26 08 2014

Are all the demos you perform as up-to-date and relevant as they should be?

Penn and Teller are two of my favourite performers. I think we could all learn a lot from watching their shows.

In 2010 they introduced a new trick to their show. It was performed on ITV as part of Fool Us.

If the link doesn’t work search Penn and Teller helium bag escape.

In the trick Teller escapes from a giant trash bag filled full of helium.

Teller is first sealed in a bag.

The bag is then filled with helium. We can’t breathe helium, a normal person should have suffocated by now.

In (literal) flash, Teller has escaped from the bag. The volunteer on stage is left holding the floating bag that seconds before trapped Teller.

Versions of the trick have been performed for over 100 years. Houdini himself performed a version and magicians today still perform versions of Houdini’s trick.

What makes Penn and Teller’s version of this trick so special is that they’ve updated it to make it relevant for today’s audiences.

If we want people to connect with our science demonstrations we need to follow the example of Penn and Teller and find ways to connect the demos to our audience’s everyday experiences.

The traditional version the trick is performed with a female assistant and called Metamorphosis. Houdini used to perform it with his wife Bess.

The magician not only escapes from the bag inside the trunk he switches place with his assistant.

When modern magicians perform versions of this trick I think most audiences are left unsatisfied.

The magician in a sack enters the box.


He is sealed in tight.

The assistant stands on top of the sealed box and then drops a curtain.


As the curtain falls we see the magician has switched places. He is now standing on top of the box from which he has escaped.


The assistant is then released from the locked box and tied sack.

Now I am not going to give away how this trick is done but if you’re sceptical like me you might be doubting the integrity of that box. The magician is asking us to believe that both he and his assistant have penetrated a solid structure.

I find myself asking the question: what is more likely, a faked box or human flesh passing through solid wood?

Compare it to Penn and Teller’s trick.

To me this is a lot more believable. I understand plastic bags and helium. I am familiar with how they work. If there was any rip in the bag surely the helium would escape? Teller must have somehow magically passed through the plastic.

It’s the same trick and yet Penn and Teller’s version is so much more effective. So why did the other magicians use that wooden box?

The reason is because the other magicians haven’t thought about why the box was originally used. They haven’t thought what is the best way to perform this illusion they have just gone along with the traditional way it’s always been performed.

As science presenters we need to be careful that we don’t make the same mistake.

At the turn of the last century every audience member would have been as familiar with a wooden trunk as modern day audiences are with the giant trashbag.

Houdini and Bess didn’t just perform with their wooden box they carried their world’s possessions around in it as they moved from gig to gig*. Everyone else would’ve done the same. Everyone owned a trunk which could be locked that protected their prized possessions. When this trick was originally conceived the magicians used a wooden box because the wooden box would never have been questioned.

Penn and Teller would never use a wooden box for audiences today. Who owns a wooden box apart from a tricksy magician? What they do brilliantly is think about how they can make the same illusion as effective as possible in the 21st Century. Instead of a trunk they use something we are just as familiar with- a trash bag.

When we are presenting classic science demos we should also be doing the same thing. We should all be looking for the anachronistic stuff that distances our audiences from our key message.

He is just one example I found in my repertoire. The popping film canister.


Why are we using film canisters? Yes, they pop nicely but how many kids in an audience have any idea what the film canister actually is?

Before the advent of digital photography everyone would have known what a film canister was. Every child would have seen their parents swapping the film in and out of those little plastic pots if they hadn’t done it themselves.

You could have been certain that everybody would have known the most important thing about them: that their lids fitted tightly on top and were difficult to remove.

Today we might still get a reaction from the canister lid popping off but if we think about it like Penn and Teller for a moment: is that reaction as effective as it used to be when everyone was familiar with film canisters and how they worked?

Just as a magician could still use a wooden box for Metamorphosis but he’s going to need to take the time to demonstrate to us convincingly that it is a solid and and gimmick-free wooden box, if we are going to perform the popping film canister we need to take the time to explain exactly the important properties of the canister.

Of course there is an alternative.

Instead of performing the popping film canister demonstration because that’s what we’ve traditionally always done we could ask is there a more relevant way that we can show the expansion of carbon dioxide gas in a sealed container using equipment that every child in today’s audiences would be immediately familiar with?

If Penn and Teller were performing science demonstrations you know that’s what they would do…

* “It was one of those early spring rains that chilled to the bone. The darkness was so thick that Harry and Bess began to think they were hopelessly lost. Still they plodded on through the mud, each carrying one end of the trunk that doubled as both a stage prop and their luggage.” The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.


I have been in email conversation with the brilliant Paul McCrory who has made two very interesting points.

Firstly, he finds audiences are familiar with the film canister not because they’ve ever used one for its original purpose but because the canisters have become so common in science presentations and on YouTube people are now used to seeing them. I think that is fascinating. On the one hand we might be able to justify using film canisters because so many other people are, but on the other does that make us just like the magicians justifying their wooden trunk by saying everyone knows this is how the trick is performed, they are expecting to see a wooden trunk so I have to use one? I’d be interested in your comments.

Secondly, he saw P and T’s trick more like Houdini’s Paper Bag Escape than Metamorphosis. I’ve twitted Penn Jillette to see if he will comment. I didn’t know of the BP Escape, having looked it up I know where Paul is coming from- the paper bag and the trash bag are similar, as well as that HH spent time getting his volunteers to verify the bag he escaped from had not been switched or damaged and P and T let the helium filled bag float up to the ceiling to show there are no holes in the bag- but I think the instantaneous nature of the escape makes the Helium Trash Bag escape more like Metamorphosis all the same. The falling of the curtain serves the same purpose as the camera flash. I’m looking forward to seeing if Penn replies (I’m sure he’s too busy to even think about it but if you don’t ask you don’t get).


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