— CBC Docs (@cbcdocs) June 30, 2018
So the trick above might seem easy. Too easy, in fact. Insultingly easy, if you wan’t to get fresh.
Allow me to explain.
The trick, performed by the amazing Julie Eng, isn’t just a great place for coin novices to start, requiring even less dexterity than the super simple french drop, but it’s also a great example of how the complexity of a sleight is secondary to your ability to sell it.
Using a cough to hide a transition is about as subtle as a punch to the face unless you’re rocking some kind of magician-with-a-perpetual-chest-cough persona, but it’s about as straight-forward an example as you’ll find of using “natural” movements to perform tricks. If you can’t cough without setting off people’s “I AM BEING DECEIVED” alarm bells, you probably can’t do that double turnover without looking like an angry robot either. Start small.
Okay, maybe it’s not the simplest coin trick ever. That’d be this one.
— KDI48 (@KDI48GOD) July 1, 2018
Anyway, the tutorial is just a small sample of an episode of Canadian documentary series, The Nature of Things, called The Science of Magic. The episode – which is available online, but only to accursed Canadians – looks at performance magic through the lens of neuroscience and attention bias. One section which sounds particularly interesting is a discussion of, “change blindness,” or the idea that small changes in our environment can mask far larger, more obvious changes. For a really good example of how a good magician can make use of this quirk of biology, see this trick by Penn & Teller.
Magic is about performing the impossible, but it’s science that defines that boundary. Such is the theme of Jason Latimer and Engineering.com‘s “Impossible Science Student Challenge,” a STEM-focused student competition they’ll be launching at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC this April.
The challenge is open to current middle school and high school students in the US and Canada. All the contestants have to do is use Engineering.com’s ProjectBoard to showcase their STEM-related projects and experiments. The winning team will earn their entire school a live magic show courtesy of Latimer, a Magic Grand Prix World Champion and curator of the Impossible Science stage show.
The competition goes live on April 6th and the deadline for submissions is June 15th. The winner will be announced on June 20th.
The USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo will run from April 7th to April 8th at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington DC. It’s the county’s largest celebration of STEM fields and will feature some 3,000 hands-on exhibits and over 30 stage shows. It’s a free event, though please make a donation if you can. Registration is open now.
There might be piles of op-eds bemoaning the dwindling attention spans of the digital age, but magicians know better. They know that humans’ ability to see and observe has always been a fragile thing, a thing that’s easy to manipulate or to fail completely. Magic historian David Britland delves into some of the more incredible examples of this phenomenon in his One Weird Trick blog.
For instance, he’s got the story of Harry Blackstone, a magician who was so good at misdirection he could distract an audience while a donkey was moved into position to be the trick’s big reveal. Nobody would see the donkey, even though the animal was in plain view on the stage, until Blackstone wanted them to.
On the more academic side, he also shares a research experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris of Harvard that put humans’ selective blindness to the test in a similar fashion. Instead of a donkey, the professors had people watch a group of people passing a ball so intently that many of the participants completely ignored the cameo by someone in a gorilla suit.
Check out the full post for more examples of selective inattention in action. Or if you still need more on the science of misdirection, you can read about it in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology or in The Guardian. Or just watch your favorite magician doing their thing.
Magic has always been a special blend of art and science, and nobody understands that better than Dr. Ricardo Rosenkranz. He’s both a professional magician and a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and he blends those two passions into a show called The Rosenkranz Mysteries: Physician Magician.
“Saying we are healthy is sometimes a deception, and medicine is a performance art,” Rosenkranz told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s why this show is so different. I wanted to do a show that had meaning and I wanted to create a show for a thinking audience. I wanted to show that you could not only see magic before your very eyes, but also receive an uplifting message.”
A new production of his one-man show, following on the successful first year of the program in 2016, is about to kick off its run in Chicago. Northwestern alum Jessica Fisch is back again to direct. “This year’s show is like a version 2.0,” Fisch said. “It’s the deepening of an incredible idea.”
Much of the magic Rosenkranz does was inspired by his mentor, Eugene Burger, who passed away last year. Fisch said this second run is a chance to pay homage to his impact on Rosenkranz. Burger inspired many magicians with his PBS documentary The Art of Magic.
Chicago locals can see The Rosenkranz Mysteries: Physician Magician at the Royal George Theater from March 27 through May 6. Tickets and more information are available here. For a closer look, check out this trailer.
Being a dedicated gentleman of leisure in the vein of Oscar Wilde or that fat bloke from Dune, I’ve always scoffed at the idea of a spiritual reward for hard work. Unfortunately those meddlesome people who insist that cider and cigarettes “aren’t food” and binge watching Netflix isn’t good for me might just have science on their side.
