‘Breaking Magic,’ the science of foolery
New Discovery series uses science to create magic tricks
November 8, 2012
Magicians aren't supposed to reveal how they do their tricks, but it would be OK to do that if the tricks use science, because science isn't secret, right?
That's the argument advanced by Discovery's new series "Breaking Magic," a show in which magicians perform tricks that supposedly exploit scientific principles. The argument doesn't really hold up. Moreover, the explanations of how the illusions worked are vague or cursory, so the series fails as an educational show.
But the various tricks we see are usually entertaining, and the magicians are young and cool. The show could keep channel surfers distracted for a few minutes.
Premiering this Sunday, Nov. 11, at 10 p.m., "Breaking Magic" sends four young magicians out to perform tricks in front of small crowds of people. Each trick uses an arguably scientific phenomenon.
For example, an American magician named Wayne Houchin goes to an auto garage and shows some mysterious motor oil to a group of mechanics. Pouring it into a water bottle provided by one of them, he makes the bottle roll toward his hand.
Then he pours out a puddle of oil and tells it to come alive. It rises to form a bristly lump and then moves, apparently at Wayne's command, toward a wrench on the table.
The narrator explains that the oil is actually a ferrofluid, a magnetizable liquid. A purportedly explanatory animated graphic is filled with N's and S's. We don't learn whether these letters stand for "north" and "south" or "sodium" and "sulfur." The explanation is detailed enough to sound scientific without imparting any interesting information.
A snarky Canadian magician named Billy Kidd tells some guys in martial-arts outfits that, using a wooden sword, she can pick up more grains of rice than they can. She wins easily. The narrator explains that she has taken advantage of such arcane scientific phenomena as friction and gravity.
A British magician named Ben Hanlin goes to the streets of Warsaw, Poland, to demonstrate what he calls a new lie detector, which he uses on unsuspecting passers-by. He has them hold a jar of clear liquid that will change color if they lie. He proceeds to embarrass a series of men who are strolling with their significant others.
The science behind this trick is a little more surprising, having an interesting real-world application.
In both of the episodes that were made available for review, the Australian magician James Galea has the most elaborate and dangerous stunt. An audience member locks Galea's hand to a table, directly underneath a tube through which a cannonball is about to drop 50 feet. The scientific part of the trick is obscured by a lot of elaborate business involving a hidden key, and one bit of nonscientific sleight of hand is revealed to us viewers.
The second episode is more of the same. But Galea's stunt, a larger-scale and more dangerous version of the kind of trick that professors perform in Physics 101 lectures, runs into some major difficulties that try the patience both of his audience and us viewers at home.
Generally, however, it's amusing to see how the performers use showmanship and humor to pump up what are often very simple tricks. Since we folks at home get to learn how the tricks work, we can feel superior to the dupes onscreen.
Science or not, those reveals are probably violating the magician's code of silence. Fortunately, it's hard to take anything about "Breaking Magic" seriously. Any impression that it makes disappears magically in seconds.
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