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“This is one of the most exciting and thought-provoking traveling exhibits I’ve seen.”
- Ann Ensminger, Carnegie Science Center’s Public Programs Coordinator



If Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist ever, he was an even better showman. For this master of the science of crowd psychology, manipulating an audience was as easy as slipping out of handcuffs.

Take the dramatic warm-up to his famous Milk Can Escape, which he called “the best I have ever invented.” To sell the idea that the metal can was indeed solid, Houdini would pound it with his fist. While stagehands filled the container to overflowing, one pan of water (or sometimes milk) at a time, he’d slip backstage, reappearing in a bathing suit and asking the audience to see how long they could hold their collective breath while he squeezed his 5’5” frame into the three-foot-high can. He’d resurface a minute or so later, after the crowd had given up.

Having ratcheted up the drama to his liking, a handcuffed Houdini would get back in the milk can. This time, the lid would be put in place and secured with padlocks, and the crew would wheel the can and its contents behind a curtain.
A man with a stopwatch shouted out the time while another with an axe stood anxiously at the ready. As one and then two minutes ticked off, with the audience approaching panic, the man with the axe would move toward the curtain, raising his weapon to smash the can and rescue Houdini… who would then burst through the curtain, soaked but smiling as he bowed to an ovation of relief and awe.

The secret? Houdini’s physical conditioning, for one. And plenty of mechanical genius.
Houdini trained his lungs for the stunt by submerging himself in his bathtub and by running long distances. And he personally designed the can for maximum visual effect—and ease of escape. The two rivets attaching the upper and lower parts of the container were fakes. From the outside, the top couldn’t be budged; the sides were slick with water. But from the inside, Houdini merely had to pop out the rivets, twist off the top, hop out, and plop the lid back in place, padlocks and all. The audience feared Houdini was dying; he was just killing time.

The milk can and handcuffs Houdini used on stage will be on display with other illusionists’ artifacts in Magic: The Science of Illusion.



Head Games

Give a magician a quarter, and you can watch him make it disappear. Give the science behind magic nearly a whole floor of your local science center, and you and your family can make a day of being entertained by some amazing illusions and enlightened as to how they’re done.
That’s the idea behind Magic: The Science of Illusion. It’s a jaw-dropping, mind-bending journey that won’t just have your head spinning, but separating from the rest of you, too.

Like pretty much everything else, the science of magic most likely began in ancient Egypt. Legend has it that a magician named Dedi entertained King Cheops through illusions such as lopping off the heads of animals—and then, putting the animals’ heads back where they belonged, thereby keeping his own head intact.

Jump ahead 5,000 years or so, and while magicians and their audiences have become more sophisticated, the basic idea—creating a trick that makes us go “Wow”—hasn’t changed much at all.

“ Everybody’s seen some kind of magic,” says Ann Ensminger, Carnegie Science Center’s public programs coordinator. “How well we understand it may vary, but it’s a universal topic. Our new magic experience at the Science Center gives visitors several perspectives on magic and how it relates to science. Each performance offers two very different points of view: first as spectator and then backstage as magician’s assistant. Some of the magic of the exhibit is revealed, but much of the mystery remains.”

A Backstage View
Magic summons the talents of some of the world’s top magicians—Penn & Teller, Goldfinger & Dove, Jade, and Max Maven—who created four masterful illusions: The Living Head, Mind Magic, The Rising Chair, and The Light and Heavy Box. Each illusion involves audience participation, and each features a “backstage” where the magicians, via an audio/visual presentation, offer a revealing look at the science behind the magic.

And there’s a lot more than visual illusions on display in Magic. The show includes everything from the artifacts of David Henning’s “Magic Box” illusion to the turn-of-the-century handcuffs Henry Houdini wore for his famous milk can escape act, along with one of the milk cans. (One look at the three-foot-tall container and you’ll see why getting in was almost as much of a trick as getting out.)

Kids and their parents can learn some cool tricks at the Magician’s Academy, and everyone can check out interactive displays, learn a little magic history, and find out how magic is more than sleight of hand—it’s backed by physics, math, and psychology to create illusions.

If you like your magic a little offbeat, Penn & Teller will do the trick. The eccentric “Bad Boys of Magic” are unique for both their concept—Penn more than makes up for the fact that Teller doesn’t say a word—and their “deconstructionist” magic, which includes catching .357 Magnum bullets with their teeth. (It’s all an illusion, of course—unlike 1940’s magician Maurice Fogel’s botched trick, which left him with bullets in his chest and hip!)

