Amusing Physics (Branch of the Recreational Sciences)

by John Holbo on March 3, 2016

First things first: thanks to everyone who dug deep (or shallow) to purchase (or just freely download) a copy of Reason and Persuasion, allowing us to enjoy evanescent ecstasies of semi-upward-mobility into the 5-digit sales range on Amazon for a period of some days now. Now please keep that Amazon aspidistra flying for the next several years running and we’ll have ourselves a standard textbook! (Sigh. I know. No hope. If I want sales like that, I have to update Facebook more than once every 4 years. And be on Twitter. Shudder.)

As I was saying: it is also fun to watch the (no doubt CT-fueled) evolution of the ‘customers who viewed this item also viewed’ Amazon scrollbar, associating our Plato book with all manner of comics and science fiction. I hope the present post shall further enrich that eclectic mix.

Back in December I posted about how I would like a history of semi-popular philosophy of mind, to complement the history of science fiction. Many people left genuinely useful, interesting comments, for which I am sincerely grateful. Today I would like to strike out along a semi-parallel line. Science fiction film, with its special effects, has a strong phenotypic and genotypic relation to stage magic. Georges Méliès was a stage magician. But sf is older than film; stage magic, too. We might enhance our sense of the modern origins of the former by coordinating with the modern history of the latter. I just read a good little book, Conjuring Science: A History of Scientific Entertainment and Stage Magic in Modern France, by Sofia Lachappelle, that doesn’t make the sf connection, but makes it easy to make. (It’s an overpriced good little book, I’m sorry to say. Oh, academic publishing. But perhaps you, like me, enjoy library privileges somewhere.)

It contains some nice sentences, certainly. For example: “While Robertson was presenting his phantasmagoria in an abandoned convent and professors of amusing physics were performing their wonders, scientific and technological innovations were impacting the world of the theater at large.” (118)

As I was saying: history of modern stage magic. I’ll quote passages, and comment, and supplement with relevant images.

In France, as elsewhere, the period ranging from the mid-eighteenth century to the Great War was marked by a series of important changes for the magic trade. Increasingly embracing the spirit of the Enlightenment, many conjurers began to incorporate science into their spectacles. At street fairs, in cabinets de physique (physics cabinet), and later on the stages of the permanent theater houses of the modern boulevards, they presented shows in which trickery, white magic, and popular science were muddled and used to provoke wonder, elicit amusement, and, above all, entertain audiences. Conjurers presented themselves under many guises: as jugglers, magicians, and wizards; as physicists and professors of amus­ing physics; and later on as prestidigitators and illusionists. Beyond these distinctions, however, they were all showmen performing magic tricks, and creating illusions on stage. Like one of their most famous representatives, Robert-Houdin, modern conjurers were men of their century, dressed in middle-class suits as opposed to sorcerer’s robes and pointed hats. They were inspired by the scientific and industrial spirit of the period and created acts in which electricity, ether, or other new innovations could act as starting points for spectacular illusions. They used terms such as “demonstration” and “experiment” when referring to their tricks. They lectured their audience on astrology, geology, and other fields, and declared themselves professors of abstract science or amusing physics. (2-3)


(Explanation of that one here.)

There’s backstory about how legal changes, as well as social and cultural, allowed magic practitioners to be less itinerant, more urban and settled in Paris; but let’s start with a date. Robert-Houdin opened his theatre in 1845. Posters promise “polyorama, phantasmagorie, evocations, illusions, physique, magie, prestidigitation”. Read about Robert-Houdin’s ‘ethereal suspension’ trick, for example.


This is, in a sense, sf. It’s framed not as wizardry but gadgetry. Or chemistry. Ether as something like H.G. Wells’ cavorite, 50 years before his First Men In The Moon.

