We all know that there is no such thing as real “magic.” As performed by “magicians,” it’s all trickery and deception, the best of which fools us in ways we like to be fooled, and takes advantage of our own weaknesses and susceptibilities. But science and technology have become so clever and adept that it’s increasingly hard to draw the line between the real and the unreal. “Motion Pictures” are a good example. Pictures can’t move. But a defect in our own optical apparatus called “persistence of vision” makes possible the illusion. Our eyes haven’t changed. They’ve always suffered from this defect. But it took some modern magicians to discover and exploit it.
In a different way, scientific observation and calculation has enabled the “magical” prediction of astronomical phenomena. A classic instance of the exploitation of such knowledge came on the fourth and last voyage of Christopher Columbus. In June, 1503, he and some of his crew were stranded on the island now known as Jamaica, which was then inhabited by a tribe of Arawak “Indians.” At first, the Arawaks had been very hospitable, but as months went by, they became less and less willing to continue supplying provisions to the refugees. By February 1504, with no rescue yet in sight, Columbus was desperate, and resorted to a piece of magic to impress the natives with his power. He told the Arawak leader that, on a certain approaching night, he would cause the moon to go dark. The magic worked, and the Arawaks were induced to become friendlier again.
We owe this entire account to Columbus’ son, Fernando, who was with him on the voyage. But the real hero of the story – the real “magician” – was the man who had compiled the relevant astronomical tables and published them in an almanac Columbus carried with him. He was a German, known as Regiomontanus.
Incidentally, Columbus has lately been getting a bad press because of his frequent mistreatment of native peoples – and many now object to the whole idea that he “discovered” what was here all the time. October 12, traditionally the anniversary of his 1492 landfall, which has long been a national holiday in many countries, is usually still a holiday, but now under a different name, such as Indigenous Peoples Day. It would, however, be an incredibly unmanageable undertaking to rename all the places and other entities which today bear this man’s name— from the country of Colombia to Canada’s province of British Columbia, to our own District of Columbia.
But, getting back to magic – in some forms, it has been known and wondered at since ancient times. A good example is magnetism. How could one object affect the behavior of another, without any evident connection between them? Even more mysteriously, what made certain objects, when freely suspended, always “point” the same way? It was of course the magic of the magnetic compass that made navigation far from land, such as that of Columbus, possible for the first time.
Equally magical has been the advent of self-propelled vehicles, on the earth, and then even in the sky. Surely this was not possible. A thing cannot move by itself, unless it is alive. . . But if such things truly can happen, how much magic is still left out there to amaze us? My own list would include:
1. Teleportation: Will any of us live to see objects or people disappear in one place, and instantaneously reappear in another?
2. Time Travel: Of course, we all know how to do this already – but (not counting mental gymnastics) we can travel in only one direction, and at only one speed.
3. (The really Big One) Immortality: To most of us, aging and dying are truly insufferable and intolerable. But we still have to suffer and tolerate them.
Some other, perhaps lesser, pieces of magic, I would also very much appreciate:
1. Automatic recording of dreams, for convenient playback.
2. Perpetual organization of, and access to, all memories.
3. Acceleration of healing.
4. Universally adopted international language and currency.
5. Medical suppression of all violent tendencies.
But I suppose some readers would never forgive me if I wrote a whole article about Magic and didn’t mention Love. Innumerable poems and songs assure us that this phenomenon, which brings and holds people together in otherwise unaccountable ways, can only be characterized as magical. As Blaise Pascal observed, some four centuries ago: “The heart has its reasons, which Reason knows nothing of.”