Science magician Dr Matt Pritchard is a Curator of Wonder. As an independent science communicator he works with over 100 schools and universities a year. Previously Matt conducted atomic physics research at Durham University. He subsequently went on to work within the Education department at Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham before setting up his own company. In addition to this experience, he has spent the last 20 years working as a professional magician and is an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle – one of only 300 people in the world to hold this distinction.
Many interviewees have asked me when I’m going to include myself in the line up. Up until now I’ve resisted because it’s a bit weird and egotistical to have a one sided Q&A. However, a recent suggestion was to gather questions from previous guests. That’s what I’ve done here. You can see who has asked the questions and my responses below. First a question I ask all my guests…
What made you go wow recently?
Driving down to my mother-in-law’s we came off the motorway and from the back of the car my 3 year old daughter asked “Why aren’t robots allowed on this road?” She saw something in that road sign that I’d never seen before. I was also amazed as she had learnt, without us teaching her, that a sign with a red cross through means ‘not allowed’.
Pip Piper asks… Why are you interested in wonder?
My career has two parallel strands to it: science and magic. What unites them both is a sense of wonder in the world. Discovering and sharing something amazing gives me great joy. When I enter a state of wonder it’s close to the state of ‘Flow’ described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I feel fully alive. Time distorts. And there’s an amazing clarity and connectedness in the moment.
When I started talking to friends and colleagues about Wonder I soon realised almost everyone has a different interpretation of what wonder, awe and curiosity mean. Furthermore, research into wonder, and particularly from a psychological point of view, is severely lacking. Therefore, just over a year ago I started a more formal investigation by interviewing fascinating people who created wondrous things. My thinking has been provoked and challenged through this process. I’m still not sure I can give you a succinct definition of Wonder (perhaps if I could, it wouldn’t be Wonder). What I am certain of is that something deep inside me reverberates when I discuss these themes and equally I know I’m barely scratching the surface. I believe a life filled with wonder is a happy life and also a fruitful life. Which is why I’m so keen that it’s cultivated rather than crushed in the education system.
Neil Kelso asks… You have interviewed a lot of people who have placed Wonder at the centre of their work. Have you noticed any traits shared by people who are so fascinated by wonder?
I think the key trait is they value Wonder; it’s not a by-product but a core driving force. They make time and space in their lives to seek it out and experience it. A repeating theme of the interviews is to slow down and be a better ‘noticer’. I use this word rather than observer as the latter has connotations of focused and planned looking whereas noticing is more about being aware of your surroundings; spotting the strange, the beautiful and the thin strands of connections linking the seemingly disparate. Once noticed, there’s a compulsion to share it with others and witness secondhand the pleasure of discovery. Wonder cannot be boxed up.
Mary Oliver in her poem ‘Sometimes’ has these lines:
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
For me personally two of the most pleasurable parts of life are first the discovery and then the sharing of something wonderful. The flipside of this is I experience a deep sadness when sharing and someone doesn’t ‘get it’.
David Hyner asks… Do you have a mantra or quote that you try to live by?
Mary Oliver’s lines from above could well be it. In addition, in my research this last year I came across the phrase “vuja de”, which is when you see something extraordinary in the ordinary or everyday. It really resonated with me as that’s what I try to do myself by seeking out the magical in the mundane and also what I hope to convey to others through my speaking and writing. The idea can be extended further by spotting and encouraging the extraordinary in other people.
Stevyn Colgan asks… Name a book that completely changed your way of thinking.
“In search of Schrodinger’s cat” by John Gribbin. I read this as a teenager and it was my first exposure to the bonkers world of Quantum Mechanics. What I liked was how these fantastic thought experiments linked to cutting edge science. Up until that point all my science teaching was describing a rational, predictable and observable world, by contrast QM seemed magical to me. Some of my favourite philosophy of science paradoxes come out of this subject.
Steve Houghton-Burnett ask… What is the most important discovery you have made in your professional life?
Can I give you three interlocking discoveries? The first I learnt having spent many years trying to break through into the comedy circuit with a fringe festival act featuring a character I called Johnny Façade. I’m not an actor and this character was two dimensional at best. I always struggled to connect with my audience and over time, as I became more comfortable on stage, the character slipped away, and I allowed my own personality to shine through. Now it’s Matt Pritchard on stage. Sometimes however I miss the permission (or protection) that the character gave me to say something outlandish, untruthful or provocative.
The second linked discovery is that I’m a presenter rather than a performer. Yes, I use theatrical techniques and showmanship to engage audiences but primarily I’m on stage to teach or to provoke new thinking rather than entertain.
The final discovery was crystalised by hearing the clown Anver the Eccentric speak about one of his rules:
“Be interested, not interesting.”
Much as I despise the word, a lot of what I’m fascinated by might be described by others as geekish. In the past I’ve often been slightly apologetic about sharing these interests and would hold back or try to sugar coat them. I’m now much more comfortable being myself and sharing my thinking as one of the most captivating things to watch and listen to is someone who is authentic. I genuinely believe that, shared in the right way and with the right spirit, anything can be interesting.
