I extracted the smoking flower and slammed it against the table — shattering it into bits. The audience (20 or so elementary school kids amassed in the Uniontown library) ooohed. About 15 seconds later is when the real magical happened — the anthers (the parts of the flower that make pollen) lying on the table began to jump, like jumping beans, around the shattered remnants. I could tell that the anthers were snap-through buckling due to thermal expansion, and the geometry was allowing some of them to spring off the table. It was transformational and the audience couldn’t get enough of it. I hope many of them remember it as much as I do 12 years later.

What separated this scientific magic show from so many other traditional magic shows this group had seen was that none of it was about deceit. It was all real and made possible through the science and engineering that allowed me to safely bring liquid nitrogen into the library. This same transformational approach to science and engineering is reflected in HYPER Center tours today. We don’t always get it right though and some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years could be valuable for faculty trying to showcase their own research labs. This post covers the process of developing magical scientists and engineers, the art of magic tricks using science and engineering, and the mistakes to avoid for the best demonstrations.

3 mil boPET Origami bellows (Yoshimura pattern) is compressed by a socket in liquid nitrogen. (Photo Credit: Robert Hubner WSU)

The Magician (as a Scientist or Engineer)

Everyone has a story. Few have good stories.

One of the first challenges any HYPERian faces is understanding why they are here and nowhere else. This can be accomplished through personal statements for fellowship applications or personal pitches when introducing themselves to tour participants. The magic about your personal story is that it is unique to you and few people are going to say you are telling it wrong. Scientists and engineers who are uncomfortable with public displays need a reliable way to start a presentation and personal stories are about as reliable as any when performing under stress. Good stories begin in unexpected ways. The relevant parts of your story all point to why we are here and about to experience this demonstration. This quick pitch should take no more than a few sentences, or a paragraph if you were to write it out like an intro to a personal statement.

The stories we tell ourselves are incredibly powerful. Stories shape our identities. Students need these inseparable stories and identities to form the foundation of resilience they will need to overcome the many challenges and setbacks encountered during research. That’s why we start with this in HYPER. At the same time, research is typically so intensive and unique that it often becomes a part of someone’s identity. You’re on shaky ground if you can’t get the story straight.

The problem with personal stories is that sometimes people shape them to conform to their perceived or desired identities, not the reality. While a great way to get started, personal stories can and should only take you so far, and no further.

After people decide your story is relevant, they need to know you are credible, which takes evidence. I’ve participated in many lab tours that I call ‘Academic waterboarding‘ where a presenter has the arrogance to talk academic jargon at someone in an attempt to intellectually arm-wrestle them into submission. This rarely works. For someone to believe your evidence they’ll need to see it for themselves. Enter the trick.

The Trick (via science and engineering)

You see the back of the hand, then the front, the fingers wiggle, then snap, and a coin appears from behind an ear.

Frank Oppenheimer banned glue and opaque coverings from the Exploratorium with his rants that nothing can be magical — everything must have a mechanism the participants can see. This is where many scientists and engineers run into problems understanding the differences between magic tricks and science demonstrations. Traditional magic is about the deceit, the illusion, the appearance of a transformation. Part of a traditional magic trick is to remove all of the ways an audience believes they are being deceived, and then to deceive them anyways. It’s in this transformation, where the participant realizes that they don’t understand something, that the true magic of magic tricks is revealed. Our survival is inextricably linked to understanding the world around us so it is impactful when we encounter something we don’t understand. The prevalence of online video tricks on pets shows that this has some merit even beyond humans.

Science and engineering is pretty much the opposite of deceit. So when I tell engineers that they need to deliver their demonstrations as magic tricks, they often become offended. Magicians have honed the art of the trick to a much finer level than science or engineering and we can learn something from them for our demonstrations. Any good technical demonstration or magic trick has the following elements:

  1. An apparatus to test our perceptions and assumptions of the world that removes the anticipated possibilities for deception or error — known as the ‘pledge’ when a magician shows you something ordinary.
  2. A transformation that reveals our perceptions and assumptions for what is possible need modified — known as the turn when the magician does something extraordinary to the ordinary.
  3. Explanation and reversal of the transformation to show that it wasn’t luck and can be repeated — known as the prestige in magic.

An example of a magic/science trick we do in the lab is our compliant origami fuel bladders. Many tour participants have watched someone shatter a racquetball after immersion in liquid nitrogen as part of a chemistry demonstration somewhere and now believe that you cannot use polymeric materials in liquid nitrogen due to embrittlement. For our pledge we have an open Styrofoam cooler filled with liquid nitrogen with ordinary materials immersed in it. The first piece we shatter to remind them of their beliefs about the world — cold polymers are brittle. For our turn we show that if thin films are folded and structured carefully, they don’t shatter. For the prestige we explain the underlying material science that allows this to occur and how many cycles the materials have undergone. I’ve watched as professionals who have spent their lives studying cryogenics stare at this demonstration in bewilderment, then violate social norms and tour progression to run over and inspect the specimen. Evidence and credibility earned.

Mistakes to avoid

  1. Lack of practice — my rule is that a demonstration must be completed at least 5 times flawlessly before going public. No changes to materials or anything should be done live in front of the audience unless something goes not to plan. This requires kits for each of the tricks that NOBODY is allowed to mess with. One student stepped in to do the origami bladder demonstration without practice and ended up cracking a specimen that hadn’t been properly conditioned — this destroyed credibility for the audience.
  2. Possibilities for deception — everything must be transparent, without substitution, as these are all possibilities for the perception of deception. One time we completed our turn with the bladder demonstration by using a disposable sandwich baggy to show shattering, only to have an expert in the area accuse us of lying by switching to different materials. The trick actually works with all materials we’ve tested so far. But this participant wrongly thought that we were trying to deceive them by swapping materials. We should’ve waited for the prestige to show that the trick works with different materials, in addition to the consistent material that was used for the original trick.
  3. Lack of error-proofing the trick — when a trick is really good, the audience will want to participate. A Senator once jumped in and asked to participate in the middle of one of our demonstrations, thankfully that one had been trialed many times by many different people with few kinks to work out. You want the audience to be able to conduct the trick/demo/magic, because they’ll feel like they are contributing and will want to continue to be part of the action going forward (even ready to invest). Error proof the demo so that it can’t be done wrong by anyone.
  4. Unoriginal and irrelevant — no magician ever became famous doing someone else’s tricks. While they may help you get started. Your demonstrations need to be original to you and your research. At the same time, doing a demonstration that is not relevant or contrary to your audience’s needs can have a similar effect, or lack thereof.
  5. Poor take-home message — traditional western educations promote people to try to explain something before it happens, and after doing this many times, have come to believe that hardly anything before the trick is remembered. When you’ve delivered a truly magical trick, and transformed someone’s belief of the possible, there is brief and wonderful window in time where their intellectual guard is down. This is your opportunity for the prestige — tell them why it works and why it matters — they won’t forget it. Tell them in a way that is error proofed, efficiently, so that they cannot take away the wrong message.

Learning science and engineering, like magic, can be a lot of fun

We love a good science, engineering, or magic show because of how they make us feel — hope and optimism that there is much more to learn in the universe. When you’re happy and having fun, you think of new possibilities. You get asked questions you forgot to ask yourself, which makes you think about things in new ways. When you’re thinking of new possibilities in new ways, you invent new things — several of our patented ideas came while doing demonstrations (magic shows). Research can be a shared experience. When this sharing is done well, it’s a lot more fun.