Magic & Physics, Hand In Hand?

Magic & Physics, Hand in Hand?

I often get asked how my former job as a Physics teacher and lifelong obsession with magic go together as they are two completely different things. One deals with reality and explains the world around us with facts to prove how things work, the other acts to disprove those very facts.

I’m going to concentrate on Physical magic effects for the sake of this article, things like vanishing objects, appearing object, transpositions, penetrations and levitations as opposed to mentalism, mind reading and prediction effects. Although the latter could be used to ‘prove’ the possibility of time travel or the bending of spacetime dependant on the magician’s presentation.

“we’re all just a bit geeky”

There are a lot of magicians that are also teachers, usually mathematics or physics teachers from what I’ve found and the link can’t just be that we’re all just a bit geeky. Whatever you may think about that Rubik’s Cube we’re constantly playing with or maths problem we’re trying to solve “just for the fun of it”. The one thing we have in common is that we’re fascinated by the way things work and the way they are put together. The kind of people that are constantly dismantling a ‘clicky pen’ because we haven’t seen that version before and are more interested in seeing how it works than if we’ll be able to get it back together again and have anything that resembles a usable pen at the end of it. You now know why physics, maths & DT teachers always seem to have loads of spare pens in their top pocket (most of these are broken, the one behind their ear is the one that works).

The point I’m getting to is that you need to have a solid understanding of how things work in order to be able to ‘prove’ that they don’t, if you’re essentially going to lie about something, you can lie a dam site better about it if you know the facts in the first place. Let’s look at vanishes for example, in order to make an object appear to vanish, you need to know how it looks like it’s actually there to begin with and what convinces people it is there right up until the point it vanishes or if it is still there, how can you prove to people that it isn’t? This goes somewhat deeper when you come to using physical knowledge to your advantage with things such as the way light works, for some but not necessarily all methods, see more on Pepper’s Ghost below.

“magic is just science we don’t understand yet”

Arthur C. Clarke said that “magic is just science we don’t understand yet” and romantically speaking I guess it is, we don’t fully understand the universe or depths of the oceans and that kind of makes them magical. Cooling some ceramics to -186C makes them into superconductors which means they can be fixed in a levitated position in a magnetic field, romantically speaking, I’d much rather say this was magic as the science behind it is far less exciting to most but pretty awesome nonetheless. You can see the behaviour of a superconductor in a magnetic field below, to those that understand how it works, it’s science, to everyone else (or those that choose to believe it), it’s magic.

I promise you it is Physics, even when it looks so magical at 1:15 with that gaseous tail it’s leaving Now you can really appreciate why ancient civilisations thought the stars and planets were magic, before they could be explained by science.

“Ever been to Disneyland?”

There are some very blurred lines between scientific and magic pioneers of the past, The Egyptian Hall and many other famous venues were packed with a cross between these pioneers exhibiting new scientific discoveries, impressive magic tricks and awesome visual effects. Peppers Ghost (which featured heavily in my dissertation) is a very famous example of this, credited to John Henry Pepper for his world renowned demonstration of it 1862. It was a technique which made an apparent ghost appear onstage next to other actors and is still widely used in various guises to this day. Ever been to Disneyland? Well I don’t want to ruin it for you but those ghosts in the Haunted Mansion aren’t actually real. If you look at the image below, you can see how an adept theatre tech team could make the ghost fade in and out of view by adjusting the light levels below the stage. NB. The white image of the actor on stage is to illustrate where she is visualised by the audience.

Magic & Physics, Hand in Hand? Matthew J Magic

Does this mean John Henry Pepper was a brilliant magician, a scientist or a theatre technician? Through experimentation (or perhaps common sense) Pepper would have found the rest of the dressing below the stage would have to be matte black. Whether this classes as physics knowledge of light behaviour or discovery through independent experimentation, that’s still science is it not?

“Scientific theories are just ‘theories'”

As a kid, I used to try out new magic tricks and build new props, experimenting with different things and using my best method until I found a better one. Scientific theories are just ‘theories’, they’re the best explanation we have found so far and will undoubtable alter as we discover more and something proves to be a better theory. Until 1965, there was just as much support for the Solid State theory as there was for the Big Bang theory but the discovery of background radiation shifted that to massively favour the Big Bang. In much the same way, I used to think I knew the best method of vanishing a coin but I couldn’t show my other hand empty until I experimented and found a different way to do it where I can show both hands empty so that is now my best method until I find a better one.

In summary, I think science (particularly physics) and magic go hand in hand, whether that is the intention of the developing magician or not, a lot of the time they are making inadvertent scientific discoveries, helping them to understand the world around them even better. Personally I credit magic for making me a better physicist and physics for making me a better magician. At the end of the day, it’s all about being able to think logically about problems and coming up with solutions to those problems (I credit my Grandad a fair bit for that too, although he was neither a physicist or magician).

Any Questions? Just Post Them Below

So as not to take too much of your lunch break for this one, I’ll wrap it up now but I will post some more articles about Pepper’s Ghost and some other pioneers of magic and ‘theatre science’. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to gat back to you as soon as I can.


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