April 1999 Edition
Science Behind the Magic
It's lunchtime in the Georgia
Pacific Building Auditorium in downtown Atlanta, and magician Bob Friedhoffer
(a.k.a. "The Madman of Magic") is demonstrating the principle
of air pressure by trapping water in a plastic tumbler with a postcard
over the top. As he subsequently explains to his audience, the postcard
creates a vacuum within the glass, which holds the water in place as
the glass is turned upside down. A slight twist of the glass allows
air into the vacuum, and the water spills out.
That's the scientific principle.
The magician's secret behind the "trick": the glass has a
hole drilled in the bottom which the magician covers with his finger,
until he is ready to break the vacuum and release the water. It's a
simple illusion, and one that can be easily and cheaply assembled using
materials found in the home. And it's just one of hundreds of magical
tricks and illusions Friedhoffer employs to demonstrate the scientific
principles behind the magic, and hopefully to communicate something
of the magic behind science in the process.
His willingness to reveal the
sleight of hand behind his illusions is a markedly different approach
from other magicians. "Often magicians try to mystify their audience
and leave almost everything unexplained," says Brian Schwartz,
a professor at Brooklyn College who has worked with Friedhoffer repeatedly
in education and learning environments. "Bob uses magic to capture
the students' imagination, but then shows them the basic principles
behind the magic and how they can use these principles for similar demonstrations
before parents, teachers and their peers."
Employing magic to teach children
and the general populace about science is becoming increasingly popular.
"The last nine years have seen an emphasis on children's science/magic
shows in schools, museums and libraries," says Friedhoffer, who
has performed in every imaginable venue, including the White House (for
President Carter), Atlantic City revues, corporate trade shows, universities,
night clubs and comedy clubs, youth centers, churches and even private
homes, as well as making numerous TV appearances. The AAPT has invited
him to conduct a workshop at its annual meeting next year to show science
teachers how to perform some basic tricks for classroom use, and he
was recently appointed an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont's
Graduate School of Education.
Friedhoffer first became interested
in magic as a child, when he received his first magic kit. It continued
well into high school and beyond, further fueled by his admiration for
Don Herbert (television's "Mr. Wizard"), whom he still cites
as one of his heroes. "I realized that magic was empowerment,"
he says of his devotion to the practice. "I was able to do things
other kids couldn't, and learn secrets that the average person didn't
know." His high school science classes made him realize that science
made much of magic work, and he began his lifelong exploration of the
scientific principles behind the illusions.
Friedhoffer earned his BBA
in accounting from the University of Miami in Florida in 1970 and worked
as an accountant for several years before going into magic full-time.
"This was the era when society gave everyone of my age group permission
to drop out and do whatever we wanted," he says of his decision
to leave accounting. His accounting experience served him well, however,
in successfully running his own small business. Eventually Friedhoffer's
interest in science led him to pursue graduate studies, completing his
MA in the history and philosophy of science from the City University
of New York in 1993.
Always on the lookout for new
material, Friedhoffer is currently working with fellow magician Mark
Salem, star of the off-Broadway show "Mind Games," on illusions
involving biomechanics. For example, at the turn of the century there
was a woman named Lou Hurst, known as the "Georgia Magnet,"
who weighed a mere 100 pounds, yet the strongest men were unable to
lift her, largely due to her intuitive grasp of basic biomechanics.
Hurst eventually went to college to study physics to better understand
the science behind her ability.
In addition to his performances,
Friedhoffer is the author of more than 25 books for children about science
and magic. His last four books have focused on creating physics labs
from products found in the supermarket, the home, and in hardware and
housewares stores, emphasizing the physical principles underlying common
household gadgets. He has also designed five magic/science sets through
Educational Design of New York City, and is working on an additional
kit focusing on the magic of Ancient Egypt.
Want to know more? You can
contact Bob Friedhoffer regarding performances, books, or science and
magic kits via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1999, The American Physical Society. The APS
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