It turns out that any type of work that forces us to use our brains and our hands changes the neurochemistry of our brain, usually for the better. The opposable thumb is one of mankind’s greatest advantages in the giant, world-wide cage-match that is natural selection, and according to Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, our brain has evolved to reward us for using them.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the science – I write about people pulling animals out of hats for a living – but I can say the theory fits with my life experience. I use low key manual labor to distract myself from anxiety all the time. Pro tip: You will never find that cleaner dishes than in a writer’s house near a deadline. That nearly every culture in the world has its own take on the stress ball is a bit of a giveaway as well. Juggling and knitting have long been known to have beneficial effects on your mood.
It also fits with the well-established link between chronic unemployment and depression, a link that Lambert observed during her experiments on rats.
Rats that were made to dig for their food showed far more signs of healthy minds than rats who were given a free-ride. These “trust fund rats” had much higher stress levels than their working class peers.
So long story short, all those card tricks you’re working on are good for you, that riffle shuffle you keep screwing up is therapy, and I’m saving all those dirty dishes for my next deadline.
We’ve seen magic used in some very unusual ways, but as inspiration for product development of medical devices might be one of the strangest. John Crombie is a magician as well as a medical device company executive. He showed off a few tricks as a way to offer advice to his colleagues at a workshop.
For instance, he performed the Pena coin trick, where a quarter appears to get pushed through a piece of rubber into a glass. “What happened and what you saw are disconnected,” he said. The trick was a springboard for encouraging product developers to set the bar higher and strive for what might seem impossible.
Lessons in magic, lessons in life. If this kind of scientific crossover gets you excited, then you’ll also want to check out the documentary Powerful Medicine, about how magic can be applied to physical therapy.
You know that bit in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray yanks at a tablecloth in the ballroom and jokes that “the flowers are still standing”? While his version of the trick may not have been entirely successful, others have made entire careers off of the ability to pull cloth away without disturbing the contents covering it (including this guy, who is incredibly naked when he does it). How do they do it? The answer, as usual, is science.
How to Win at Everything is a show on National Geographic TV that explores the physics and psychology behind a variety of weird and wild stuff, and recently posted a clip on its website about the science behind the tablecloth pull. The show called upon tablecloth pulling expert Matt Ricardo, who shows what happens when you pull the cloth at the middle, and then again at the edges.
Newton’s first law of inertia states that objects tend to resist movement, and in the case of the tablecloth pull, that resistance comes from friction from the object as well as the bunched up cloth. When pulling from the middle, friction is reduced because the cloth stays smooth, and everything stays put. When pulling from the edges, though, well… hope you have a broom handy.
We missed this one back when it aired around Christmastime, but the BBC 4 science/geek podcast the Infinite Monkey Cage did a deep dive on the psychology of magic. Hosts Brian Cox and Robin Ince gathered illusionist Andy Nyman, psychology professor and magician Richard Wiseman, comedian Diane Morgan, and theology professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou to chat about magic on stage. Together, they discuss about the difference between magicians and quack paranormalists, the history of myths and miracles in religion (apparently demons don’t like corners?), skeptics, and more. You can check it out at the podcast’s official page on BBC 4, or have a listen via the YouTube mirror embedded above.
It’s easier than ever for falsified information to spread in the information age, so how do we ensure that reason prevails over fiction? One university in Canada is taking a more magical approach to the solution, and is developing a series of courses on on the history and psychology of the conjuring arts.
Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario has received a $2 million donation from the Slaight Family Foundation in order to form the Allan Slaight Chair for the Study of Conjuring Arts, as revealed on the university’s newsfeed. The chair is named after the Canadian philanthropist and magic enthusiast whose foundation recently donated hundreds of magic posters from the early 1900s to the McCord Museum in Quebec.
“If you think about the whole idea of magic, it’s all about perception and deception,” university interim president Alastair Summerlee told The Canadian Press via Toronto CityNews. “What is it that people see? What is it that you can fool people with? What is it that you make people believe in?”
While not necessarily teaching students how to perform card tricks, per se, the courses will instruct them about the role magicians play in deceiving audiences. To that end, the university will focus on teaching courses on “psychology, political persuasion, literature, and the history of warfare”, according to the report.
“As a society, it’s imperative that we understand when we are being deceived,” said Summerlee. “It’s also important to remember that magicians are among some of history’s greatest performers and influencers.”
The university will begin to look for candidates for the chair early next year, with plans to fill it and develop courses by the 2018-2019 academic year. To keep tabs on how this program is progressing, be sure to visit Carleton University’s home page for more information.
Misdirection is a vital tool in the magician’s bag of tricks. By waving his hand over to the side, an illusionist can guide your attention away from the fact that he just put his shoe on the table until the last possible moment, all without you ever noticing. Dr. Daniel Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, explains the science behind why this works in a brief Guardian article.
Our nervous system is really about filtering out rather than relaying information – if we were aware of all of our sensory inputs all the time, we would rapidly be overwhelmed. Attention is the way we direct the spotlight, ignoring the background and focusing on what matters.
Our visual cortex causes our brain to only focus on what we’re looking at. It’s this internal wiring that allows optical illusions to fool our brains, and it’s that same trickery that makes the act of causing cards (or shoes) appear out of thin air look like magic. The more you know.