Chemistry Blog



Mar 28

Chemical Magicians

by See Arr Oh | Categories: fun, opinion, science policy | (33631 Views)

Skepticism plays a central role in any kind of scientific research. To paraphrase Feynman, you should try never to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool! We chemists all want to believe in the high yield, or the perfect recrystallization that causes us to turn cartwheels…until we realize that we can’t repeat them. Some scientists still take shortcuts to fame – consider the hot water the Sezen saga landed everyone in just a few short years ago. So, how do you keep yourself honest? And how do you sift through wild claims and hyperbole?

Gob Bluth
Please, don’t hire this magician.
Credit: Arrested Development, 20th Century Fox

Well, magicians are standing by to take our calls.

(Wait…did you just say “magicians?”)

That’s right, magician James Randi offers his services in a recent Wired Opinion post. He references magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who says:

Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience is, the easier they are to fool. That’s a very counterintuitive idea, but…scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive.”

Good point. As chemists, we’re always looking out for the next great reaction to come logically shuffling through the door.  We don’t often step back and critically question others’ motivations for deceit or trickery. But, of course, that’s how magicians make their careers. Randi invokes Clarke’s third law, which states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Maybe that’s part of the issue.

Think, for a moment, about all the “magical” events that occur during a normal day in lab. Stir bars rotate with the flip of a switch. Gas, that you can’t see or smell, keeps oxygen and water out of your reaction. Little towers of pumps, valves, and tubes (HPLCs) show you pictures of what’s going on inside the flask. Another box probably takes your crude brown oil, makes some noises, and turns it into a lovely white, crystalline solid. A tall, shiny refrigerator (NMR) uses the power of magnetism and radio waves (both invisible!) to show you even clearer pictures. Once everything’s wrapped up, you toss the data, on nonexistent paper, in another tiny box (hard drive), or beam the answers as pure packets of energy (emails) across the globe to collaborators.

But, if you went back in time and told an 1880’s dye chemist, he’d never believe you! How come? Because his hands were stained with product, and his arms tired from shaking vessels or moving paddles around reactors. He could tell you the boiling or melting points of all his unknown compounds, because he measured them directly. He knew all the recent literature, because he went to the library and opened the few copies of journals, trade manuals, or encyclopedias he had access to. To him, your ligands and catalysts might look like snake oils and cure-all elixirs.

E.J. Corey - Chemical Magician?
Pulled a few rabbits out of his hat. Credit: RSC

So, I guess I understand the role a magician could play: a second opinion. An advisor, who could check motives or see a bigger picture, someone who, when you say “Really!” would say “Really?”

And hey, if it doesn’t work out, he could always just disappear. Or you could saw him in half. (I hear they love that!)


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  1. Mitch

    As scientists, I think we are always rather good at requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

  2. azmanam

    That guy from Arrested Development (and 30 Rock) (and Up All Night) (and the Hulu commercials) creeps me out… It’s something about his eyes…

  3. See Arr Oh

    Hey, you did know who it was! Good on ya!

  4. Dr. Zoidberg

    But he was hilarious is “Let’s Go To Prison”, “Blades Of Glory”, and “The Brothers Solomon”

  5. EquationForLife

    Will Arnett was also fairly creepy as a guest on Parks and Recreation and in When in Rome (I’m not proud of it, but I saw it). If we were writing a paper, I would conclude that Will Arnett is just creepy in general.

  6. Bryan Sanctuary

    I do not like the analogy of magic in research. Sure if you installed electricity in a cave man’s cave, then walked over to the switch and threw it, the cave people would think it magic and make you their king! My real interest is in the foundations of quantum mechanics and before you say boring, then perhaps you do not know that the words used to explain one of the most fundamental experiments (surrounding entanglement and non-loclity) is “Quantum Magic” When people use the word Magic to describe a phenomenon it only confirms to me that they do not understand what they are talking about. That is the current situation in the foundations of qm.

  7. See Arr Oh

    (I hope Dr. Sanctuary knows I was being satirical!)

    See Arr Oh solemnly swears that he really does “get” theoretical plates, nuclear relaxation, electromagnetism, polarity gradients, and the TCP/IP protocol.

    Now, pardon me – I must go dissolve something in Magic Acid, and then perform some solid-state “magic-angle” spinning…

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