Science and Magic: A Bidirectional Relationship

A complex symbiosis exists between magic and science.1 Science and magic are each other’s opposites, while they are also often great companions.

Magicians present theatrical illusions that seemingly breach the laws of science. However, it is ironic that magicians use the principles of science to create these illusions. The relationship between science and magic is bi-directional. Magicians do not only use science to create the illusion of supernatural magic, but scientists also study magicians and their magic to expand their field of research and learn more about the world around us.

This article summarises the different fields of science that study magic and magicians, based on the book Perspectives on Magic. This book presents a comprehensive review of the many questions that scientists from different fields have asked about theatrical magic.

Asking Questions About Magic

Most of the estimated half a million magicians around the world are amateurs or semi-professionals who work as lawyers, occupational therapists, psychologists, computer scientists, teachers and so on. Many of these scientists and professionals have written scholarly papers and books about their passion.

The word ‘science’ usually relates to the natural sciences, such as physics. The scientific work on conjuring illustrates that science is a much broader concept than the physical sciences alone. The science of magic discusses the full spectrum of human experience and the natural world. There are broadly four branches of science:

  • The natural or physical sciences: cosmology, geology, chemistry and biology.
  • Formal sciences: mathematics and logic.
  • Social sciences: psychology, sociology and the humanities.
  • Applied sciences: engineering, medicine and computer science.

To fully understand a complex phenomenon such as theatrical magic, scientists use a range of perspectives beyond the natural sciences. Scientists and professionals from two of the four domains of science have studied the art of conjuring, each asking their specific questions of magic.

The wordcloud below visualises the relative frequency of each of the entries in the magic and science bibliography.

Magic and Science bibliography wordcloud

Wordcloud of the magic and science bibliography.

Magic and the Social Sciences

The social sciences, sometimes also called the humanities or behavioural sciences, consider everything people do, think or believe. Social scientists don’t necessarily seek final answers to their questions, but they are engaged in an ongoing narrative to improve our understanding of the social world. The perspective of the social scientist generates a broad range of questions that they can ask of conjuring, such as:

  • Why are there more male than female magicians?
  • What was the cultural significance of theatrical magic at the end of the nineteenth century?
  • Is theatrical magic frivolous entertainment or a performance art?

The social sciences cover a wide-ranging field of studies that can help answer these and other questions.

Most important to conjuring is the area of performance studies and cultural history, which researches the act of performing magic shows in the present and the past. Researchers in film theory, linguistics and gender studies have also published their ideas of theatrical magic. The social sciences place the performance of magic in its historical or contemporary context. The answers provided by scholars in humanities help us to understand both society itself and the role magicians play within it.

Magic and Psychology

The largest body of research relating to magic is in the field of psychology. These scientists want to know why the mind can be so easily deceived. Magicians have extensive experience with using the weaknesses of our perception mechanisms to create illusions. Studying magicians and more importantly, the reactions of their audiences, explains how the human brain processes information and helps to understand better how we experience the world.

Magic and the Applied Sciences

In the applied sciences, such as health care and teaching, professionals implement the fruits of the labour of natural scientists, formal scientists and social scientists to improve people’s lives. It is in these fields of human endeavour that magic fulfils a practical role.

The health sciences are a fertile field for magicians. Occupational therapists use magic tricks to assist with improving people’s abilities and self-esteem. Psychologists can use magic tricks to help the diagnosis of mental conditions. Doctors can use magic to reduce anxiety in children subjected to medical treatment.

Another applied science where magic can help professionals perform their tasks is teaching. Many magic tricks are based on the principles of physics, chemistry or mathematics, which makes magic a perfect tool for playfully illustrating the abstract concepts of these sciences.

Science and Magic Summary

The relationship between science and magic is bi-directional. Scientists study magic tricks and magicians use science to create the illusion of magic. Magicians use the principles of chemistry, physics, mathematics and so on to create the illusion that supernatural magic exists. A magician might use a method based on psychology to create the illusion of magic. Psychologists study these techniques to understand better how the brain functions. Magicians use science to create magic, scientists study magic to understand better the world in which we live, and professionals use magic to improve the world in which we live.

Science and Magic Visualised

The image below summarises the bidirectional relationship between science and magic. This table below is the result of bibliographical research on scholarly publications that study theatrical magic.

This summary shows that, for example, magicians do not use anthropology as a method, but anthropologists study magicians. Linguistics works both ways because it is a method to create the illusion of magic and it can be used to examine the lives of magicians.

The sciences marked in the inner ring move knowledge from the world of magic to the sciences. For the sciences in the larger middle ring, the direction is reversed. For the sciences, knowledge moves from science to magic. For most sciences, knowledge travels in both directions.

Bi-directional relationship between magic and science.

The bi-directional relationship between magic and science.

  1. This is an enhanced version of an article in the Journal of Magic Research, Issue 6, January 2015. 

4 thoughts on “Science and Magic: A Bidirectional Relationship

  1. Peter, I guess that mathematicians and information scientists also study magicians, e.g., in Magical Mathematics, by Diaconis / Graham. Likewise, in a sense chemists have used alchemists’ techniques to give birth to modern chemistry (e.g., Lavoisier).

  2. Thanks Miquel,

    The relationship between chemistry, alchemy and esoteric magic is fascinating. I have not included research on the role of alchemy in the development of chemistry because my bibliography is limited to theatrical magic.

    Chemistry and mathematics study magic tricks but they do not do this to enhance their own science. I do not know of any mathematical theorem or chemistry theory that is based on a study of theatrical magicians. Magic tricks illustrate these sciences but they do not create new knowledge.

    Psychologists, occupational therapists and historians, for example, do enhance their science or practice by studying magicians.

    The diagram needs some better explanation (I have updated it a bit). The sciences marked in the inner ring move knowledge from the word of magic to the sciences. For the sciences in the larger middle ring, the direction is reversed. For the sciences, knowledge moves from science to magic. For most sciences, knowledge travels in both directions.

    Hope this makes sense 🙂

  3. OK now I understand it better. My view of mathematics using magic to push knowledge is located in “information theory”. My mention of alchemy was rather that this activity gave rise to modern chemistry as a science.

    I thank you for the changes in the figure and the well explained caption.


    • Miquel, You are correct about information theory. I recently found out that the Gilbreath Principle originated as a magic trick but has also been referenced in the The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth. I need to research this bit deeper and play a bit more with the Gilbreath principle.

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