Wonder Workers – an essay on the compatibility of science and magic

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, British engineer and wonder worker, had botched a children’s magic show. He had managed to swallow a gold half-sovereign coin and now it was firmly lodged in his windpipe. It threatened to choke him at any time. He confounded the medical community for several weeks. Shaking, slapping and a tracheotomy had failed. Eventually, after a suggestion from his father, he was strapped to a rotating wooden board and spun. With Brunel as a human centrifuge the coin finally made its exit.[1]

A few months later in July 1843 the nation was celebrating the successful launch of Brunel’s record breaking ship the SS Great Britain. At the Royal banquet, in front of Prince Albert, one American dignitary remarked: “We read, in other Arabian tales, of the wonders of magic, of flying steeds, and palaces starting from the ground. Sir, let us leave magic to the nursery: give me the magic of the mechanical arts. Consider Sir, that science has but waved her wand over the iron mine, and that beautiful structure has started up ready to launch on the waves.[2] As the Industrial Revolution progressed, marvellous machines and new scientific discoveries were equipping humans with god-like powers. The supernatural was being squeezed and magicians who claimed otherworldly powers were losing to technology in the public eye..

So has this childish magic been superseded by science? In this essay I’ll argue that magic and science have a symbiotic relationship. From Hero of Alexandria’s pneumatically operated temple doors to modern day Augmented Reality and projection mapping. And at the heart of great scientists, engineers, innovators and magicians are an incurable curiosity and a healthy dose of wonder. In conclusion I will explore where I believe 21st Century magic is going.

Dancing with the impossible

Brunel for me epitomises the pioneer engineer – he dreamt big; he took risks; he tried new things. Almost all his major projects were complex dances with the impossible. Whether they were transatlantic steamships, gravity defying bridges, dangerous tunnels or superfast railways. Amongst the spectacular successes there were commercial catastrophes. The SS Great Britain, a transatlantic steamship, is a great example of a project that all his critics said was impossible. Surely a coal carrying ship would be too heavy to float or would run out of steam halfway to America?  The solution was to build big. Really big. The larger the ship, the more fuel efficient it becomes. Building a floating giant would be challenging and risky. To add to this he also designed the ship to include an iron hull and propeller. At the time these were both emerging and contentious technologies. Brunel was always searching for, testing and adopting new ideas. He may have been a poor coin conjurer but he had a magical mindset.

Qualities that wonder workers possess are a drive to overcome the impossible, to dream big and to incorporate new ideas. They have a thorough knowledge of the past and respect for their craft but with eyes on the future. Their serious play is often seen as being disruptive and ahead of the times. Magic doesn’t just mirror society, it opens a portal to new possibilities.

Blurring the lines

Across the English Channel in France another magician was at work. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was an inventive clockmaker. His father-in-law was trained by master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet, the same man who Brunel was apprentice to during his teenage years. Robert-Houdin had a special fascination with newly discovered electricity, which in the early 19th century had just started to be understood and harnessed. He is known today for his exquisite and highly collectible electric clocks.

In his early 20s, due to an accidental mail order mix up Robert-Houdin received a set of conjuring books rather than the precious clock books he’d ordered. A curious new interest was sparked. As the hobby grew he started utilising his mechanical skills to improve existing magic tricks, devise his own and create automatons with a magical twist. New technology put to work covertly. An audience can’t suspect something that they don’t know exists!

It is no surprise to me that someone who is fascinated by understanding and utilising mechanisms would be drawn towards magic. In one sense scientists and magicians are the mirror image of the other. One takes mysteries and deconstructs. The other constructs mysteries. However, the thing that unites both is a love of wonder and asking that powerful question: “what if…?” A real joy of being a scientist is not in the dissecting but in using their discoveries to create and share possibilities. And a real joy of being a magician is to use impossibilities to inspire and create possibilities for our audiences.

By his own account Robert-Houdin was a terrible performer at first; his nerves and a focus on complex method rather than streamlined effect.  Through persistence and practise the presentation improved. He is now remembered as ‘the father of modern conjuring’; partly due to his innovative tricks but mainly due to the change in performance style and venue. Robert-Houdin took magic from the streets to theatres and private homes; creating a lavish set and dressing impeccably.

