Science of Magic: Demystifying the Art of Legerdemain

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One cannot delve on the topic of magic and science without quoting this immortal line by Arthur C Clarke – a simple statement that is layered with many meanings.

At the basic, it refers to the understanding that magic is perceived to be beyond the realms of science, while also establishing that advancements in science are taking it closer to magic – and fantasy.

It is equally intriguing to look at magic as the “sufficiently advanced technology” that science is vying to achieve and surpass. This paraphrasing of Clarke’s original statement reflects the popular thought in people’s minds. 

Many recent accomplishments of science would fit the same line of thought – be it the Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility that is under development or the more recent IBM announcement of machines that can read a human mind being almost here.

Indeed, Magic and Science have been strange and natural bedfellows. Magicians have always been fascinated with performing effects that belie science, while at the same time using the laws and techniques of science in the most skilful way – to craft magic effects that could fool scientists themselves.

Looking through the annals of magical history, one can quickly find the strong bond shared between these two ‘opposing’ forces. The first stage magicians, including Jean Eugene Robert Houdin—the father of modern magic—presented their magic acts as scientific miracles. There were ample instances where the early magicians projected themselves as being scientists, doctors, and experimenters. 

Similar to the myriad instances of “my (western/new-world) magic is better than your (itinerant/pagan) local magic” where stage magic effects were used to subdue the “witchcraft” of the African shamans, there are numerous examples where magicians projected that they had invented a new device or machine that could achieve the undoable. The beautifully-crafted, clockwork-based automata that could play chess, interact with people, or grow a fruit on a tree are only a few of the better examples.

Magicians have since the ancient days used technology to power their effects, utilising crafty, unseen methods and principles to perform seemingly impossible effects. They have been early adopters of advancements in science and adept at putting it to use in unique ways. For instance, early stage magic was laden with effects performed with electromagnets, where objects suddenly became very heavy or immensely light at the magician’s command.

Over the years, Magic has been referred to as “Smoke and Mirrors,” which has its roots in the vaudevillian magicians using these very elements in their shows. Magicians were among the first to create the onstage illusions of spooky ghost-like images, see-through translucent bodies, and floating or dismembered people using the elements of light and reflection.

Being on the early curve of technology adoption also meant that many magicians have etched their names permanently in world history. French magician George Méliès was the first to use special effects in cinema via his monumental film “A Trip to the Moon,” while British magician Jasper Maskelyne used his magical skills to hide (camouflage) the Allied military forces from the German airplanes in World War II! 

Most magic, even today, is about breaking the common-known laws of science and related logic: levitating objects, teleporting a person across the room, transposing one object with another, or making one solid object pass through another. Classic magic effects like appearing something from nothing, vanishing something into nothing, and changing one object into another – all belong to the same school of thought: of disproving science.

The magicians depend on a secret ingredient to create a unique set of tools and techniques based on the various laws of science to be able to pull wool over the eyes of most – including the scientists. The success of this depends entirely on the elements of Misdirection: the art of directing the audience’s attention to mask and hide the secret moves.

Misdirection is an oft used, but also a least understood word. Misdirection is mostly understood as the ability to misguide the attention of the onlooker; about making the audience look away from where the real action is taking place. In essence, this is what hides the secret of the trick from the prying eyes of the audience.

Yet the best magicians in the world will be the first to tell you that misdirection is actually more about directing the attention than misguiding it. The art of effective misdirection lies in controlling an audience’s attention on specific things and movements, words and actions, all contributing to misdirect them from the actual working of a trick. 

Misdirection deals with controlling and directing the vision, comprehension, and thoughts of a audience in the ways that best suit the magician. This is true of not just the visual magic effects, but also for the psychological magic effects that transpire in the audience’s minds.

The magician is repeatedly seen breaking or dispelling a law of science, as he secretly utilises the principles of one or more complementary laws of science. For example, in performing a levitation effect—where a person or object floats in the air breaking known laws of gravity—the magician may be employing his artful knowledge of geometry and elements of light to create the illusion of a levitating body.

As is popularly said, a performance of magic deals with ‘wilful suspension of disbelief’ among the audience. The audience knows that it is all an act, that it is an impossibility. Yet in that moment the audience wants to believe; they want it to be real. The audience in simple is wilfully playing along with the magician to create magic.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the audience is in tune with Robert Houdin’s words: “The magician is an actor playing the role of a magician”. The audience here becomes a wilful participant making the tricks and effects that they watch – Magic, at least in their minds.

One of the primary reasons Magic continues to fascinate us, is that it connects directly to the human need for fantasy and the unreal. Magicians have been able to address this primary need of their audiences over the years by crafting newer and more impossible-looking illusions, helped along by developments in engineering and technology. 

It is this knowledge that assures us that magic and magicians are here to stay. As advancements in science & technology take the human race closer into realms of magic and fantasy, magicians will continue to bend the laws of science and trigger our imaginations. In fact, magicians will continue to inspire science by pushing the realms of magic per se into higher terrains of unbelievability and fantasy.  

Note: First published in Popular Science India on September 06, 2012.