Do You Believe in Magic?

by Daniel Asa Rose
Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind
By Alex Stone
Harper, 320 pages, $26.99
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A magician practices levitation in Lake Michigan during the summer of 1955 / AP / Corbis

It’s not every day that a book makes you levitate from your chair and travel halfway across town to see if an ordinary pizzeria is as extraordinary a place as your entranced brain imagines it to be. But that’s what may well happen when you finish reading Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, by Alex Stone ’11GSAS.

Stone’s memoir about his lifelong fascination with magic is transporting almost from the opening page. Partly it’s because he is so candid about what attracts him to magic as a youngster in the first place: hoping it will help him navigate awkward social situations and meet pretty girls. In reality, he winds up spending the bulk of his youth with “pasty male virgins.”

“For me, discovering the world of magic was like finding my own island of misfit friends, a place where everyone was special in the wrong way. Magic, let’s face it, is a pastime for misfits, an outlet for outcasts with low self-esteem ... With magic tricks, you can seem extroverted and outgoing while still maintaining a safe social distance. Magicians hide in the spotlight, much in the way that photographers often mediate their social experiences from behind a lens and comedians hide behind jokes. Like physics, magic is all about nerds playing god with the universe.”

But this isn’t a book about smoke and mirrors. Stone becomes more seriously involved in magic while pursuing a PhD in physics at Columbia; he is intent on discovering the scientific principles that underlie almost every magic trick he learns. Why do people take pleasure in deceiving others, and in being deceived? What are the cognitive mechanisms at work when a person performs and watches a magic show? How does the brain process what it perceives to be reality? How reliable are our memories? “Strange as it may sound,” he writes, “studying magic ultimately leads you to ponder some of life’s deepest mysteries.”

The characters Stone encounters on his quest are rendered with a true writer’s eye for detail. “With his black Stetson hat, lizard-skin boots, and wide Doc Holliday moustache the texture of dried tumbleweed, Richard Turner looks like a saloonkeeper from the Badlands, a Victorian-era cowboy, or a ghost town tour guide.” Turner, one of a series of off-campus magicians Stone meets on his journey, turns out to be less a cardsharp than some kind of hand acrobat, able to execute perfect one-handed shuffles with a deck in each fist simultaneously. Not one to keep an academic distance, Stone hunches in close enough to smell “the lanolin-and-mango lotion he applies three times daily to keep his skin moist and supple.”

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