In 1856 France had a problem. One of its overseas territories in Algeria was being drawn towards a revolt by the local tribal leaders. Robert-Houdin was tasked by the French government to make the civil war disappear. The French knew the local population were superstitious and the idea was to send a magician over to prove that French magic was superior. Robert-Houdin staged a series of shows for the locals. One of the illusions he presented was his creation: The Light and Heavy Chest. The strongest villager was brought up on stage to lift up a wooden box. No problem. Then he was supposedly hypnotised to drain him of his strength and then asked to lift the same box again. This time the box remained unmoved. The man struggled in vain, then in a shocking twist he yelped in pain and ran off the stage in fear. Performances like this and the infamous Bullet Catch left the villagers in no doubt about French power. The revolt died a quick death.[3]

The story is often portrayed as a triumph of rational thinking over irrational belief; of enlightenment versus superstition. In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the first magic book, in an attempt to show that supposed supernatural acts weren’t the work of witches but natural phenomenon, medical conditions or deceptive charlatans. Victims of the witch trials suffered because they found themselves on the wrong side of ignorance.

The Algerians witnessed both a display of magic and the recently discovered power of electromagnetism from Robert-Houdin. The wooden box had an iron plate on the bottom which was then held to the stage floor with an electromagnet that was switched on and off. Later in the performance the unfortunate volunteer experienced an electric shock through the metal handles of the chest. His muscles reacted involuntarily and painfully. Robert-Houdin stood in the middle ground between science and magic. For me the story is an illustration of the blurred interface between science and magic. Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke famously stated this in his 3rd law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[4]

Science Wizards

The 19th century was awash with breathtaking new discoveries and inventors. The scientists and engineers behind them were national celebrities and held in high esteem. Public lecture demonstrations were the must see entertainment of the age. Science mixed with showmanship. They were so popular at the Royal Institution in London that the road outside, in order to regulate traffic, became the first official one way street in the UK. Inside the building along with offices, libraries and research labs, there is a large lecture theatre. Tiered seating surrounds the presenter on three sides and centre stage is a large horseshoe table where the science demonstrations are set up. Here new science was first publicly shown, like the electric motor and the ten chemical elements that were first discovered by researchers in the building.

As the 19th Century science started to be exploited commercially and as international travel became more accessible the World Expositions sprang up. Their display of technical innovations became a showcase for nations and companies. The first World Expo in 1851 was The Great Exhibition (or Crystal Palace Exhibition) in Hyde Park, London. It lasted for five and half months. They proved extremely popular with the mix of attractions, shows, grandeur, boundary pushing and one-upmanship. Marvellous inventions were premiered like the telephone (Philadelphia 1876), Ferris wheel (Chicago 1893), diesel engine (Paris 1900), X-ray machine (New York 1901) and the household plug socket (St Louis 1904).

During the same year Robert-Houdin was scaring the natives in Algeria, a boy named Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born in the Austrian Empire. Later in 1884 he would emigrate to the United States. His expertise was in electrical engineering and he became the archetype mad scientist, inventor and futurist. In the fictional book (and film) The Prestige he was portrayed as the ‘science wizard’ behind the strange goings on; a phrase that evokes images of scientist, artist and mystic. Tesla embodied all three personas and played to it in public. He claimed to see with his mind’s eye and imagine the details of his inventions so clearly that he didn’t have to write anything down. Later in life his fascination with communicating with UFOs, his paranoia of espionage and other eccentric thoughts led to him becoming more isolated from the scientific community. However, Tesla was a man who knew how to put on a show. At the World Expos he’d be on stage creating huge lightning bolts, influencing objects at a distance and electrifying his body so it glowed.[5] Here was a man who had tamed the beast of electricity. At the time the public had a healthy fear of this unknown novelty that acted like pure magic.[6] Like Tesla’s electricity, magnets are also magical. You only have to be holding two strong magnets in your hands to feel the force between them. There’s almost a supernatural quality to magnets; they’re a little scary and unworldly!

This new and ominous power was one of the reasons the public in the 19th Century were fascinated by science and those who could harness it. Whereas Robert-Houdin used new scientific discoveries to perform his magic, now magicians were struggling to keep up with the draw of science. Why would the public want to see a show that deceives when you can be wowed by the real thing?

