December 27, 1990

Magic Revealed

Some things have to be believed to be seen.

Ralph Hodgson on ESP

According to Lancelot Hogben, in his wonderful book Mathematics for the Million,"the first mathematicians were the priestly calendar makers who calculated the onset of the seasons. The Egyptian temples were equipped with nilometers with which the priests made painstaking records of the rising and falling of the sacred river. With these they could predict the flooding of the Nile with great accuracy. Their papyri showed that they possessed a language of measurement very different from the pretentious phraseology with which they fobbed off their prophecies on the laity. The masses couldn't see the connection between prophecy and reality, because the nilometers communicated with the river by underground channels, skillfully concealed from the eyes of the people."

On Friday November 23rd I watched a television special that was truly revolutionary. The program was called Don't try this at home! and was performed by the magicians Penn and Teller.

Among other things, we were taken outside the theater, where a semi-trailer loaded with cement blocks stood. Teller laid down lengthwise in front of the rear wheels and Penn drove the trailer over him. Teller got up unharmed. Penn then showed us the other side of the the truck with its massive counterweights and the foam rubber tire that rolled over Teller.

This is sure to outrage most magicians, who Penn Jillette calls "rabbit pullers". It is the beginning of a movement similar to what happened when science was liberated from magic; when the secrets of the priests of Egypt became the property of anyone willing to take the time to understand them.

The secrets of magicians used to be available only to those who were willing to join the magician's club and take the oath of secrecy. I once assisted a magician with a trick. The condition was that I was not to reveal how the trick is done. In short, a magician must be allowed to mystify the general public. That is his stock in trade. Most magicians believe, perhaps rightly, that if the audience understood the basis of the trickery, they might be reluctant to pay the price of admission; hence the end of their livelihood. Even a magician as honest as James Randi only goes to the extent of showing that he can duplicate the tricks of the phony Yuri Geller and then assures us that it is simple sleight of hand. He also debunks mind readers, mystics and water witchers. In his show The Mystic Challenge he showed that mind readers couldn't read minds and that water witchers couldn't distinguish a gallon bottle of water from a gallon bottle of sand if it was concealed in a cardboard box.

Even Randi doesn't go as far as Penn and Teller and show us how the tricks are done. Penn and Teller perform simple and complicated illusions and then proceed to show all of us how they did it. It's wonderful.

I enjoy magic shows, but after I've seen all of the tricks it gets boring. One or two sessions with David Copperfield or Kreskin is enough for me. They are wonderful showmen, but a little bit goes a long way.

I guess that Penn and Teller will eventually pall on me. Penn is described as "manic" and he has none of the charm of other magicians. His show has content. He shows us exactly how the illusions are accomplished, which I find more interesting.

I wish that I had known about this program in advance, because I would have taped the show and given the tape to the school. Kids are given heavy doses of mystification and some debunking goes a long way toward making intelligent and perceptive adults. An important part of my children's education was letting them discover how a few coin and card tricks were done.

There are lots of people who truly believe in magic. To them Kreskin can really read minds and David Copperfield can really saw a woman in half and put her together again. To them Penn and Teller may be a real revelation --although I doubt it. Believers like to believe and will refuse to watch anything that might put a dent in their illusions.

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