James Piercy asks… Do you think some audiences for science demo shows come away with the idea that science is magic? If so, do you care?
No, in fact the opposite. I’ve a growing feeling that a lot of science communication has an implicit message of scientism; that science is all you need to describe the world. The shows often go past celebrating science to deifying it as the all-powerful, all-knowing subject. Science is one way of describing the world but it doesn’t have exclusive rights to truth. Science can’t explain invisible realities like love and hope.
Another gripe of mine with many science demo shows is that they create the impression of elitism; that you have to be genius to be a scientist or have access to specialist equipment. (I could write a lot about the terrible Mad Science or Boffin stereotypes with crazy hair, glasses, German accents and lab coats that pervade the field but that’s for another day.) If we want our audiences to act differently after one of our shows, we need to remove the hurdles. In my work I try to make the science both accessible and relatable by using everyday objects. My props have a deliberate DIY look (or for UK readers, a ‘Blue Peter’ feel) because that’s exactly what I’ve done. My props have been made from household objects stuck together with sticky tape. Nathan Sawaya – the LEGO brick artist – talks about democratising art by sculpting using the LEGO brick that every child is familiar with. There’s a high chance that they’re going to go home and try their own versions.
James Piercy continues by asking… Do you think people lose wonder when they hear explanations? In magic you never give away the secret, in science should we give away the explanations?
I see two problems with explanations: 1) we give them too quickly, 2) we stop searching when something has been explained. An explanation becomes a big fat full stop. Let me expand on this by explaining the ‘Wow! How? Now…‘ model I use in teaching.
The ‘Wow’ is the initial moment of surprise, beauty or counter-intuitive weirdness. This is the moment where your attention has been grabbed but you’re not totally sure what has happened. With scale or strength this can be classed as a moment of Awe.
The ‘How?’ is the point where you’ve reached a point of rational explanation. If an explanation is given too quickly, the listener misses out on the journey between the Wow and the How. In the middle is a simultaneous state of knowing and not knowing. A place of mystery. A place of multiple possibilities. I call this the Quantum state of Wonder. Or some would call it a ‘liminal space‘ where you’ve reached the end of one journey but have yet to embark on the next. A place of transformation. A place of stretching and growth. I believe we need to embrace more mysteries because of this. Wonder is more than a surprise, it’s a wrestling with the new. It can be exciting, it can be scary. I spoke about this at a TEDx event.
The second problem kicks in when we hear an explanation. That’s the point where the mystery pops like a balloon. The How? rather than being a stepping stone acts as a full stop to further discovery. Which is where the ‘Now…’ comes in. Now what can I use this for? Now what else? Now what if? This is the moment of innovation; of crafting new possibilities. Which in turn leads to more ‘Wow’ moments. The cycle of wonder. With three aspects to wonder: i) the initial surprise/awe moment, ii) the ‘aha’ insight moment, iii) creating new ideas. When done well these flow into each. Clunkily giving an explanation can interrupt this process. (It can also disempower the student by making them seem stupid and inferior for not figuring it out themselves.)
Steve Price… As a science magician, how and where do you draw the line regarding exposure of magical effects?
This is difficult to answer as I don’t have a solid or perfect answer for you. My thinking on this has shifted over the years and I’m sure it will continue to evolve. I think the first thing to say is I love magic. It’s been a passion of mine since I was 10 and I have invested heavily into it: time practising, attending conferences and purchasing numerous tricks & books. I wouldn’t want to damage something I love and equally I wouldn’t want to harm the work of other magicians.
The majority of what I perform I’d describe as “science tricks”. Objects that behave surprisingly or counter intuitively due to a scientific phenomenon at work. They’re not intentionally set out to fool the audience. The effects have a wow factor but I also feel there’s wonder in the mechanics as well. Again this is vuja de in action. I make a distinction between magic and magical. Theatrical Magic is something that appears impossible (for a much more nuanced definition have a read of Jason Leddington’s interview.) Whereas something magical has amazement without necessarily being impossible. I’d describe most of my work as being magical and learning the secrets doesn’t destroy the effect.
In practise, how does it work out? I spend a lot of time and money researching science effects that presented in the right way can appear magical. Victorian recreational science books are a great source of inspiration (once you filter out all the ones that are now illegal due to dubious to health & safety). I also try to keep up to date with the latest research and inventions in the hope that I can apply them to a stage performance. Where possible I like to invent my own science tricks or at least push an existing effect further. For example, the photos below are of a sculpture I’ve been toying with that feature 3 different balances from clever weight distribution. In cases like these I don’t have an issue sharing my own creations.
Jonny Mellor… Do you think real magic exists?