During this time there was another blurring between scientists and magicians; with both drawing inspiration from the other side. It was hard to tell who was who. Scientists and technology companies were using the imagery from magic in their public relations. Some like Joseph Vanek (1818-1889), a Hungarian Professor of Physics, took things further by incorporating magic into his science lectures and toured Europe and Asia with his wonder shows. Magicians struggled to keep up with public interest and found that they had to adapt their presentations. The traditional magician in pointy hat and occult symbols who taps into the supernatural realm is replaced with a scientist in the lab emitting lightning bolts. Show posters are an ideal visual way to observe how trends have evolved in magic. The superbly detailed (and ridiculously sized) book “Magic. 1400s-1950s[7] highlights this change. Magicians like Robert-Houdin and his Scottish rival John Henry Anderson “The Wizard of the North” toured with elaborate shows that featured magic, science demonstrations and automatons. You also see in individual illusions the presentations change. Take for example Robert-Houdin’s suspension illusion. Initially he claimed the reason his assistant could remain suspended in the air was due to the property of the gas ether. Many years later the illusion had a theme of hypnotism (or mesmerism as it was called at the time, after the pioneer Franz Mesmer.)

Throw into the mix a new breed of quacks and advertisers who wanted to exploit the public’s ignorant fascination with their wonder cures and inventions. Walford Bodie (1869-1939) was a controversial showman and came close to his claim of being the ‘Most Remarkable Man on Earth’. His show was a mix of magic, science, hypnotism, healings and ‘mock’ electrocutions. He angered medical professionals by claiming to be a doctor, caused riots and was good friends with Harry Houdini (who in 1920 gifted him the original Electric Chair used at Sing Sing Prison). The overall effect for the public is that the exact source of their wonder is blurred; is it real or an illusion?

Evolving magic

The new science had forced magicians to evolve both in style and tricks. No longer did they have access to secret powers but instead were mere wonder workers. It was during this time in 1876 that Professor Hoffmann (Angelo Lewis (1839-1919)) dropped a bombshell. His first book ‘Modern Magic’ exposed the workings of magical effects to the general public. Anyone with an interest in understanding the stage tricks could now go to a bookshop and find out. Initially seen as a massive betrayal to the magic community it proved to be a catalyst for magicians to abandon old tricks and develop new, more baffling illusions. The golden age of stage magic had arrived with numerous illusionists touring the world with their wonders.

With performers vying for the top spots by claiming more outlandish feats and stealing each other’s secrets, it was hard to be distinctive. When the medium of moving pictures first appeared in the 1890s, enterprising magicians were quick to adopt using film in magic shows; quite often mixing live action and filmed sequences in the shows. They were also part of the first group to experiment with and develop film special effects. Two pioneer film wizards were Georges Méliès (1861-1938) the new owner of Robert-Houdin’s theatre and David Devant (1868-1941) the first president of The Magic Circle. For a few years there was a sweet spot where magicians held a secret that few others possessed. However, as film as public entertainment grew it caused a huge blow to live entertainment. Theatres closed or were converted into cinemas. Magicians were a double victim as working venues dried up and as Hollywood special effects robbed them of the monopoly of their eye-popping illusions.

The sweet spot where magic and technology blur is often short lived since knowledge only goes one way. For a magician to inhabit this sweet spot they have to be constantly moving and evolving to stay ahead of the crowd. Currently we’re seeing an increasing number of magic shows incorporate Augmented Reality (where a film of the live stage action is digitally manipulated adding extra details), holograms (a modern day twist on Pepper’s Ghost) and projection mapping (surfaces are changed by having images projected onto them). Magicians like Marco Tempest, Xavier Mortimer and Jamie Allan are contemporary magicians exploring the use of this technology. The shows are a visual treat but the danger is magicians will be left behind again as the technology becomes more widespread and becomes the standard. We’re already seeing this now with wireless technology and phone apps. Mentalists particularly who have relied on electronic help are now being accused of technological trickery and finding their £1,000+ investments available in a different guise at high street electronics stores for £25.

So I feel, to combat the public’s suspicion of electronics, we will see magic return to a more organic and sleight of hand based art. Strange paraphernalia will be stripped away, the magic will be more pure and the magician more centre stage. In fact we’re already seeing a move in this direction. Recent series’ of Britain’s Got Talent have seen magicians progress from being a laughing stock to finalists. What put them there wasn’t fancy trick boxes but a likeable person, telling a story, making a connection and sharing their wonder with the audience. Essentially breaking what in theatre is called the “4th wall” that divides performer and audience. New technology might give the performer a temporary edge but as ever, long-term survival is more about the magician than the magic.

