Hocus Pocus

01 September 2023
Gwen Weerts

Legerdemaine is an operation, whereby one may seeme to worke wonderfull, impossible, and incredible things by agility, nimblenesse, and slightnesse of hand.

Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain, 1635

 In 1983, the world watched magician David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear in what would become one of his most famous illusions. The stunt was spectacular: A live audience assembled on Ellis Island, where scaffolding arose between the crowd and the 305-foot-tall Statue of Liberty. A large curtain obscured the audience’s view of the giant lady, and then, ta da! The curtain dropped and Lady Liberty was gone. Search lights moved back and forth in the empty space, and a helicopter flew overhead, filming the “disappearance” from above. Like many of Copperfield’s illusions, it’s difficult to imagine how he pulled it off, even with the use of clever camera angles and lighting.

Copperfield’s magic tricks*, televised throughout the 1980s and 1990s, sparked a frenzy of magic mania, especially in children like me. I remember talking to my elementary-school librarian, asking for her help in finding a book that would explain the mechanics behind magic tricks. She did her best to explain the notion of trade secrets to a 10-year-old and gave me some intro-to-magic books for kids.

What a disappointment. The books described simple sleight-of-hand and card tricks but told me nothing about how to levitate or make my house disappear. They instead focused on showmanship, careful timing, and tedious, repetitive practice. In fact, the books’ tips were not dissimilar from those found in the first how-to manual for aspiring magicians, Hocus Pocus Junior: the Anatomie of Legerdemain, published in 1635. This literary gem contains tutorials such as “How to make a six pence seeme to fall thorow a Table,” and “To cut a Lace asunder in the midst, and to make it whole againe,” and is available on the free online library, Project Gutenberg.

As a child, I was dismayed to learn that I would never know the secret mechanics of a magician’s illusions. Even more sobering was the realization that “magic” itself is not mystical or spontaneous, but rather the result of a creative idea, meticulous planning, and very hard work to get it right. Much like science.

This issue of Photonics Focus examines the science of illusion. Optical cloaking, perhaps the most illusory technology described in these pages, explores the advanced technology used to render objects invisible—real-life versions of Harry Potter’s fictional cloak. A story on optical surface exposure dating explains how a light-based technique can be used to “look below the surface” and accurately date ancient rock art. Our third feature investigates one of the more pernicious illusions of modern media: the creation of deepfake images, and the techniques being used to detect and expose them. Finally, an issue on illusion would not be complete without a nod to Dennis Gabor, father of the hologram.

You’ll find no smoke and mirrors here, just stories of creative ideas, hard work, long timelines, and dogged persistence. Enjoy.

Gwen Weerts, Editor-in-chief

*In 2019, David Copperfield sent the secrets of his most famous illusions to the Moon as part of the Arch Mission’s Lunar Library. The Arch Mission, a nonprofit that aims to archive the entirety of human civilization, etched Copperfield’s secrets (along with 30-million pages of other books, data, and images) onto nickel plates designed to last billions of years. I am comforted to know that, even when Earth’s civilizations fall, a future people may learn how David Copperfield disappeared a Learjet.


Recent News
Sign in to read the full article
Create a free SPIE account to get access to
premium articles and original research