I think the question you’re asking is: ‘Do you believe in the supernatural?’ If so, this question gets to the heart of the three tensions I face between science, magic and faith. Science is a explanation of the universe that only uses natural mechanisms that can be measured. Theatrical Magic sets out to create the illusion of breaking these natural laws using only natural means (sleight of hand dexterity, psychology, and ‘tricky’ props). There’s a tension between the two but in most cases this is easily resolved in that the audience are aware they’re part of a game of deception. The power of theatrical magic comes from the cognitive dissonance of knowing it’s a trick but experiencing at a deep level the impossible. (Again, see Jason Leddington’s work on this.)
As both a scientist and a magician I don’t need to resort to the supernatural in my work. The scope of science is only within the natural world and theatrical magic is solely dependent on the natural for its workings. However, I’m also a Christian and try my best to follow Jesus. I believe he is more than just a moral teacher who lived and died but the incarnation of God. For some this could seem highly irrational but from personal experience I can say that my life is radically different because of my faith. Much more than a changed mindset or following a moral code. My identity (who I am, what I do, where I’m going) is tightly wrapped up in my belief. This isn’t without it’s tensions, wrestles or ironies of a science magician believing in a supernatural being. If I believe in God then I have to accept “real magic” exists.
Where is this magic and how does it outwork itself? Magician Jeff McBride says “The metaphor of magic is a metaphor of transformation.” And for me, transformation is where I see God being most active in the world by redeeming and restoring broken situations. Not by some wave of a magic wand but by a showering of love, kindness and generosity through His followers.
Joel Wilson… Do faith and wonder intersect?
Church leader Steve DeWitt in his book “Eyes wide open” writes about beauty leading to wonder which in turn leads to worship. This worship can express itself in various guises including celebrity adoration, scientism, and religious praise. You can worship the creator or the creative process.
A number of interviewees have mentioned what could be described as the spiritual side of wonder. For instance the underwater photographer Zena Holloway likens wonder to “that feeling of being deep underwater, attached to nothing but connected to everything.” Others like psychologist Roger Bretherton recognise another paradox: “The contradiction of wonder is to be personally elevated and cosmically humbled at the same time.” It’s hard not to have your perception of reality and thinking expanded when you encounter the wonderful.
Joel Wilson continues to ask… Have basic human instincts been corrupted or disrupted in the 21st century or are our instincts just a good as ever but we’ve lost our will/ability to follow them?
It’s perhaps too easy to point the blame at the internet and smart phones but I feel they have had a huge impact on our thinking and behaviour. Firstly, the phone has become our go to time filler. The time we would have had to process events, ponder, look around and interact with others has been swallowed up. Electronically we’re super connected but relationally we’re not. The 24/7 instant world doesn’t teach us to be patient or savour moments. G K Chesterton said:
“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”
I feel one part of this is that we’ve become accustomed to a poor fast food diet rather than savouring wholesome feasts. Quality time is missing in the 21st century.
Secondly, information is cheap. Most things can be discovered within a click or two. We no longer value knowledge as the effort to discover it was minimal. Facts are cheap. There’s also an arrogance that goes with appearing to know everything but what we’re really lacking is wisdom and discernment as to how to apply what we know. There is no longer any mastery of a subject.
Finally, phones and social media give users a voice. There is a growing air of entitlement to broadcast opinions and to be listened to. I’m all for freedom of speech but also recognise that in a lot of cases I’m just listening to uninformed or incorrect drivel. We live in ambiguous and uncertain times; awash with and paralysed by opinions from all directions. Perhaps this is one reason we’re seeing the rise of political dictators again who powerfully display a clear direction.
Stevyn Colgan asks… How can we teach people about critical thinking so that they can separate truth from a lot of the nonsense we read online?
Phones that give the user an electric shock every time they retweet or share some crappy meme. Although that’s a flippant answer, the problem we’ve got is that there’s often no direct feedback when we make a wrong decision. In times past we’d starve, be punched or eaten by a tiger. Where today are the consequences for peddling fake news? I’m appalled that we’ve reached a point where a ruling government party thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate the truth on a daily basis.
We need to teach the ability to view things from different perspectives, weigh up options, and be aware that in a lot of situations there are objective facts rather than subjective opinions. We also need to teach how to read data/statistics correctly and how results can be misleading or manipulated. It would be worth considering whether to introduce this as a formal school subject. I think there should be harsher consequences for organisations or leaders in power who intentionally spread propaganda. Whether that’s Duracell with their unfair battery better comparison tests or Prime Ministers.
Andy Cope asks… If you peer behind the magic curtain isn’t everything just a trick of the mind, including reality?
Your question hints at the idea that maybe we’re deluding ourselves. When Dorothy first discovers the Wizard of Oz isn’t what she expects, she hears a booming voice: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” I think there’s a worry that if we search deep enough we’ll either be disappointed or frightened by what we discover. Sadly society often tells us to stop looking or asking questions – that mysteries are to be feared – or that the world we live in will unravel if we dig too deep.
Wonder isn’t just a fuzzy feel good feeling. It’s mind expanding. It’s door opening. It’s life transforming. I feel there is so much joy from going on adventures of discovery and questioning mysteries. It would be selfish of me to keep that to myself. So in the words of Queen Elsa: “Into the unknown.”
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