The Other I

August 1, 2012

The sense in magic

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 2:38 pm

Arthur C Clarke once observed that the products of science are often indistinguishable from magic.

As a scientist, I have always felt that conclusions are superior to those achieved as a result of what is generally labelled as superstition and magic.

Right.  But a great deal of what I accept as based on science I actually take on faith.  One need not go into the depths of quantum physics where time and space are completely upended, where particles go in and out of existence, where before and after or up and down don’t obey the obvious rules we learn to live with every day, where particles seem to communicate with each other over hundreds or even thousands of miles by no visible means.

Even on the everyday life as we all know it, the difference between magic and science isn’t really as obvious as we assume.  Take something as ubiquitous as electricity, for example.  I have taken the word of others that the two electrical wires leading to a light switch are carrying positive and negative electrons.  And then do I really understand how throwing the switch actually produces energy, which then produces light?

Do I really understand how a message on the internet travels around the world in minutes?  Not really.   I jut assume that some scientists somewhere have made it work.  Or how my car runs by converting gasoline into rolling tires?  No, I don’t.  I could probably write a paragraph or two on the subject before it becomes apparent that I’m babbling.

And do scientists or anybody else have hard evidence of what happens when we die?  No.  We have predispositions, hopes, fears, beliefs, fantasies. But we don’t know.

So today I turned the thesis around.  If science can so often sound like magic, can magic also seem like science?  Can magic and superstition, in other words, seem sensible?

I think they can.  And to make the question even more complex, it is difficult, unless you are an expert in a particular field, to know for sure which is which.  Even then, scientists capable of any honesty at all have said to ourselves more than once “I don’t understand how this could have happened.  But all the evidence available to me is that it did happen.”

So these days I’m thinking that there is often more wisdom, more common sense, even, in what we often dismiss as superstition and magic, than I have thought.

Not that I’m recommending that we all start avoiding black cats or that we sit safely at home on every Friday the 13th.

But superstitions and unsubstantiated beliefs, our intuitions are often hypotheses that are worth examining for some underlying validity.

Or to put it another way:  we often know more than we know we know.  Neurologists estimate that about 10% of the activity of the brain actually reaches consciousness.  But the other 90% is not gibberish.



  1. Gravity is the one that gets me. We ask, what makes things fall. We answer, gravity…as if that explained anything. It’s actually just a Latin-derived word that means “heaviness.” So, things fall because they are…heavy? Gravity is a mystery as profound for me as any other.


    Comment by pianomusicman — August 1, 2012 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

    • Ah gravity means heaviness! Why didn’t I realize that? It’s so obviously a cousin of “gravitas,” but I never put the two together.

      More gravely speaking (ahem), gravity is for me too the best example of both the power and the limitation of science. When Newton formulated it, what he produced was a brilliant formula that predicated falling objects. But it didn’t explain them, it just predicted them with phenomenal accuracy. The *assumption* was that the universe as a completely mechanical process had been “proved,” and that theoretically we could therefore ultimately predict everything that has ever happened or ever will happen down to the very last atom. Determinism was a firmly embedded scientific principle.

      Then along came Einstein’s theory of relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Newton’s formulas were demoted to predictions of the operations of gravity on this planet but not beyond. Even the moon landing would have been off target without Einstein’s contribution.

      And you know, we still don’t know really what “gravity” is. In quantum mechanics, it is a weak force, and I believe that physicists understand what that means better than I do. But not altogether. It’s still a partially unsolved mystery even to them.

      I love it!


      Comment by Terry Sissons — August 2, 2012 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

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