Science+Magic

24 11 2010

You won’t need to look far to find a science show using the word ‘magic’ in its title. This article considers why people use the word magic and whether we should. At its least harmful I think some performers assume “kids like magic, I’ll put ‘magic’ in the title of my show”. But if there is no real magic in the show we risk misleading the audience and by calling the science magic we risk devaluing the science.

I love magic- proper magic done by a magician who has practiced their art and thought carefully about its presentation. And I love science- I really enjoy witnessing an unexpected event that reveals or makes me question my understanding of the world. Unfortunately my heart sinks when I see show titles that combine magic and science because too often they are just not very good.

Why is the term magic used in so many show titles and should it really be there? (Image credit)

The combination of the words “magic” and “science” works as a title because it juxtaposes two very different concepts. Audiences instinctively consider science and magic to be very different things. This piques their curiosity- how can you combine science and magic? If you are a very good magician and you’ve carefully woven your magic tricks into a science-themed presentation then this has the potential to be a really good show.

Unfortunately, too often “the magic of science” is just a cliched title used to bunch together a rag-tag collection of self-working science tricks. There is actually little or no magic involved in the show at all. And these shows themselves fall into two categories.

Science is magic!

Shows with magic in the title but no magic in the show are misleading their audiences. If the word magic is in the title audiences will be expecting magic in the show. Linguistically it is possible to use the word “magic” as an alternative to “wonder” or “thrill” but if this is the case then shouldn’t the show be better called “the wonder of science”, “thrilling science” or some other more accurate description of what the performer is doing? “Magic Science” is a great show title but if there’s no magic in the show your audience will be disappointed.

The educational purpose and impact of “science is magic” shows can also be questioned. By definition a performer presenting a succession of unrelated tricks will be jumping from concept to concept. Audiences will find it difficult to follow so many changes in subject matter and presenters themselves will find it impossible to cover the underlying science behind each of the demonstrations. There simply won’t be enough time to cover each subject sufficiently when you’ve got to move onto something completely different.

If you are not a magician but you have “magic” in your show title ask yourself why have you chosen the word magic to describe what you are doing? Is there a better word you could use to replace the word magic? Why not try to find a common science thread to tie together what you are doing? Even better, why not spend the time developing a scientific theme and then choose your tricks to go along with that theme.

The magic of science!

This second category of shows consist of presenters performing self-working “magic” tricks and then revealing the secret of how they work (“it’s science!!!”). These shows misunderstand what makes proper magic shows special and by revealing the explanations in the style they do misrepresent and devalue the science the tricks rely on.

Magic shows and science shows have totally opposing agendas. In a magic show both the performer and the audience mutually agree to suspend their disbelief to be entertained by the seemingly unexplainable. Magicians don’t tell how their tricks are done because the truth is always a disappointment. When the secret technique is revealed the spell has been broken, the audience who have played along in good faith feel foolish and the whole experience is ruined for everyone.

A science show is the exactly opposite of a magic show. A science show does not present the unexplainable but reveals the truth behind what can be demonstrated. And normally the explanation goes even further than what is observable. The whole point in a science show is to reveal how the trick is done.

Magic and science have fundamentally different approaches to their subject matters. The secretive format of a magic show is not an easy way to reveal and explain science.

The scientific content in a show can also be devalued by presenting science as “magic”. If the science in the show is presented as “just the workings of a simple trick to be revealed” the message the audience will take is that the science is not important. The science takes second billing to the effect itself. In science education the science itself must be at least as important as the effect. Your audience thinks so otherwise why wouldn’t they have just gone to a proper magic show instead?

Performing magic

Magic is really difficult to perform well. A professional magician is just as skilled as a professional musician or circus performer. Why do science presenters think they can pretend they are “magicians” when they would never claim to be, for example, a “musician”. Most magicians reckon to become a professional you’d need to practice at least two hours a day for 5 years. And whilst learning the magic tricks is challenging learning how to perform the magic is by far the hardest part. Self-working magic tricks are available but are rarely used as a short cut to learning real tricks. Magicians don’t use them because they lack impact, look cheap and too many people know how they are done. The real skill lies in the presentation and not how it is done anyway.

Even if the “magic” in a show is self-working science why should performers with no magical training expect to produce a competent “magic” show? A science show consisting of science demonstrations presented as “magic” will never approach the professionalism or the skill of a proper magic show. If a show promises “magic” then audiences expect a certain level of competency that most science presenters just won’t be able to deliver.

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