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Preview: The Nature of Things explores the captivating “Science of Magic”

I distinctly remember performing my first-ever magic trick. It involved a plastic tube, a plastic stick and a penny. Remember pennies? Anyway, the trick was to place the penny inside the tube so that it filled the tube crossways. It appeared to be solid, but wait! A quick poke with the plastic stick and—poof!—the penny allowed the stick to go through it. The fact the stick turned the penny on its side didn’t matter. I had tricked my endlessly patient parents. I suspect they knew the truth but were just being polite.

That memory has led to a fascination with magic that has never abated, so I was thrilled to see The Nature of Things would be devoted to magic in Sunday’s newest instalment at 8 p.m. on CBC. Indeed the aptly-titled “The Science of Magic” follows researchers and scientists who are bringing magicians’ tricks into the laboratory.   This extraordinary exploration peeks behind the curtain into a fascinating world where ancient magic meets modern science.

Produced by Reel Time Images, directed by Donna and Daniel Zuckerbrot and with host Julie Eng as our guide, the episode not only delves into the exploration of the human mind through the eyes of magicians but throws a few tricks in for good measure. Eng dropped a card trick in the first two minutes of the broadcast that had me scratching my head. The reason she was able to do it? As Gustav Kuhn of Goldsmiths, University of London explains, Eng and fellow magicians are exploiting limitations in human cognition. Turns out choosing a random playing card from a deck is anything but random; we’re being manipulated. Digging deep into what’s called the magician’s force has given scientists insights into human free will.

As an added bonus, “The Science of Magic” performs several on-air tricks for viewers to try out while watching The Nature of Things as a way of demonstrating how—and how easy it is—to mess with us. Jay Olson, a performer of magic since he was a kid, is completing his PhD in psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal and takes magic to a whole other level; we witness his amazing demonstration involving an MRI machine that seems not only to read minds but manipulate thought. The MRI machine doesn’t do anything—the magnets aren’t in it—but serves to show how easily the human mind is to the power of suggestion.

Meanwhile, Professor Ronald Rensink at the University of British Columbia believes that magicians’ practical knowledge about how to fool the eye and the mind can lead to new research with regard to how small distractions can blind automobile drivers to obvious dangers. Then Kuhn works with Canadian magician Billy Kidd on an experiment into how we can be blind to even our own choices via tricks that fool us despite nothing actually happening.

“The Science of Magic” is an engrossing and, yes, magical episode of The Nature of Things.

The Nature of Things airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Image courtesy of Andy Lee.