Starving for Wonder

The playing fields of innovation have been levelled. No longer do you need to have wealth or social standing. Knowledge is a few clicks away on the internet. It’s all there waiting for an inspired individual to make use of it. And now with crowd sourcing for funds, with campaigns like Kickstarter, options are wide open for anyone with a good idea and determination.

If you mention the name Tesla today most people will think about the electric car company. The AC motor at the heart of the car is a direct descendant of Nikola Tesla’s invention back in 1882; and the name most associated with Tesla Cars is Elon Musk (1971- ). Musk is an inventor and engineer who shares a similar pioneer spirit with Brunel; albeit a much more commercially successful spirit! As the founder of the company that merged to become PayPal he has the resources to dream big. His most ambitious project is SpaceX which is a privately run company that has aims to revolutionise space travel and has Mars colonisation in its sights. Already the reusable Falcon 9 rocket project has done the unthinkable and landed vertically on the launch pad rather than resort to a parachute and sea landing. He is often quoted as saying: “An engineer is the closest thing to a magician that exists in the real world.” A statement echoing the American dignitary’s speech at the launch of the SS Great Britain.

So have we surpassed the age of magic? I would argue that as a society we have largely lost the spirit of magic. As G K Chesterton said: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.[8]

Technological advancements have been so huge that most people (and businesses) are unaware of what can be achieved. They exceed what most people can think or dream of. Trying to keep up is a daunting prospect. The sheer amount of knowledge is beyond the scope of a single human. Even experts are limited to a thin seam of knowledge. We no longer live in the age of polymaths who cross boundaries but instead everything is compartmentalised. From school onwards things are placed in boxes. Just look at a typical school timetable: an hour for geography; an hour for maths etc. We’ve created artificial barriers to learning. However, the really interesting things happen in the crossover where subjects overlap, get disrupted or are mashed up. Today we still need wonder workers to overcome the assumption impossibility. To take us to new territories.  To show us new things. I like to think of myself as a “Curator of Wonder” – someone who searches, filters and shares marvels in the hope it will spark curiosity in the audience to embark on their own journey.

We live busy, rushed lives. Everything is 24/7. We wake up and already our phones have amassed a string of notifications. Time cannot be wasted and yet the most meaningful and memorable times are when we slow down. If you’re like me, you’ll find the best ideas come from when we relax and have a quiet head. Whether that’s soaking in the shower, out walking in nature or becoming absorbed in good art. Magicians entertain but I feel we should aspire to being more than just that. Let’s create a moment in our audiences’ lives where they can fuel their dreams. A moment they will cherish and remember. A moment that will propel them forward. I’m going to leave the last words with David Copperfield – a modern day Brunel in his drive for the impossible:

My job is to make people dream. Of course, there’s a lot of technical stuff behind the scenes and a lot of hard work behind it, but I get to watch people see the result of that hard work and feel that wonder and feel that discovery, all the time.”

 

NOTES

[1] Found in the biographical accounts by Brunel’s son (who by some accounts was the child in the story) and granddaughter. “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Civil Engineer” by Isambard Brunel Jr (1870) and “The Brunel’s: Father and Son” by Celia Brunel Noble (1938)

[2] The Illustrated London News. July 29, 1843.

[3] Reference TBC

[4] Found in his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, featured in Profiles of the Future (Revised 1973 edition).

[5] The book “Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America” by Fred Nadis provides an excellent account of this period of history.

[6] A fact that was exploited by Thomas Edison – inventor of the first commercial light bulb and proponent of DC (direct current) electricity. Tesla had briefly worked for Edison but left to develop his own projects like an AC (alternating current) motor and generator that solved a massive technical difficulty with AC. Edison wanted to discredit the rival AC system and he fuelled the public’s fears by sponsoring the execution of criminals by AC electrocutions.

[7] Written by Noel Daniel, Mike Caveney, Ricky Jay, and Jim Steinmeyer.Published by Taschen.

[8] Tremendous Trifles (1909) – G K Chesterton

 

A mad scientist

Albert Einstein’s contribution to science and society is huge. A revolutionary genius. A stuck in the mud holding paradigm shifting science back. A political meddler. His influence continues today and in one area it repulses me. He has become the archetype mad scientist. Crazy hair, thick glasses, foreign accent and lab coat – even though two of those are untrue. If you get a kid to draw a picture of a scientist they will mostly likely draw a mad scientist. I’ve lost track of how many schools I’ve visited having a science day were kids and staff alike are dressed as mad scientists or characters from TV’s The Big Bang Theory. I’m the only normal looking person in the room.

But we’re not like this. The mad scientist stereotype is harmful to the profession. Scientists become both a social joke and elite superhumans at the same time. So why are we propagating this when we want to enthuse the pupils in the subject?

Magical inspirations

In a previous blog post I wrote about my magical history. During this time I had a number of magical inspirations. Mainly magicians I’d seen live or on TV. In recent years magic has seen an explosion of interest with many new performers appearing. Whilst I was growing up, TV magic was very rare. What was shown was usually of a much higher calibre than what we see today. With a bit of clever editing and CGI a mediocre magician can be made to look like a miracle worker. I could rant about this but instead I want to focus on some of my heroes in magic when I was a teenager…

 

David Copperfield

There’s a reason why he is one of the highest earning entertainers of all time. My first exposure to DC was his 15 year anniversary TV show. He would take an illusion, supercharge it, add multiple layers of deception and perform it with flawless elegance. In that one hour TV special there were so many jaw dropping illusions: Flying, Buzz saw, Metamorphosis, Walking through the Great wall of China. Watching DC is like watching the Matrix film for the first time. Nothing is real and anything can happen. And it is all done with panache.

 

Penn & Teller

Channel 4 was the perfect channel to create a gloriously irreverent magic show that didn’t conform to the clichés and cheese of conventional magic. Penn & Teller were the perfect performers. Provocative, profound and bloody good. As a teenager this combination had a huge appeal and influence. From dropping rabbits into wood chippers to set pieces involving an array of animal traps, the magic bore no resemblance to a traditional show. Which was no bad thing. It helped shape my view of what was possible – not in terms of magic but in terms of performance. If I had to choose a favourite effect it would be Teller’s Shadows illusion.

 

Paul Zenon

When David Blaine first appeared on TV with his Street Magic he created a sensation. The magic wasn’t anything new, the performance was dire and yet what made the show was the focus on the audience’s reactions. There was the entertainment. There was captured on the screen moments of astonishment and wonder. Minds racing to try and figure out what an earth their eyes had just seen.

How could the format be improved? Simple. Swap bland Blaine for the extremely funny British magician Paul Zenon and have him perform tricks and pranks on the public. My favourite trick was a variation on ‘Ring flight’ where a spectator’s ring is vanished in the magician’s hands and appears in an impossible location. Paul appeared to mess the trick up spectacularly – he dropped the spectator’s ring down a storm drain. The reactions of the spectator were priceless. And then Paul reveals the ring has indeed appeared safely in an impossible location.

 

Kevin James

I first saw Kevin James at the Blackpool Magic Convention. It was late on Friday night and the audience’s attention was dropping. Out comes Kevin. He’s funny. He performs some super visual and original pieces of magic. Suddenly the audience was wide awake. My favourite from that night was when he visibly caused a playing card to melt inside an inflated balloon. Every magician in the room gasped. The next night during the gala show he presented a piece of magic he is famous for. Starting with a small napkin, he shreds it and drops it into a glass of water. Picking up the tissue in his hand it’s now a slushy mess. And then the magic happens. Dry confetti appears from his hand, flying high into the air, covering the stage. It looks like a snowstorm. Then the theatre erupts, it’s now snowing inside the auditorium. The audience in the stalls are getting covered in snow. Magic.

 

Lance Burton

If you only ever watch one manipulation act, Lance Burton’s dove act is the one to watch. Candles, silks, doves and cards appear in his hands effortlessly. All superbly choreographed and set to classical music. A lifetime of work went into 3 mins of pure magic.

 

Stuff the White Rabbit

If I had to choose my favourite TV magic programme it would be Stuff the White Rabbit. The idea was simple: get the world’s funniest and talented close up magicians, put them in front of an audience and film the results. The programme introduced the UK to David Williamson, Rene Lavand, Tom Mullica and The Amazing Jonathan. And gave a showcase to John Lenahan and Jerry Sadowitz. The quality of the magic was exceptional. Sadly the BBC have never released the series for wider viewing.