Onstage, science was everywhere at the service of illusions and make-believe. But conjurers also reflected the era’s fascination with the occult and the possibility of unknown forces and human abilities. Enmeshed as they were in a world of enchantments and marvels, conjurers often played around with ideas about both the natural and the supernatural. They exploited the seemingly magical character of science and tried to make magic look scientific. They presented themselves as rational entertainers while continuing to cultivate a sense of wonder, even mystery. Their success reveals what they as well as their audiences at the time found entertaining and interesting. As such, conjurers’ ability for merging ghosts, levitating assistants, amusing physics, and scientific lectures provides us with a glimpse into their world and reminds us that, for many at the time, science continued to hold some magic while magic still held the possibility of science. (8-9)


Compare H.G. Wells on ‘scientific romance’ (and maybe brush up on the concept, courtesy of this i09 post):

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds. And that is where there was a certain slight novelty in my stories when first they appeared. Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic. Frankenstein even, used some jiggery-pokery magic to animate his artificial monster. There was trouble about the thing’s soul. But by the end of last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted. That was no great discovery. I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.

As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.

Point being: practitioners of actual magic tricks had picked up this trick 50 years earlier. Robert-Houdin is a contemporary of Poe, roughly.

A slightly different angle:

Books presenting mathematics in a playful manner and addressed to nonspecialists dated back to the early seventeenth century. Some of the tricks and problems proposed were much older. By the end of the seventeenth century and alongside the rise of the experimental sciences, recreational mathematics grew to include discussions of amusing and interesting principles and demonstrations of mechanics, optics, electricity, and other scientific discoveries. Recreational physics, recreational science, amusing science, amusing physics, and, later, wondrous chemistry, as they came to be called, enjoyed significant popularity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Someone needs to write a science fiction novel, or graphic novel, about a League of Amusing Physicists. They will be fighting for France (as Robert-Houdin sort of did); or fighting on both sides of the barricades during the Revolution of 1848. But reading on:

As literacy rates rose, reading audiences swelled and the number of books presenting science as a source of amusement exploded. Alongside the lecturers and scientists who had previously written works of the genre, science enthusiasts, popularizers, and conjurers began to contribute books and instruction booklets for home experiments and instruments. The amount of science presented varied a great deal, from the books written by scientists (often under pseudonyms) and popularizers of science that tended to use amusement as a tool for scientific instruction, to those written by conjurers, which generally appealed to scientific principles in the explanation of intriguing and pleasant effects. Like Robert-Houdin and his Magie et physique amusante, most conjurers contributing to the genre wrote of amusing physics, as opposed to recreational sciences more broadly. Their works tended to focus on spectacle and entertainment, offering little opportunity for learning. (38)


Books and boxes of the genre varied in size and addressed a broad type of audience. A particular characteristic of all types of scientific amusements, however, was their hands-on approach to science, emphasizing tactile interactions with the natural world. Amateurs were encouraged to play, experiment, and develop an understanding of basic scientific principles in the comfort of their own homes. Initially addressed to middle-class adults, scientific amusement increasingly came to be directed toward children and their caregivers. By the end of the nine­teenth century, more and more books of experiments and tricks and boxes of amusing physics were marketed to a young audience. At the same time, the association of magic tricks with scientific edification that had characterized the genre for close to a century began to weaken. Conjurers gradually abandoned scientific amusements, leaving the genre to popularizers of science. By the beginning of the twentieth century, magic tricks boxes and science kits would go their separate ways. (39)



“When, in a family reunion, we will have made music, when we will have run out of all of the small society games, and that the masters of the house will see with worry that despite the enthusiasm they deploy, bore­dom is ready to slide into their guests, offer to give a little performance of Amusing physics, everyone will applaud this proposition,” wrote Antonio Magus in Magie blanche en famille (1894). (43)


A lot of this stuff features both devil imagery and physics language.


Under the pseudonym Tom Tit, the engineer and contributor to L’Illustration, Arthur Good (1853-1928) also wrote works of amusing science for children and their parents, offering “easy and amusing” physical experiments “meant to distract and instruct the youth, either outside or inside the home.” La Science amusante, first published in 1889, contained a number of experiments, some said to be “simple games meant to amuse the family when assembled at night around the table” while others “of a truly, scientific character, have for objective to initiate the reader to the study of physics, this wondrous science.” (52)

tom tit 2nd serie 01

Moving on, we also start to get some sf connections.

