Working As A Science Magician Lets Me Explain Our Mindblowing, Wondrous World

I want my audience to spend more time just revelling in the world, to take time, ponder and wonder
Vanley Burke
HuffPost UK

As part of our #HuffPostListens week in Birmingham, we are publishing a series of Life Less Ordinary stories from extraordinary residents of the city. Today, science magician Matt Pritchard explains his unique career, and taking his work into schools and events to inspire others. To illustrate the series we have commissioned the respected photographer Vanley Burke to do a series of portraits, which will be on show in Birmingham this week.

I was a research scientist before switching to science communication and have been a professional science magician for 19 years. A scientist and a magician are in direct conflict with each other but, in a sense, I’ve always had those two parallel threads to my life.

The main thing that appeals to me about magic is that problem-solving aspect, being creative in trying to achieve the impossible. You’ve got a problem in front of you and you have to work out how to do it. The obvious answer is that it can’t be done, but if you think hard enough or use lateral thinking you can probably find a way round it. That’s the primary driver with the magic.

Science - again, I love the problem-solving side. There is this mystery in front of you, how do you investigate it and solve it? Growing up, my dad was head of gas explosions for the health and safety executive - it was his job if anything in the country blew up try to solve it. I’ve always enjoyed and been naturally good at science too, so it was inevitable that I’d study it at university.

I got into magic at about ten, through the usual story of a magic kit for a birthday or Christmas - I did a few tricks, quite enjoyed it and then the hobby sort of fell away. When I was about 14, there was a craze in my school of people buying handcuffs from the local army surplus supply store and they were bringing it into school - I realised I could pick the lock on the handcuff and I realised I could do a little mini Harry Houdini.

I soon realised that a really small 14-year-old boy escaping from things was actually quite pathetic but because I was going into magic shops I started to get the magic bug. At Durham, where I studied physics, I used to entertain friends at the bar with tricks, which led to doing magic at events and balls, which led on to paid gigs. I started doing fringe theatre shows - that’s the magic trajectory.

A significant proportion of the tricks I perform now utilise a science or maths principle behind the scenes rather than sleight of hand or tricky boxes. I also find the psychology of magic fascinating and use mind games in my work. One of the things I like doing the most is I create a little ramp and make something go up it. I do it mostly with chocolate biscuit tin - I put it on a ramp and it rolls uphill. There’s something, a real kick in the gut when something defies gravity like that. We’re so used to gravity, even in front of a harsh teenager there is an audible gasp - ‘something that I knew would go downhill, went uphill’. I love that moment.

For me, science is magical. Looking through a telescope or microscope and seeing hidden worlds is mind-blowing. So I approach my work from both directions, finding the magic of science and using science to perform magic. I love the quote bTerry Pratchett: “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how things work.”

Scientists try to deconstruct and explain the wondrous world. Magicians try to construct their own wonders. At their core both scientists and magicians seek wonder but they just approach it from different directions. In the middle there’s both conflict and collaboration. Arthur C. Clarke said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” - I live in the middle of this world. You could say that a magician creates supernatural acts, and a scientist tries to explain everything away through rational, natural situations. Magicians often take a concept that is grounded in technology and science and disguise it by creating an illusion of something else, while scientists try to deconstruct and strip down everything to its core elements so you can explain away.

But scientists and magicians both have that real sense of wonder. They love seeing things that make them go wow - it’s just the way they express it is different. A magician will think of something that makes them go wow and try and share it with the audience but keeping what’s going on a secret. A scientist will also be compelled to share with an audience but has to explain it, the underlying mechanisms around what’s going on. But sometimes, by explaining everything away scientists - like when you get a frog and cut up a frog to see how its put together - as soon as you’ve done that it’s just a mess of muscles and bones and you’ve lost the magic of the frog, its essence has gone. But as a magician you keep some of the stuff a secret - there’s a real magicalness to these underlying science principles. My wife is often the audience. She’s a very critical audience, because she knows how magic works. So if I’ve fooled her, that’s normally a good sign. I’ve got two children, four and two. The four-year-old can now appreciated some of the simple ones, ‘this was here and now it’s vanished’.

I have a phrase I use a lot in schools “Wow. How. Now.” Let’s take some time to appreciate the beauty and mystery of things. Let’s not rush so much into explaining things. When you rush, you rob that thing of its power. You’ve captured it, put it in a bottle, and written it down. But at the same time, let’s revel in the fact that we can explain and explore things. Particularly as someone who likes seeing this mathematical beauty in the world.

Once you’ve explained things you often stop at the ‘how’ part, so I always want to move on to the “now what if I changed something - make it bigger, make it smaller - and that can lead on to new discoveries, new ‘wow’ moments, new ‘how’ moments.

The majority of my work is within schools and universities. Presenting assembly-style shows full of tricks, stunts and puzzles. To capture an audience’s attention and then take them on a sightseeing tour of wonders. I’m doing a little more corporate work this year on creativity and critical thinking skills, using magic as a way to get the delegates to think beyond the obvious.

I’m invested in the city, my daughters are going to go to the local school and I want to ensure the best experience for local children. This past month I’ve worked in four Birmingham schools, particularly in the southside of Birmingham. I’ve been building up a network of teachers, I’ve been going to teach meets, where teachers get together and I go and share some ideas. There is a big primary science and maths teachers conference that I participated in. I want to support all schools but particularly those in the local area where my kids, my friends’ kids, will be going.

I moved to Birmingham at 25. Birmingham is a fantastic city if you want to travel - the transport network, much as we complain about it, is brilliant. I can be in any major city across the country in a couple of hours. So train network down to London, Manchester, Bristol. That’s one factor - I couldn’t do what I do now if I wasn’t centrally located. Living in the city, everything is within ten minutes - any shop, anything you need. So that’s one answer: it’s connected.

I love the diversity of Birmingham, I love the fact you can get on a bus and hear three, four, five languages. You can see cultures from across the world. What that brings to the city - so many ideas, ways of life and food (Birmingham is fantastic for food, name a food group and there’s a restaurant at a very high level that will serve that food). I’ve got a great group of friends in the church I used to go to for that sense of community and belonging.

My only frustration with Birmingham is it has such a low opinion of itself. Most other major cities have an identity and pride. Birmingham traditionally was apologetic and embarrassed. We’re a great city. The arts are exceptional and we’ve got some fantastic architecture and being more bold in design.

I want to be part of a positive mood shift. I want my audience to spend more time just revelling in the world, to take time to see things and ponder them and wonder. If I was to sum up my work, I’d want to be inspiring those ‘what if’ questions. And is not what if, then ‘what else’? We should be constantly asking. We get so comfortable with the status quo that we don’t ask things. That’s what magicians are great at doing, asking ‘what if’, What if the laws of gravity didn’t exist? What if we could turn back time?

As told to Brogan Driscoll

HuffPost Listens – Birmingham

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