Saturday, April 28, 2012

Science and Magic

You're sitting in an auditorium.  A man emerges from the side of the stage in a black tuxedo and a top hat.  He introduces himself as the Great Gregory!  He takes off his hat and shows the audience that it is empty. But wait!  He reaches in and pulls a rabbit out of the hat!

OK maybe that was too basic of an example; but what are you thinking of when watching a magic trick?  Are you actively trying to figure out how the magician is accomplishing this feat?  Or are you just in awe and really want  this illusion to be real?  

The magician is skilled in altering reality, they understand how our senses construct the world around us.  Scientists also question reality in an effort to understand nature, and are in many ways magicians themselves!  The Science of Illusion was explored by a panel of scientists and artists at the MIT Museum on Wednesday.  What was especially intriguing about this event was the intersection of science, art, and magic.

This intersection is arguably most apparent in holography, and lucky for us, the MIT museum boasts the largest collection of holograms in the world!  A hologram is merely a medium for bending and focusing light, but unlike other art forms that manipulate light such as photography and painting, it renders the object exactly as it would be in nature.  Same size, shape, texture and 3-dimensional quality.   Holography has long been explored by artists, who seek to further augment reality using this amazing scientific advancement.

The oldest holograph on display at the MIT museum, Goro Blocks, 1976. The colour changes  through the visible spectrum as you move your head vertically!

An excellent example of the level of detail, texture and depth that a hologram can produce.

Another technological marvel that I'm super excited about is invisibility cloaks.  And no, it's not just because I want to sneak around Hogwarts undetected (although honestly, I really do!); it's because we are accomplishing feats that certainly would have been considered magic a few short decades ago.  Professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, George Barbastathis, has his own invisibility cloak.  Albeit more solid and blocky than Harry's, but accomplishes the same thing: light passes through the object with no apparent scattering of light by the object, that is, we cannot see it.  That is because through the use of special materials, the light emerges from the same spot and at the same height as it would if there was no object in its path.  Amazing!

So magic and science go together, as do magic and art, but what about magic and history?  Well, anthropologist Graham Jones does just that. Again, I am whisked away to my Harry Potter world where I imagine to be sitting in a History of Magic class.  But Prof. Jones' research is in the secretive sub-culture of sleight of hand magicians.  He explained that magicians need to falsify every possible solution that you may have as to how the trick is done.  Which was promptly demonstrated when he taught us a seemingly simple trick.  Take a two-sided card, and show to the audience that one side shows 1 dot and another shows 4 dots.  Then flip the card again and the original side shows 3 dots while the second side shows 6 dots.  Well it didn't take long to figure out that he was covering some spots up with his hand.  Just when we felt all smug for figuring out the trick, he shows us that in fact the original side held 3 dots while the second has 8 dots!  How did he do that?  Magic, perhaps...

Professor of anthropology Graham Jones shows the audience a seemingly simple card trick while Seth Riskin, manager of the holography collection at the MIT museum, looks on.

1 comment:

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