During the nineteenth century, the popularity of works of science written for a broader audience continued to increase, no doubt fueled by a rise in literacy rates and a growing appetite for scientific edification across all social classes. By the second half of the century, editors devoted entire series to popular science while a new group of men (and sometimes women) were able to earn a living lecturing and writing on this popular science. Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), Louis Figuier (1819-1894), and Gaston Tissandier (1843-1899), among others, became household names in France for readers interested in the sciences. They wrote about astronomy, optics, natural history, and the latest technological innova­tions, emphasizing the wondrous possibilities associated with the world of science and innovations. (43)

In my previous post I mentioned Flammarion as a likely subject for study, for purposes of understanding how speculation about spiritualism and psychic phenomena interlocked with more standard branches of natural science, such as astronomy.

Next we get to the only explicit sf connection made in Lachappelle’s book. Jules Verne’s publisher probably regarded him, initially, as a kind of narrative spin off from this other, older stuff. (Although he ended up being much more popular.)

The editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel (1814-1886) launched the Magasin d’education et de recreation (Magazine of education and recreation), an illustrated magazine for children, and the series Bibiotheque d’education et de recreation (Library of Education and Recreation) with the goal to publish works by respected scientists and pop­ularizers meant to teach science to the entire family. Having established his publishing house in the 1830s, Hertzel was an accomplished editor, responsible for the publication of such famed authors as Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo. For Hertzel, instruction and recreation had to exist hand in hand: “The instructive must be presented in a form so as to provoke interest: without this it rebuts and disgusts from instruction; an amuse­ment must hide a moral reality, which means a utility: without this it turns futile and empties heads instead of filling them.”49 Thus, entertainment was necessary but should never be futile. As Hertzel envisioned them, the magazine and series would complement school education for the young and disseminate information not just to students but to their parents as well, hopefully even sparking discussions at home. Reflecting this goal to unite family members in scientific instruction, the Magasin d’education et de recreation began to carry the subtitle journal de toute la famile starting in 1869.

Hetzel published the works of a variety of authors on diverse subjects, among them Aventures d ‘un Jeune naturaliste (1869), a book on natural his­tory by Lucien Bart, Aventures d’un grillon (1877) by Ernest Candeze, and Promenade d’une fillette autour d’un laboratoire (1887), a humorous work on chemistry by Paul Gouzy. But it was, without a doubt, Jules Verne (1828-1905) who was the most famous of Hertzel’s authors. From the 1860s onward, and under Hertzel’s guidance and at times heavy-handed control, Verne wrote adventure and travel novels promoting the wonders and possibilities of science and technology to young readers. In over 60 books that spanned the distance from the center of the Earth to the sur­face of the Moon, the North Pole to Antarctica, and around the world, Verne’s works combined realistic presentation of science and technology with fantasy and adventure in stories that often featured engineers and scientists as his main characters. Like many works published by Hetzel, Verne’s adventures succeeded in igniting curiosity and inspiring wonder for the world of the sciences. (50)

What more can we say about the spiritualist/psychic connection?

In the early 1890s, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin began advertising Le Décapité récalcitrant (The Recalcitrant Decapitated Man) act as part of an evening of Boufonnerie spirite (Spiritist Buffoonery).


Paging Scott “Acephalus” Eric Kaufman! (Even though his blogging has been light, of late. He’s moved on.)

Such acts – inspired by, and yet mocking, the spiritist movement – were very common in the last decades of the nineteenth century. While stage magic included demonstrations of physical and chemical effects, magic lantern lectures, and recreational mathematics, they were also inspired by the latest claims of supernatural wonders: spiritist phenomena, occult­ist mysteries, and acts by Eastern and North African mystic performers touring Europe at the time. (59)

Magic and science are like hemlines. They rise and fall, fall and rise. Fashion is mysterious. Robert-Houdin, in the mid-19th Century, felt audiences preferred him to dress like a solid member of the middle-class, and talk like a scientist, at least some of the time. Not so flourish-y. More non-nonsense in manner and tone. But Lachapelle quotes one ‘Chevalier X’, a conjurer, lamenting the state of the scientific discipline, in 1927:

