APS News

Festival Spotlight: Teaching the Science Behind the Magic

Magician Bob Friedhoffer
Magician Bob Friedhoffer
Photo by Timothy White from Magic Tricks, Science Facts.

It's lunchtime in the Georgia Pacific Building Auditorium in downtown Atlanta, and magician Bob Friedhoffer (a.k.a. "The Madman of Magic") is demonstrating the principle of air pressure by trapping water in a plastic tumbler with a postcard over the top. As he subsequently explains to his audience, the postcard creates a vacuum within the glass, which holds the water in place as the glass is turned upside down. A slight twist of the glass allows air into the vacuum, and the water spills out.

That's the scientific principle. The magician's secret behind the "trick": the glass has a hole drilled in the bottom which the magician covers with his finger, until he is ready to break the vacuum and release the water. It's a simple illusion, and one that can be easily and cheaply assembled using materials found in the home. And it's just one of hundreds of magical tricks and illusions Friedhoffer employs to demonstrate the scientific principles behind the magic, and hopefully to communicate something of the magic behind science in the process.

His willingness to reveal the sleight of hand behind his illusions is a markedly different approach from other magicians. "Often magicians try to mystify their audience and leave almost everything unexplained," says Brian Schwartz, a professor at Brooklyn College who has worked with Friedhoffer repeatedly in education and learning environments. "Bob uses magic to capture the students' imagination, but then shows them the basic principles behind the magic and how they can use these principles for similar demonstrations before parents, teachers and their peers."

Employing magic to teach children and the general populace about science is becoming increasingly popular. "The last nine years have seen an emphasis on children's science/magic shows in schools, museums and libraries," says Friedhoffer, who has performed in every imaginable venue, including the White House (for President Carter), Atlantic City revues, corporate trade shows, universities, night clubs and comedy clubs, youth centers, churches and even private homes, as well as making numerous TV appearances. The AAPT has invited him to conduct a workshop at its annual meeting next year to show science teachers how to perform some basic tricks for classroom use, and he was recently appointed an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont's Graduate School of Education.

Friedhoffer first became interested in magic as a child, when he received his first magic kit. It continued well into high school and beyond, further fueled by his admiration for Don Herbert (television's "Mr. Wizard"), whom he still cites as one of his heroes. "I realized that magic was empowerment," he says of his devotion to the practice. "I was able to do things other kids couldn't, and learn secrets that the average person didn't know." His high school science classes made him realize that science made much of magic work, and he began his lifelong exploration of the scientific principles behind the illusions.

Friedhoffer earned his BA in accounting from the University of Miami in Florida in 1970 and worked as an accountant for several years before going into magic full-time. "This was the era when society gave everyone of my age group permission to drop out and do whatever we wanted," he says of his decision to leave accounting. His accounting experience served him well, however, in successfully running his own small business. Eventually Friedhoffer's interest in science led him to pursue graduate studies, completing his MA in the history and philosophy of science from the City University of New York in 1993.

Always on the lookout for new material, Friedhoffer is currently working with fellow magician Mark Salem, star of the off-Broadway show "Mind Games," on illusions involving biomechanics. For example, at the turn of the century there was a woman named Lou Hurst, known as the "Georgia Magnet," who weighed a mere 100 pounds, yet the strongest men were unable to lift her, largely due to her intuitive grasp of basic biomechanics. Hurst eventually went to college to study physics to better understand the science behind her ability.

In addition to his performances, Friedhoffer is the author of more than 25 books for children about science and magic. His last four books have focused on creating physics labs from products found in the supermarket, the home, and in hardware and housewares stores, emphasizing the physical principles underlying common household gadgets. He has also designed five magic/science sets through Educational Design of New York City, and is working on an additional kit focusing on the magic of Ancient Egypt.

Want to know more? You can contact Bob Friedhoffer regarding performances, books, or science and magic kits at 212-794-9654, or via email at scienctrix@juno.com.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette