On 15th Oct I had the privilege to share my thoughts at TEDxBrum on the middle ground between Wow! and How? Watch the video here.
Albert Einstein’s contribution to science and society is huge. A revolutionary genius. A ‘stuck in the mud’ that held 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 where 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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.