Some Secrets Revealed
Penn & Teller created The Living Head specifically for this exhibit, and Penn introduces the trick via video by explaining that Teller’s head, severed in a car accident, has been kept alive thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. He then pulls away a cloth, revealing Teller’s disembodied noggin resting on a steel plate.

Backstage, you’ll learn how to separate your own head, as well as the scientific principles involved (something about the angle of incidence being equal to the angle of reflection…or something like that).

The magic is less about physics and more about pulleys, electromagnets, and binary arithmetic in three other performances, in which more top illusionists entertain and educate via video. Goldfinger & Dove’s The Rising Chair levitates you while you’re sitting; then it’s backstage for a quick lesson in the psychology of camouflage, cause-and-effect reasoning, the science of simple mechanics—and, of course, the art of performance. Hidden backstage is a simple lever-and-pulley system. Moving the levers lifts the chair, which has glass supports that you can’t see.

After you uncover that mystery, however, you’ll see video of other magicians using different levitation techniques that’ll truly leave you up in the air as to how it’s done.

The magician Jade’s contribution is The Light and Heavy Chest, in which, with the words “Sim Sala Bim,” a box suddenly goes from easy-to-carry to impossible-to-budge. The secret is revealed backstage: The visitor carrying the light chest unwittingly activates a powerful electromagnet that locks onto a metal plate hidden in the lining of the chest, making it feel heavy. But, again, you’ll see other versions of the same effect that don’t come with scientific explanations.

Enough to Make You Wonder
In Mind Magic, mentalist Max Maven, projected life-size in front of you, will ask audience members to concentrate on one of the 15 symbols engraved on the table in front of them. It’ll take him just four yes-or-no questions to read your mind. Think it was luck? Go ahead, try another. And another. And…you get the idea. Once you’ve accepted that there’s no stumping Max, go behind the scenes and learn how to uncover hidden patterns.

While Magic: The Science of Illusion is geared for kids 8-13, everyone loves a good magic trick. And while many of the scientific principles behind the tricks are revealed and explained, this isn’t about myth-busting; plenty is left to keep you wondering just how they did it.

On hand to help guide you and your kids through the world of Magic are Science Center program presenters like Amanda Stano. A class at the Cuckoo’s Nest, a magic shop on Pittsburgh’s South Side, helped teach her a few tricks of the trade that she’s since passed along to other staff members. “I was really impressed by the dedication to the craft and the amount of practice a professional magician puts in,” Stano says.

“ This is one of the most exciting and thought-provoking traveling exhibits I’ve seen,” says Ensminger, who has seen her share. Asked what she hopes visitors will take with them from the experience, she says, “The knowledge they’ve gained in the Magician’s Academy and the ability to perform magic for their friends; some understanding of the science behind how and why magic works; and a sense of wonder—of ‘how’d they do that?’”

Sort of like science itself. As much as we learn, part of it will always keep us wondering, and wanting to know more.

And, besides, Ensminger adds, “It’s magic…and we don’t want to know exactly how it’s done. That would spoil the show!”

Create Some Electrical Magic
It works magic in your home every day—running the television, the computer, even the doorbell—but electromagnets have been used by magicians since the late 1800s to pull off their puzzling stunts. Take magician Robert Houdin, who first featured “The Light and Heavy Chest” in his stage act. He’d invite the strongest members of the audience to lift the chest, but even the most muscle-bound volunteers would meet with failure every time.

But Presto!—when Houdin took the stage, he would lift the chest with ease. The secret: a metal plate inside the box and an electromagnet under the stage. Houdin’s assistant would flip a switch and the magnetic forces would prohibit the audience from lifting the chest. You can see this illusion in Magic: The Science of Illusion this summer at Carnegie Science Center, performed by modern-day illusionist Jade.

Now here’s the science: Every electric current has its own magnetic field. Because of this, the magnetic force in electricity can be used to create electromagnets where the magnetism can easily be turned on and off.

Want to build your own electromagnet at home?
Here’s how:

One size D battery
Two meters of insulated wire
Two nails, approximately 10 cm long
Paper clips

What to do:
1. Wrap 15-20 loops of wire around one of the nails, making sure not to overlap the loops.
2. Leave 50 cm of wire at one end and 100 cm on the other end. Connect one end of the wire to the positive (+) side of the battery and the other end to the negative (-) side.
3. Touch the end of the nail to the paper clips. What happens?
4. What do you observe when you move the nail away from the pile of paper clips?
5. Experiment! What happens if you wrap more loops of wire around the second nail?


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