big bang theory

Responding to Magic

What is the correct way to respond when you see a piece of magic? I'm not sure I know the answer either. 

Live magic performance sits among countless other forms of arts and entertainment, each one with it's own social accepted norms when it comes to showing appreciation. When watching a classical music concert, you wait until the end of the piece. At a sporting event, you react immediately, and loudly, when something exciting happens — you don't wait until the end of the period for cheering for a goal. In the middle of Macbeth, it would be rather strange to leap to your feet and applaud because Lady Macbeth did such a phenomenal job of conveying that she was going mad with grief.

Even within the same medium it's not so clear. It's ok to chat with your neighbour over the CNN anchor, but total focus is mandatory during the Game of Thrones season finale. 

Rockstars generate tremendous reaction simply for showing, before they've even done anything (that night at least.) I've worked with many magicians who feel entitled to spontaneous adoring applause simply for walking out on stage before a crowd who has no idea who they are.

So what do when you see magic? I was struck by the question while watching reactions to a magic trick distilled through different cast members of The Big Bang Theory:

There's something in Sheldon's response we can all appreciate. Not knowings something is one thing. Nobody knows everything. Not knowing something that other people clearly know is frustrating. It makes you feel like an outsider.

But there is something else which comes up often. Apparently, it's rude to ask a magician how a trick is performed. And no one is quite sure why. I was performing a piece of magic impromptu last week for a small group. Someone asked how I did that, and another in the group chastised them quickly: "You're not supposed to ask that." And followed up with, "He won't tell you anyway."

If you asked your mechanic what he planned to do with your car and he said "you don't really need to know" or "not knowing is part of the fun" you would quickly seek a new mechanic. So why is it rude to ask a magician? I've always had a problem with this question.

Having spent most of my life in a teaching role, once as a martial arts instructor, a math tutor and now teaching children magic in hospitals, I think it's part of everyone's responsibility to society to encourage curiosity. "You don't need to know" or "you're better off not knowing" are simply bad answers.  

I think it's important to remind people from time to time that it's perfectly alright to try really, really hard to figure out how piece of magic works. Curiosity is never a bad thing. But by not immediately satiating the curiosity, we allow that feeling to linger and be savoured. You'll fuss over the mystery of a magic trick far longer than you will over how your refrigerator works. 

So try and figure it out.

Goodbye CSI

Last night I watched the 2-hour series finale of the original CSI which called it quits after 15 years. The episode, titled Immortal, was clearly written to give long-time fans of the show a warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling. They brought back long-absent stars William Peterson and Marg Helgenberger as well as Melinda Clarke (the oh so intriguing Lady Heather). They completely side-stepped the plot developments of later seasons and offered up a more or less self-contained finale. Rather than meditate on the decline in quality of later seasons (two years of Lawrence Fishburn and Ted Danson... why exactly?) I thought I'd meditate on what the series stood for. Fifteen years ago when the series began, they were a bastion of science and rationality in popular culture. This is before the Auber-rational Gregory House or Temperance "Bones" Brennan or the nerdgasm of The Big Bang Theory. It took popular crime drama and gave it an infusion of empiricism. It created the mould which would produce three direct spin-off series and inspired several forensic-crime drama series. When I began at UofT, they were offering a new expanded Criminology major, which probably would not have existed without programs like this poking the zeitgeist.

Now of course there are scientific liberties. I'm not claiming that anyone would want to watch prime-time crime drama as a substitute for a science textbook. But the show has a strong moral undermining that was relatively new at the time and very influential for me in my teens.

The number one rule of investigators is follow the evidence. Trusting your instincts and jumping to conclusions are big no-nos. Knowing something in your heart of hearts doesn't count unless you can back it up with evidence. Over and over again the intuitively obvious solution (the wife did it) turns out to be the wrong one. The series created a world where people solve problems by investigation and thought; something which is far less common than it ought to be.

The character of Gil Grissom is like a Dumbledore for the scientific age. Calm, reflective, rational and basically a creature of pure wisdom. He made rationality and empiricism cool for a huge number of people who would otherwise just be watching people get shot and things go boom.

So with fond childhood memories, I'm happy to say goodbye to the original CSI.