Magic: A Scientific Approach
Recently, my fiance and I were sitting with in my living room with a magically-inclined friend of mine. We had spent the afternoon discussing a few projects we all had on the go, and like these discussions usually do, we all went off on our unique tangents into stories, Youtube videos, and archival photos in our various social media profiles. You know what that’s like, right? Of course you do.
Now despite this wizard-friend knowing me for at least two or three years, she was unaware of my previous lives that have led me to the current magic-and-mentalism-based career I’ve chosen. Just to catch you up, before I was a professional mentalist, I was a baseball player, a bartender, an undergraduate scientist, an actor, and improviser, and of all things, a poster-child for the University of Lethbridge (which, in fact, was the direct result of my combined expertise in the “scientist” and “baseball player” fields...Maybe I’ll tell that story at a later date, but for now, back to the original story).
But, as we carried on our discussions about all things magic-related, I realized how the process of making magic and the process of scientific discovery are basically the same. (Well, at least to me.) The tools I used to carry out research as an undergrad at the U of L were more or less the same steps I had been using to create the magic that had been put into my shows for the past six(ish) years. So, in an effort to help us all be better magicians (or scientists...or both?) I’m going to outline how the famous (cue bold, dramatic voice-over) SCIENTIFIC METHOD shapes everything I do to get my magic on stage.
Disclaimer: What follows is grossly oversimplified, both from a “making magic” standpoint, as well as “this is how science works” standpoint (after all, my goal is to entertain you with internet ramblings). If you want more about the scientific method, there’s a great video here.
Step 1: Asking The Question
As you can probably guess, this is where every good scientific discovery (and by the analogy I’m presenting in this article, every magic trick) starts. In science, the very first step to investigating anything is the question or idea that you want to explore. Why is the sky blue? What is the effect of a magnetic field on a moving charged particle? What effect does exercise have on a particular health concern? Of course, these are very over-simplified examples, but you get the idea. In magic, it’s the same thing. I start with a question or idea. What if I could make this <insert object here> disappear? What if I could read <insert person’s name here> mind? Usually, the best ideas I have start with that simple moment of “what if.” What can I do that would feel like magic? And just like science, that’s where the next step kicks off.
Step 2: Do The Research
Ah yes, research. The thing that has robbed (and continues to rob) my nights of precious, precious sleep. Back when I was doing research as an undergrad lab assistant, a large chunk of what I did in the lab was read. I read to find out the base information about whatever it was I was researching. I read about what other researchers had experimented with. I read what other researchers had researched to see if someone else had researched their research to figure out exactly what other’s research hadn’t researched. And a lot of that research goes back decades, if not centuries.
To be honest, magic is no different. And while there’s no official academic journal of magic, or specific referencing format (I still have nightmares about APA formatting), the world of magic has its own vast library of academia. The mediums can change; serial magazines, books, pamphlets, instructional videos, downloads, lecture notes, and more...but just like other academic pursuits, magicians research existing (or sometimes forgotten) methods, create their own work based on that research, perform and publish it, and reference where their inspirations come from. In fact, I find myself in this rabbit-hole more often than I expect. It usually starts when I’m creating or tweaking a trick that I’m putting into a show. I research what I want to do, only to find myself days later surrounded by books, papers, DVD’s and hard drives full of magic, tracing back the history of a method that is credited to a very long dead magician from a century ago (who usually isn’t the originator, but is the last traceable point in the life of the trick). And, just like academia, there’s usually a handful of publications that everything connects back to in some way. It’s like the whole, “all roads lead to Rome,” idea, except instead of archaic Roman infrastructure, it’s books upon books of card tricks.
But eventually, your question and your research has led you to an idea. You get inspired.
Step 3: The Hypothesis
Yep. Your inspiration has brought you to this point. You have a concept. You have a plausible method in mind. So, you make your hypothesis.
If I do and say A, that means that B will happen, which means that C is what the audience should see/experience, which (to them) should be a bloody miracle. Sometimes this is as easy as buying and recreating a trick step-for-step. Most of the time (at least for me) whatever trick I perform has been imbued with something I’ve added...whether it be a bit of scripting, a slight change to the method, or a change in presentation or scale. It’s not often that something I perform hasn’t been changed in some way. But, regardless, you have a trick in mind, and you think it should work.
So, you buy or build your props. You craft your scripting. You work out your pacing, your angles, where you stand, how you move. You plan out everything. Then...
Step 4: Test, Test, Test
You take your new idea to the stage. Or the table. Or in front of the camera. Or wherever it fits.
You gauge your audience reactions. Does the audience clap? Do they laugh? Do they run screaming from the room? Do they throw their underwear at you in admiration? Do they stare at you silently in disgust? The audience response is the data you’re collecting while you test this new material. In some cases, you can even ask. “Hey, I’ve put some new material in the show. What do you think?” Your direct and indirect feedback from your audience tells you what’s good, and what’s not. You also get to see if the trick functions the way you want it to. Is it reliable? Is it practical? Other magicians also usually weigh in at some point, offering feedback, improvements, or alternatives through collaboration. From here, the method and the scripting get tweaked (or in some cases, completely replaced), and it gets marched out in front of an audience again. Then it gets tweaked some more. Interspersed in all the testing and tweaking is likely more research. You track the response to the effect performance after performance after performance until you’ve collected all the possible data. Once you’ve put hours and hours into this idea, you finally get to ask yourself...
Step 5: Does It Work?
And, this should be a pretty straightforward answer. If whatever it is you’re doing astounds audiences and you’re capable of reliably performing it again and again, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Simple as that. Which means that it’s time to...
Step 6: Draw Your Conclusion
After all of the test runs your new magic trick, there really are only two possible outcomes.
The first is that you’ve got yourself an amazing new piece of magic that’s astounding crowds and is likely the beginning of a religion in your name. Hooray!
The other is that it stinks.
So, in the event that you’ve developed a dud, you have two options:
Option 1: Go back to Step 2, and find new and improved ways to perform the trick via method, scripting, or both.
Option 2: Cut your losses, and drop the trick. Go back to Step 2 to try and cultivate a new idea.
Either way, you’re in for some book-learnin’.
These two steps are why a lot of magic tricks takes decades to perfect. Every little piece is improved and stacked on other pieces until whatever magic effect you’re trying to produce is flawless. So many magicians devote their entire lives to perfecting just. One. Thing.
After all, Teller (of Penn and Teller) sums it up best: “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
Step 7: Share The Results
You’ve done it. You had an idea. You researched everything you need to know about pulling it off. You hypothesized how it would work. You marched it out and tested it again and again and again and again and again. You asked yourself if it works the way you want it to, and you’ve gone back and researched some more. You’ve spent days, months, years, or even decades perfecting this manufactured miracle. And finally, you have something that you think is “finished.” What do you do now?
You share it.
You take it out and show it to every audience you can. You perform it for anyone who’ll watch. You proudly display your creation to the world. Maybe you even write it down somewhere, and splash your tiny contribution to magic into the ocean it was distilled from. You stand on the shoulders of giants to display what you’ve built. Because, just like the people who came before you, your little creation could be the shoulders that someone else stands on in the future.
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