The Magic of Chemistry: What I Learned About Doing Science From Talking With A Magician

Deck of Cards

If you ever want to see a chemist do a magic trick, ask them to pour a liquid from one weird container to another—they will probably be proud to show you that they can do it without spilling a drop. Because of the intellectual work scientists are known for, it is easy to forget that laboratory research often requires working with your hands. But I never would have thought of setting up my reactions as a kind of art until I had a conversation with a magician.

Siegfried Tieber is a career magician based out of LA, where he is a member of and regular performer for the famous Magic Castle. I got to see him at a science communication conference where he used his sleight of hand tricks to demonstrate the necessity of entertainment in communication. As he performed his magic, wowing an audience of science nerds who are not easily fooled, Siegfried showed us how important it is to have a strong stage presence as a tool to share your message.

As a science communicator, I was interested in knowing more about how he builds that persona on stage and structures the arc of his act. So I asked him about it over a hike. But that’s not the conversation we had.

Siegfried talks about a deck of cards like a musical instrument. When he feels the deck in his hands, his body already knows how to make them move. Some decks have a different feel to them, making them better suited for different tricks. Siegfried has many unique and interesting deck of cards that he experiments with to develop his magic. But as Siegfried continued to explain the importance of practice to create his art, I was reminded of a piece of advice from my research advisor.

“You are a young chemist. The more time you spend in lab, the better you will get with your hands. And better hands make for better chemistry.” Or something like that. And as my advisor’s voice echoed in my head, I realized that being a bench scientist gave me something in common with this magician: the physicality of our work.

I may not be performing for anyone when I carefully weight out my chemicals and mix them together in specially chosen glassware, slowly enough that nothing bubbles over. I am very often completely alone when I tune my instruments to the exact specifications I need to characterize my products. But each of those acts requires me to be present and aware of my body. Shaky hands make messes and imprecise actions cause spills. Yet there are still movements that I do unconsciously that make my work feel almost graceful.

I often complain that I don’t have enough time to exercise and move my body—which is mostly true. But it never occurred to me that working in the lab could also be a practice in physical mindfulness. That I already spend time using my body to make careful, measured movements as a part of my chemistry. Talking with Siegfried helped me realize that there are more artistic components to laboratory science than I had initially realized. I am by no means going to go around calling myself an artist now. But with this new found insight, I am a little more excited to call myself a scientist.


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