It is beyond any doubt that the public appreciates supernatural things. It will prefer a hundred times over to go see a charlatan who will promise supernatural accomplishments in his adds (at the risk of being deceived nine times out of ten) rather than go to the trouble of attending the performances of an illusion­ist producing very fine, very interesting, and even troubling things indeed, but unfortunately presented as illusions, that is to say as natural things. I have seen a so-called fakir, a third-rate operator, in a full house for many consecutive evenings, while a talented illusionist with a program of extremely well presented tricks [could only get] a half house. I will end up believing that the public likes to be deceived. (87)

And another commentator, in 1928:

Conjuring is a charming art that is experiencing a crisis, even if it still holds skillful representatives with agile hands and the gift of the gab. It had as its objective to amaze with its prestige and its appearance of marvelous. But it has become very difficult to amaze in an era accustomed to the miracles of science and trained to expect others of the kind. The tricks of a “physicist” as ingenious as they might be, risk to appear relatively small in the eyes of these other sleight of hand that are wireless telegraphy, for example, x-rays and all of the applications of electricity. (133)

There’s more. For example, about deception as a theme. In a sense, stage magic can be seen as sitting at the paranoid juncture of crime and science fiction. But I’ll stop quoting. (One should only quote so much of any given work, out of decent deference to the author’s expectation that someone might actually buy it.)

Apologies if this post is a bit disorderly. I’m sort of taking notes, in case I decide to add this stuff to my science fiction lectures. And yes, I am aware that other authors have written about the tangled relationship of science and magic in the modern period.

UPDATE: Also, the art of burlesque magnetism ain’t what it used to be.




Adam Roberts 03.03.16 at 1:55 pm

It is all very interesting, I agree; although I think it’s wise to separate out ‘science and magic’ from ‘science and spiritualism’, and to be sure to historicise the latter. Much of the (fascinating) material you cite here is from the late 19th early 20th century movement that aimed to bring spiritualism within the larger rubric of ‘science’: the society for psychical research and so on. Later on, and I think broadly today, ‘the spiritual’ is taken to be by definition that which is beyond the logic of science, or mere science. ‘Magic’ is a different thing again: from the whole Renaissance and post-Renaissance supercession of magic by science, through to the modern stagecraft of magic as performance (which overlaps, I agree with you, very much with modern SF special effects, but which is surely a matter of technology rather than ‘science’).


John Holbo 03.03.16 at 2:04 pm

I’m a bit shaky on the dates, actually. Those posters. I don’t know what years they are from.

One of the many interesting topics in the book, left out of the post, is the contribution of stage magicians to serious science. Attempted contributions, at any rate. They were often skillful inventors and device makers. They didn’t think of themselves just as popularizers.


oldster 03.03.16 at 3:24 pm

A different related phenomenon–and one which tended to blur the perception of boundaries–was the popular lecture on science. The most famous of these now is probably Faraday’s “Chemical History of a Candle,” first delivered in 1825. But that was only the first of the Royal Institution’s “Christmas Lectures,” which continue to this day.

Of course there was nothing magical or supernatural in Faraday’s presentation (or in Sagan’s 1977 lecture or Dawkins (!) 1991 lecture), and he would have bridled at the suggestion that his educationally edifying outreach had anything in common with mountebanks.

But in fact, the two genres have quite a lot in common when viewed from the outside by an uneducated populace, or even by an educated populace that does not yet know what to make of mesmerism, phrenology, etc. etc.

These were, in fact, examples of amusing physics with no need for scare quotes. It’s not their fault that it was hard for people to draw a line between Faraday and Houdin, anymore than it was Sagan’s fault that people had trouble drawing a line between him and Dr. Oz or Deepak Chopra.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 03.03.16 at 7:18 pm

Ahistorical, But I remember the controversy over stage magic being tied to science in The Prestige.
Not that Tesla would necessarily have been above associating with a vulgar illusionist.
He loved putting on public demonstrations.


DCA 03.04.16 at 5:33 am

Another tie (of sorts) is that R. W. Wood was an amateur magician, a skill he used when investigating Blondlot’s N-rays, which were an example of fantastic physics from France.

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