 

My magical journey

At the age of ten I used my pocket money to buy a few magic sets and books from local toyshops. I showed my friends the tricks. They weren’t that good. They weren’t that impressed. Standard story for a lot of fledgling magicians. My interest lay dormant for a few years and was rekindled when I was 14 and I became obsessed with Harry Houdini and escapology. Not many teenagers get a Strait Jacket for Christmas!

Escapology is a mix of knowledge of how locks work, skill in picking them, physical strength and deception. Most escapologists are also accomplished magicians.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out that for an escape to be effective the audience needs to be convinced that the performer is thoroughly restrained. Escapes are rather dull which is why they’re often presented with added peril and drama. Escape before you drown. Escape before a heavy weight drops on your head. Escape before you’re burnt alive. Escape before… Again for an escape to be effective the audience has to be convinced the peril is real. Unless the performer has a death wish, the danger is carefully managed. Faked usually.  It might sound strange for a magician to say this but the lack of authenticity and the 1-dimensional melodrama caused me to lose interest in escapology. Magic has many more dimensions and is much more honest about being dishonest.

I loved the thinking behind magic; particularly those tricks with a clever mathematical method (card tricks are great for this). I loved learning about magical theory and the psychology that makes the tricks effective. I loved the rich history of magic and learning about past masters. I loved making props with mini arts and crafts sessions. And I enjoyed the challenge of learning sleight of hand and improving my dexterity.

For a shy teenager, close up magic is an excellent hobby to have. You can carry around with you a pack of cards and a few small magic props. Then perform impromptu tricks in school corridors and at family gatherings. A great confidence booster and an introduction to communication.

I spent more time during my A-levels doing magic than studying. At university magic started opening doors to events. I was asked to perform at balls and parties. At first for a free ticket and then for money. My very first paid gig got me £15. I was ecstatic. Towards the end of my time at university I joined an improv comedy group and started performing magic at cabaret events. This led onto writing and performing solo fringe theatre shows. A fusion of magic, multimedia and comedy. I wanted to be a professional comedian but I wasn’t funny enough. (see this article I wrote about my experience)

For the last 7 years I’ve been mainly working in schools presenting science magic shows with the aim to use magic to grab the pupils’ attention and use it to teach the wonder of science. And once in awhile I also do a card trick.

Magnets are magical

[First draft – comments welcomed]

In one of my school shows I ask my audience to tell me their ideas for how my magic tricks are achieved. Invariably I’ll get the answer of “magnets”; regardless of how practical their use would be.  Primary school pupils have a fixation with them. Part of this is because of their limited knowledge of scientific principles and also that the magnet solution is more tangible than momentum, conservation of energy, buoyancy etc. However I think the main reason for this fixation is that magnets are magical.

Whilst I was still active in physics research I worked in two different fields. The first was in superconductivity. The Meissner effect that leads to magnetic levitation being one of strangest phenomena in physics.   During that time I had the privilege to spend two weeks running experiments at the European High Field Magnetic Laboratory in Grenoble. Working with a 30 Tesla monster magnet comes with a few dangers. Tools will literally be pulled out of your hands even from a couple of metres away and if you forget to remove your wallet before entering the lab (like me on the last day) you can have your credit cards wiped. There’s almost a supernatural quality to magnets; they’re a little scary and unworldly. You only have to be holding two strong magnets in your hands to feel the force between them. I find the repulsive force of two opposite magnetic poles to be weirder than the attractive force – like there’s an entity in the ether between them. And like my credit cards found out, a magnetic encounter can leave behind a nasty footprint.

I later switched from condensed matter to atomic physics research. My Ph.D at Durham University was on using pulsed magnetic fields to manipulate laser cooled atom clouds. I was effectively designing the magnetic equivalent of an optical lens. (If you want to join an exclusive club of readers, here’s a link to my thesis LINK.) Even though I worked with the mathematical equations that describe both the magnetic field and how matter interacts with the field, there was a disconnect between the maths and the intuitive understanding of how magnets work. A common question from children is “how do magnets work?” and truthfully it’s one of the areas in science I struggle to explain even though I became a Dr from making and using them.

Gravity is a fairly easy concept to grasp: ‘things attract’. Simples. Initially it’s: ‘things fall down’ but as science schooling progresses the pupils will learn the bigger picture that all objects have a gravitational attraction (usually from studying the solar system). And when much later they start putting equations to the forces, the mathematics makes intuitive sense. Heavier objects have a larger pull. Closer objects have a larger pull. There’s not much more you need to know until you get to the extremes and have to start making corrections for General Relativity.

