Can Magic Co-Exist With Science?

Comic-Con HQ's 'Impossible Science' posits that one can't live without the other. 

Magicians have one job: To exploit what we don’t know. Whether we’re watching David Blaine withstand a million-volt jolt of electricity or Darren Criss rip bodies apart, we’re entertained because we simply do not understand.

But what happens to magic when science reveals the truth behind the illusions?

That magicians would feel threatened by the revealing repercussions of the information age is understandable — but not inevitable. In fact, Jason Latimer, a world champion magician, scientist, and host of the new Thursday-night Comic-Con HQ series Impossible Science, which showcases scientists turning the fantastic into reality, argues that magic and science go hand in hand: Behind the smoke and mirrors, illusions are driven by mechanisms created by science; but more importantly, he says, the pursuit of scientific discovery is driven by the seemingly unfeasible scenarios posited by magicians. Latimer talked to Inverse about real-life invisibility cloaks, the impact of Fantastic Voyage on science, and why we’ll probably see Iron Man become a reality in this lifetime.

What came first for you, science or magic?

My background in magic started many many years ago, when I was nine years old, at a magic show. I went into science because I was fascinated by what I didn’t know. That’s really how, [for me], magic and science came together: I saw somebody fly when I was a kid, and it really bothered me. I needed to know more about what is possible, so I went into applied science to try to understand that better and to build a new generation of magic. Not because I’m interested in card tricks or sawing a woman in half, but because I’m interested in what is possible. What’s the next step?

How did you apply your scientific knowledge to designing magic tricks?

I started developing effects like bending light and shaping water, and then I did one called “follow the ball,” in a clear glass cup. Everyone said it wasn’t possible — and that’s the trick I ended up developing for the World Championships, and I won. My whole philosophy is about, if you could find the right question, the right question changes everything. That’s pretty much how I went into designing illusions. I’m not a magician to trick anyone.

So you don’t think science, which explains away the magic of illusions, will destroy magic?

For entertainment, magic is great. But where it’s really relevant is this promotion of wonder. Why couldn’t we do it? What’s stopping us from doing it? That’s where we need a higher level of education, where some of these individuals from Impossible Science are asking questions that no one’s ever asked before, and they’ve challenged the impossible, and they won.

"The future of magic and the future of science fiction relies on people's imaginations to challenge what we know as of now," Jason Latimer told *Inverse*.

Impossible Science/Jason Latimer

What magic tricks have scientists turned into realities?

Well, this one doctor at UC San Diego, Dr. Shaochen Chen, was fascinated by Fantastic Voyage in the 1960s, which shrunk scientists down and put them in a vehicle in the bloodstream. He’s the first scientist to create fully functioning nano-robots, and he printed them right in front of us. They’re swimming fish that are smaller than the width of a human hair. We saw them under a microscope, swimming. He was fascinated by science fiction, and he brought it to life.

And when you hear this term, invisible, you think “magic trick.” But then we went to the University of Rochester to meet Professor John Howell, who’s created the first omnidirectional cloaking device.

Like, an invisibility cloak?

Exactly. The idea is that what was originally a magic trick — that looks like something turned invisible — is now something’s turning invisible, and it’s not a trick. It’s far more entertaining to realize that what you’re seeing is real.

Were the scientists you interviewed for Impossible Science inspired by magic and science fiction, as well?

Exactly. The idea is that what was originally a magic trick — that looks like something turned invisible — is now something’s turning invisible, and it’s not a trick. It’s far more entertaining to realize that what you’re seeing is real.

What magic tricks would you like to see turned into reality in this lifetime?

In magic, sawing something in half and putting something together [is known as] “torn and restored.” And in science fiction, we’ve seen people who can heal themselves, printing new body parts, or genetically altered so they can regrow their limbs. So we went to Dr. Shaochen Chen to talk about torn and restored. He’s developed the first rapid 3D bioprinter — most bioprinters take too long, so the living cells die. He’s found a way to print things extremely fast.

He’s printing neural conduits. He’s actually found a way to reattach spinal cords. He’s building a tube: You put the spinal cord in, and the idea is that the spinal cord will grow inside the tube like a conduit, basically, and reconnect itself. It just has to be guided. He’s using 3D printers, so they could work for everybody, because everybody’s different. That, I didn’t think was going to happen in my lifetime, but they’ve already moved into testing, and it’s working beautifully. They haven’t tried it on humans yet, but knowing that this is coming is pretty inspiring.

Given what you’ve discovered about magic becoming possible, what superhero do you think we could feasibly construct?

I’ve got my fingers crossed for the Iron Man suit. I want to see actual bionic suits. I know they’re using them now for medical grade, but you know, you should see other stuff they’re doing in industrial. I’m waiting for super strength — I think that would be really cool.

With the exoskeleton you featured in the first episode, it doesn’t look like we’re that far off.

Exobionics — isn’t it amazing? The goal is to adapt this DARPA technology — which was originally designed for a defense project — to helping people walk again. That’s awesome. Far better than a magic trick.

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