reflection of society or is it even more male-oriented?
Magicians are fascinated by the history of their craft, and recently professional historians started writing about magic performances of the past. One such topic is the role magicians played in the development of film as a form of entertainment. The earliest filmmakers, such a Georges Méliès, were magicians who invented many of the techniques in special effects.
Another example of the social science of magic are anthropologists who study the subculture of magicians. Because magicians surround their work in secrecy, they form strong ties with each other to discuss their craft in a safe surrounding. These studies are exciting as the Internet has revolutionised how information is shared between people.
Magic tricks can also have a purpose beyond frivolous entertainment. Professionals from many areas use magic tricks in their day job. Although the formal and physical sciences do not study magicians, magic, teachers in these subjects use magic methods to explain the abstract principles of their science to students. Magic tricks are also popular with people that work in healthcare. Clown doctors help to reduce anxiety in little patients, and occupational therapists use magic to help people recover from injuries.
Perspectives on the Science of Magic
This essay shows how magic can teach us a lot about the world around us, beyond the frivolity of the performance. Magic performances are ideal vehicles to demonstrate weaknesses in human perception and cognition. Feel free to subscribe Magic Perspectives if you are interested in receiving regular updates about new articles and books. If you like to read more scientific perspectives on magic, then go the research sources page or find works of interest in the science of magic bibliography.
This essay is an extract from my book Perspectives on Magic. If you like to know more about magic tricks and what we can learn from this quaint performance art, then purchase Perspectives on Magic: Scientific Views on Theatrical Magic, from Amazon or a pdf from Lybrary.com.
Perspectives on Magic explores the questions that scholars from different fields of science and expert in various professions have asked about the performances of magicians. For magicians, this book provides new perspectives on their performance art. For people with a passive interest in magic, this book illuminates a secretive performance art. For magicians, this book provides a new perspective on the relationship between science and magic.
This book discusses magic as performance art, the social world of magicians, the history of magic and how professionals in teaching and health care can use it. The book also summarises research into the psychology of magic and why we can be so easily deceived. Perspectives on Magic closes with a discussion about the future of magic in a world where technology creates experiences that in the past seemed magical.