The classical equation for the force between two magnetic poles has essentially the same form as the gravitational (and electrostatic) equation. However, the understanding is far from straight forward. I think the main reason for this is the wide range of magnets, magnetic phenomena and that not all materials are affected. It’s not universal like gravity or based on a few simple rules like electrostatics. Furthermore, the strength of the magnetic force dominates most other forces. Magnets are both mysterious and complicated.  So when my audience are trying to form an understanding of a strange trick, I think magnets are a natural (or should I say supernatural) explanation.

 

Epilogue

One of my favourite stories from magic history is the time the magician Eugene Robert-Houdin was sent by the French government to help quash a revolt in Algeria. The local tribes were superstitious and he used magic tricks to convince the locals that French magic was stronger than their own witchcraft. The fearful Algerians soon quietened down in the face of French ‘superiority’. One of the tricks Robert-Houdin used was called The Light and Heavy Chest. He’d get a small child to lift a wooden box to prove how light it was. Then he’d summon the strongest man in the village. After the man had gone through a mock hypnosis he found he was unable to shift the box that minutes earlier a boy had moved. Unbeknownst to the strong man he was the victim of a metal plate in the bottom of the box and an electromagnet concealed in the floor. Magnets are magical.

Wow! How? Now…

We often use the phrase ‘awe and wonder’. For me awe is that initial overwhelming response to something new, big, beautiful or surprising. It can be uncomfortable. It also is something we experience from the outside as an observer rather than a participant. There is a distance. A disconnect. Whether that’s looking through a telescope or walking inside a cathedral.

I want to take the journey further; from awe to wonder. Wonder is engagement, participation, play. Wonder is like Dr Who’s TARDIS. You step inside and the space magically becomes so much bigger. The horizon has shifted and there’s new territory to explore. The observer becomes an explorer.

So how practically has this changed my approach working within schools? Two main things:

Firstly, I’m putting a stronger emphasis on demonstrating everyday items behaving in strange ways. I could visit a school with flashy expensive science kit, but that won’t be any use once I’ve left the premises. I want to equip my audiences to go home and explore themselves. My early memories of science weren’t in school, they were in my back garden with objects like batteries, matches, film pots & kitchen chemicals and a magnifying glass. (Admittedly they did have a slightly pyrotechnical bent but when your dad is Head of Gas Explosions for HSE it’s in the blood.)

Secondly, I’ve started using a catch phrase in my shows: “Wow! How? Now…?” For me these are the three steps of the circular scientific method: Observation, Theory, Prediction. However, these words aren’t that inspiring. So I now talk about:

“Wow! That’s amazing.” when we observe a new or surprising phenomena.

“How does it work?” for coming up with theories. I create a dialogue where I ask my audience to tell me their theories.

“Now I wonder what if…?” for making a prediction when we make a change to the workings or look for some extra evidence.

The Orange Cut

I first read about this way to sculpt an orange in The Art of Astonishment (vol 1) by the magician Paul Harris. However the diagrams in the book are wrong.

The cuts are much simpler than portrayed in the book. See the diagram for what you’re aiming to achieve with the cuts.orange

First draw an equator around the orange. I’ve found a biro works well. Then draw 8 equally spaced vertical lines alternating above and below the equator. See the second photo. The lines stop about 2cm from the poles.

Now make a cut through the peel on each of the vertical lines. Then make two parallel cuts (to the left and right) of those vertical lines. This creates two strips of peel that are about 0.5 cm thick. You’ve now made 24 cuts. 

This is the slightly tricky bit… from the top extend one of the righthand cuts in an arc to the lefthand cut of the next bank of 3 cuts in the same hemisphere. Now extend the central cut in an arc to the next central cut. You’ll create a loop 0.5 cm wide. Repeat this process 4 times on the top hemisphere and it will look like photo 3.

Now turn the orange upside down and repeat the cuts for the other hemisphere. Photo 4.

The final cuts are along the equator but these are deep so they divide the orange into 2 hemispheres. Don’t cut through the strips. Then gently pull the two halves apart. It helps to pull the cut loops away from the orange before separating. You’ll end up with something looking like first photo at the top of this post.