Magic and science have a bidirectional relationship. Magicians use science to create the illusion of magic and scientists study magic performances.

The Bidirectional Relationship Between Magic and Science

Peter Prevos

Peter Prevos |

1907 words | 9 minutes

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Scientists often describe the relationship between magic and science as opposed to each other. In this view, magicians break the laws of physics and 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 causing coins to disappear without a chain of causality between the actions and the results is impossible in our everyday experience. This view diametrically opposes magic and science as two incompatible human endeavours.

The relationship between magic and science is much more complicated than this simple view, as Arthur C. Clarke famously expressed in the last of his three laws:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible.

The closest we can come in our everyday life to supernatural magic is the theatrical magic or conjuring. Magicians are actors who play the role of a supernatural magician. This form of art has a very close and bidirectional relationship with the various sciences. Magicians use science to create the illusion of magic, and scientists study magicians and their audiences. This essay discusses the bidirectional relationship between magic and science.

The bi-directional relationship between magic and science

Magicians present theatrical illusions that seemingly breach the laws of the physical sciences. Still, 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 model divides the science in formal, physical, social and applied sciences. The formal sciences, such as mathematics, help us to understand the world, but they are not empirical. The physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry, mathematically describe the material world. The social sciences study human beings in all its facets. The social sciences study human individuals through psychology, how they work together in a group through sociology. Lastly, the social sciences study the artefacts of human culture, one of which is theatrical magic.

The bi-directional relationship between magic and science.

Each of these sciences has a different relationship with theatrical magic. Some sciences are used by magicians to perform their tricks, while other sciences are used by scholars as a perspective of magic. Some sciences perform both roles.

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, the late Tommy Wonder.

Tommy Wonder performs the Cups and Balls.

Although the magician entertains the audience, a nagging thought lingers in their minds:

How did he do it?

The Science of Magic

We know that magic is not real, but what Tommy Wonder just showed seems like a real 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 from 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. Still, 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. Studying the relationship between magic and science helps us to better understand how we experience the world.

Perspectives on Magic

Perspectives on Magic

This book explores some of the answers to the questions that scholars from different fields of science have asked about the performances of magicians.

The Magic of Science

Art is defined by limitations. Musicians play a mathematically defined range of tones, actors express the spectrum of human emotions, and painters have a palette of colours. With these building blocks, these artists can create great works of art.

Magicians also have a palette of possibilities to create their art. Firstly, the number of magic effects they can perform is limited to about seventeen categories, such as disappearances, levitation, mind-reading and other apparent miracles. Magicians perform these tricks using a large number of techniques that all fit into four categories.

  • Secret actions (sleight of hand)
  • Hidden mechanics (gimmicks)
  • Psychology (misdirection)
  • Laws of nature (physical and formal sciences)

Although a magic performance portrays an event that contravenes our intuitions about nature, the laws of nature can be used in such a way that the outcome is counter-intuitive. Magicians have used almost every science in their quest to perform the art of deception.

Applied Science

The applied sciences are areas where professionals, such as engineers, use the findings of science for the benefit of humanity. Magicians often build elaborate apparatus that requires a reasonable level of knowledge of engineering to make sure they are safe to use. Information technology is a new method in magic with many new magic tricks that use an iPhone or hidden electronics to perform magic.

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, teachers in these subjects use magic methods to explain the abstract principles of their science to students. Magic tricks are especially effective to teach abstract mathematics because they can visualise many principles.

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.

Formal Sciences

The formal sciences mathematics and information theory are the only areas of research that are totally abstract as they do not study anything physical. Mathematics and magic are perfect partners. Many tricks use principles of mathematics by using a process that seems random but is, in fact, controlled. Most mathematical magic tricks are self-working in they achieve the desired result even as long as you follow the process.

This video of an 1991 David Copperfield television show is an example of beautiful magic created by an algorithm. Mathematics teacher Sydney Kolpas wrote a paper about the principles behind this trick. The beauty of mathematical magic tricks is that because they are algorithmic and always work, the trick is purely a theatrical performance.

The Magic of David Copperfield XIII: Mystery On The Orient Express (April 3, 1991).

Magicians can also use topology (the science of shapes) and geometry (the science of size) to create magical theatre.

The Möbius Strip in Magic: A Treatise on the Afghan Bands

The Möbius Strip in Magic: A Treatise on the Afghan Bands

Magicians use the Möbius strip to perform magic under the name Afghan Bands. This ebook describes the principles, history and performance this topological trick.

Paradoxes of Size: A Treatise on Geometric Vanishes

Paradoxes of Size: A Treatise on Geometric Vanishes

This book discusses the history and principles of the three types of geometric vanishes: The Vanishing Leprechaun, the Curry Paradox and the Tangram Paradox.

Physical Sciences

The physical science chemistry and physics are the magician's best friend. A famous example is a Light and Heavy Chest, which uses electromagnets to create the illusion that its weight has increased. This method was used by nineteenth-century magician Jean-Eugène Robert Houdin to convince Algerian rebels that the French were more powerful than them.

Magic and science are most closely related to the ancient craft of alchemy. Many magic tricks use chemistry to create illusions, some hidden, some more visible, such as the pyrotechnics to create dramatic effects. Most tricks with liquids use the principles of hydraulics to perform miracles.

Social Sciences

Scholars in the social sciences and the humanities have extensively studied magic from a wide variety of topics. This section only mentions three main areas of interest.

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 film makers, 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.

Psychology is a principle in almost every magic trick as the performer needs to manage the spectator's attention. The science of perception is a particular area of psychology that studies how we perceive the world around us and how we interpret the information we receive to our senses. Our mind is fallible in how it reconstructs the world, which gives rise to misdirection and optical illusions, which are nature's own magic tricks.

The Jastrow Illusion in Magic: A Treatise on the Boomerang Illusion

The Jastrow Illusion in Magic: A Treatise on the Boomerang Illusion

This ebook describes the psychology of this stunning optical illusion and how magicians use it to perform magic.

Perspectives on Magic

If you are interested in the relationship between science and magic then you should consider reading Perspectives on Magic by Peter Prevos. This book discusses the many perspectives on magic of scientists from various fields of endeavour.

Perspectives on Magic

Perspectives on Magic

This book explores some of the answers to the questions that scholars from different fields of science have asked about the performances of magicians.

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