Sleight of hand and a little stardust

October 28, 2005

JOHN BROWN magician, astronomer royal for scotland and regius professor of astronomy

John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland and regius professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, e-mails The Times Higher agreeing to be interviewed, but he teasingly suggests that it would be safer by phone "lest I saw you in half".

To reinforce the point, Professor Brown attaches a photo of himself sawing Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse in half during a magic show at a Royal Society event.

Professor Brown is a noted amateur magician, having developed an interest in both magic and astronomy aged ten - the first through a Christmas present of a magic set, the second through the launch of Sir Patrick Moore's Sky at Night television programme and the first Sputnik satellite.

He dropped the conjuring as a teenager because it was "uncool", but returned to it 20 years later when his three-year-old son asked if he could do magic.

He now uses it in his frequent talks to pupils and the public to promote an interest in science.

But surely magic tricks are a trivialisation of science?

Professor Brown's response is to ask not for the customary £20 note but a more modest 5p piece.

He has already demonstrated the force of gravity with the aid of some metal balls and a latex-covered wooden frame representing space. A ball would normally move across space (that is, the frame) in a straight line, but gravity is a bending of space, and when a heavier ball sinks into the covering, the smaller ball is drawn towards it and starts to circle it.

"The bigger the thing, the more space is bent. A black hole is essentially something so heavy that it bends space down and down to the extreme limit."

He covers a glass with a thin strip of latex and places the 5p piece on top.

"If you'd like to put your finger gently on that... if you squeeze it ever so slightly, the space bends. If you press harder and harder, you will find out what a black hole is." The coin falls into the glass, having passed through the rubber without making a hole.

"I don't think magic's at all trivial. Anyone who thinks that illustrating what a black hole does to an object is trivialising the subject is simply being a pompous git."

All magic is physics or maths or chemistry, he says, and all tricks are simple. But it is full of "sucker effects" that make audiences think they are smart enough to figure out what is happening, when the trick is actually quite different.

Scientists are among the easiest to fool, Professor Brown says.

"Academics are rather narrow-minded, with definite ideas of how things are.

Therefore it's quite easy to plant a wrong idea in their heads. Magic teaches you about doubting; about the way that people can con themselves into believing something when the evidence isn't very strong. Scientists are more subjective than they like to think."

His outreach work has expanded since he became Scotland's Astronomer Royal a decade ago, an unpaid post he says "sounds like a character out of Blackadder : 'For this cock-up, Baldrick, we're going to make you Astronomer Royal for Scotland'".

While his performances include unexplained tricks, they also contain intriguing scientific experiments such as creating an electromagnetic field using a copper tube and a ball bearing. "The kids really like it. They get engaged."

His public talks may help to boost student recruitment, but he insists that this is not why he does them.

"I love to encourage people to realise that science and astronomy are a great part of culture. It's like enjoying a symphony. If only one kid gets the 'wow' that I've got from it, that's enough."

Astronomy remains popular at Glasgow despite a national downturn in physical sciences. The first-year class has about a hundred students, with three times that number taking an arts-based course, "Exploring the cosmos", dubbed "astronomy for poets".

Many astronomy departments would go bankrupt without income from arts-based students, Professor Brown says. But he is disappointed by many parents'

mistaken belief that astronomy has poor career prospects. About half of the 30 PhD students he has supervised are still in astronomy, while others have gone into biological sciences, information technology and actuarial work.

He hopes astronomy will benefit from Scotland's pioneering research pool, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, which brings together researchers from six universities. It includes a grouping in astronomy and space physics, and aims to build the necessary critical mass to compete internationally.

I GRADUTED FROM  Glasgow University

MY FIRST JOB WAS photographing gravestones for a tombstone sculptor's catalogue

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS  learning to say no so as to get time for myself

WHAT I HATE MOST is the descent into neo-fascism in the name of freedom, political correctness and accountability

IN TEN YEARS I plan to have more time and to be fit enough to make the most of it

MY FAVOURITE JOKE is about a cannibal who passed his brother in the jungle - actually, my favourites are all too long or unsuitable for The Times Higher

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