Matt Prichard recently drove a LEGO car through a brick wall. It became the winning illusion in an annual contest organized by the Neural Correlate Society, a nonprofit that promotes scientific research into the basis of cognition and perception in the brain. Prichard, who calls himself a science magician, is a member of the Inner Magic Circle, an elite club for magicians in London. He has a Ph.D. in physics—he studied lasers and optical systems—and teaches science to students of all ages using magic tricks that rely on the science of perception to deceive. Nautilus talked to Prichard about his winning illusion and the nature of magic.
How did you come up with the winning illusion?
For the last two or three years, I’ve been playing with fake mirrors. So I’ve been exploring setting up scenes that are symmetrical. If you view the scene from the right angle, it looks as though you are seeing the thing and its reflection on the other side of a mirror. And so I was playing around with these ideas and then I thought, is there a way of doing it to make an actual genuine hole invisible?
A magic trick is a bit like a classic joke.
In reality, the wall in my illusion contains a car-sized opening that the toy can drive through. The missing bricks are filled in on the floor behind the wall with an anamorphic illusion, an optical illusion that tricks the brain into thinking a two-dimensional image is actually three-dimensional when viewed from the right angle. In this case, the vertical bricks and horizontal bricks line up in just the right way, making the hole seem to disappear.
I love the cartoon logic of things like Road Runner and Tom and Jerry. They’re forever playing with drawing holes in a wall, and suddenly one character will run through it and the other one will sort of bash their head against it. So that was in the back of my head, as well.
Why are humans so easily deceived?
It’s because we’re good at spotting patterns, at anticipating what’s going to come up next. Magicians regularly exploit this pattern-forming thinking. We know the audience has seen this, and they’re going to expect more of that. We’ll keep meeting their expectations. And then suddenly at one point we’ll go off on a tangent. By the time they realize things have gone in a different direction, it’s difficult for them to unpack what happened or when things changed.
A magic trick is a bit like a classic joke where you set the scene. You then expand on that scene, and do a bit of switcheroo and change things around. What makes a really effective joke is that in hindsight, it makes perfect sense, but there’s an element of surprise. With a magic trick, you keep that element of surprise, but you haven’t got the added hindsight because you can’t see at what point that path has changed.
Is there a difference between the kind of magic trick that works on a kid versus one that works on an adult?
For children to appreciate magic, they have to understand the laws of nature. They have to have an expectation if we want the subversion of the magic trick to surprise them. As kids get a bit older, their theory of mind develops, and they know that when something goes in a box, it has to stay there. When you’re doing stuff for younger children, it is very much about making something vanish, or changing one thing into another. As they grow, they can hold more complex situations in their heads, so the magician can do tricks that involve levitation or suspending objects that should fall, for example. The next level up is more mental. You can create the illusion of mind reading, where the audience will make a choice and the magician has predicted it.
Do magic and science conflict?
Traditional magic has been about exploiting the supernatural, whereas science is a very rational approach to the world. But I see science and magic both as ways of trying to explore, understand, and effectively control nature. The big difference between science and magic is that scientists are generally transparent and open about what they’ve discovered. Magicians are, to a certain extent, selfish, and keep those secrets to themselves. They want the power, and they’re often not willing to share it.
Check out this video of Prichard’s winning illusion here:
Lead image: Best Illusion of the Year Contest / YouTube