Bumming people’s sh1t

17 09 2015

In previous posts I’ve spoken about the differences between magic and science presenting. Whilst we can always learn from watching other forms of presentation- and skilled magicians can teach us lots about prop wrangling and volunteer handling- no one presenting science should ever give away the “secrets” of a magic trick, however tempted they might be. Giving magic secrets away “bums people’s shit”.

Take 30 mins to listen to this fascinating podcast from Radiolab called “You be the judge“.

A producer on the show learned that his grandparents, Sydney and Lesley Piddington, had been enormously popular radio performers of the 1950’s. They were mentalists and their act would typically place Lesley out of contact (for instance on a plane flying over the countryside) when Sydney in the studio would be given a random piece of information to “transmit mentally” to Lesley. Lesley would then somehow relay the secret information back live on air to everyone’s astonishment.

As it says on the Radiolab site:
Sixty years later, a question remains: how did they do it? No matter how much Jesse asks his grandmother, his father, even other magicians, he can’t seem to find the answer. And soon another question presents itself: should he, should we, open that black box and look inside, if that means losing the magic?

Losing the magic is a wonderful phrase and the key difference between magic and science. In science we give away secrets, in magic the secret is never given away. In science finding out how something works leads the audience to rapture. In magic finding out how something works can ruin your whole day.

To hear the reveal you are directed to a separate webpage with the address /theuglytruthdontclickonthis/

When you get there you are presented with an image of a black box which you then have to click.

Even that doesn’t get you to the reveal though, it takes you to a skull and crossbones that you have to click as well before you are finally directed to Penn, of Penn and Teller, offering a solution.

It’s up to you if you want to listen to the reveal or not. What’s important to note is the respect these podcasters give for the magic secrets. Self-working magic tricks that are based around science demos can be performed as part of a show but as Penn says:

The only secret in magic…is that the secret must be ugly. You cannot have a beautiful secret. In magic, what you want is an idea that is not beautiful. 

You don’t get an ‘A-Ha!’
[An A-Ha] is one of the strongest feelings in life. [A-Ha’s are] rewarding feelings [they are] the feeling of ‘A-Ha, I finally understand.’

I can tell you easily how they did that trick, but you will not get an ‘A-Ha’, it is ugly.

At the end of the podcast you can hear the disappointment the presenters feel when Penn tells them how the tricks were done. They are genuinely upset that what they’ve just learnt has done nothing but ruin all the magic they felt. Penn giggles and says:

I can’t believe how much I bummed your shit.

Magic is great but it is not the same as presenting science. Presenters from both can learn lots from each other but science presenters should remember they deal in those very A-Ha’s that magic just doesn’t provide. Giving away magic secrets is not the way to effectively present science.

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