“Errors of Modern Science”—A Philosophical Magic Act

By Rodney Rawlings

It all began with Ed Sullivan. In my early teens I used to watch his show regularly, and one day it included a tuxedoed magician who seemingly pulled colored hankies, billiard balls, and even entire decks of cards out of thin air. Much later, I would develop a theory that it is those who are most used to understanding the world who are most intrigued by a magic act. This was true in my case: I, who loved nature and thought I might one day be a scientist, was mesmerized.

Very soon after that, I began to make a pest of myself at a magic shop downtown, and became very adept at sleight of hand and at “close-up magic”—doing tricks right under people’s noses. At the shop, professional magicians would drop in to make purchases or to chat with the owner. One of them, whom I especially admired and whose stage name was Romaine, noticed my talent and made me his protégé. He taught me a great deal, and soon I was performing for friends, at parties, and even on local television. Among the patrons of the store, I was well respected, and I was often jokingly asked when I would write my book. For a time I was a member of the IBM (International Brotherhood of Magicians), and would perform for other magicians, to some acclaim (yes, magicians often do fool each other).

From my high school yearbook. The reference to strings is interesting in the light of what follows here.

Performing (or simply posing?) with my friend D’Arcy (who is holding the cards), who eventually became a computer programmer.

But in a few years I discovered Ayn Rand, and Objectivism eventually became my overriding interest. Romaine would sometimes tease me about it, but that did not stop me from entering university, and relegating my hobby of magic—for that’s all it ever was—to second fiddle. In fact, there was a period while I was learning Objectivism during which I wondered how to morally justify the systematic deception that such a form of entertainment involved. This makes me smile now.

A few times I was able to combine my two major interests (another, minor interest was chess). Once, I performed in front of a university class. The instructor apparently was dealing with some mystical theme or other, and thought hiring a magician would be appropriate and interesting. To my surprise, at the end of my performance the instructor began a question period, and I got to answer questions about epistemology and metaphysics. (Let’s just say I made the most of it!)

In the 1980s, I devised, and performed a few times, the “routine” reproduced below. (What inspired me to do so is a story in itself.) In the show, I actually use the magic tricks to make philosophical points. The main topic is, as the title says, “Errors of Modern Science”—epistemological and metaphysical mistakes and confusions that have their genesis in the influence of modern philosophical doctrines. In planning the show, I found that the magical appearances, disappearances, and transformations that are the prestidigitator’s stock in trade were eminently suitable to the discussion of such issues.

My persona in the routine is that of a scientist in a lab coat who is presenting a lecture with the aid of posters (drawn by me). The main topics covered in my “patter”—written entirely in iambic pentameter verse with a preponderance of rhyming couplets—are: the primacy of existence and the fact that it is all science has to do with, the theory of creation, the nature of nothingness, the nature of existence, the absolutism of existence, non-contradiction, modern quantum theory and how it contradicts philosophical fundamentals, the theory of multiple dimensions and of superstrings in physics, the ontological status of mathematics, of the zero, and of equations (a viewpoint that was wholly my own), the ontological status of the relationship of science to philosophy, and—finally—the relationship of the concepts of existence, objectivity, and causation to the fact that the audience is applauding me in amazement that seemingly I have flouted these very principles.

It is obviously impossible for me to show the magical effects here, but they are described in the footnotes, in just enough detail to make sense of the verses. This necessitates constant movement between the text and the notes to get the full meaning.

How to Read, and How to Look at the Footnotes While Reading

The best procedure will be to read the verses in a slow, steady fashion, both to grasp the meaning and to assimilate the poetic structures. This will also make it less jarring to take a moment to click on the superscript numbers and read the footnotes wherever one thinks necessary. A click on the footnote’s own number will immediately bring the reader back to the line he was reading.

Another way to return to the line one was reading is to simply hit Backspace. With one hand on the mouse and the other over Backspace key, one can move even more quickly back and forth than with the other method.

Usually, there is an obvious connection between the trick I am doing and the idea I am discussing; but sometimes it’s a stretch. There is an element of humor in this presentation. I don’t expect readers to get all of what the audience got from this presentation; but I hope that they will find it enjoyable and stimulating.

Errors of Modern Science

(Patter for a Magic Act)

By Rodney Rawlings

The performer enters costumed as a scientist, wearing a lab coat. To one side is a table containing various props; to the other is an easel holding a group of posters, of which the top one is visible, as shown here.

Poster 0

1. Good evening. I am glad you all could come.

The lecture for today, though dull for some,

Will edify the ones with any brains—

Or those who really love the number quinze[1]

(That’s French[2]), because I often show my hands[3]

Three times, to dispel the ifs and ands

And buts that may occur among your heads—

No pun intended there—for rumor spreads

Much faster than the human hand can follow[4]

(And hands, we know,[5] have beat the eye all hollow)—

The rumor—Wait! What’s this?[6] A red marshmallow?


No! Seriously, to put aside conjecture[7]

This ball will be the subject of our lecture.

It represents the universe, you see—

All things here now,[8] and past,[9] and yet to be.[10]


And science[11] deals exclusively with that.[12]

But here some people want to sit and chat:

The universe? “Ah, yes, but—what’s beyond it?

Above?[13] Below?[14] Also—what forces spawned it?

Are there not new worlds for our exploring?

Would not the universe alone get boring?”[15]


Take my word, you’ll really have a ball[16]

The moment[17] that you realize that’s all.[18]


2. Perhaps you do perceive that when we call things

The universe, we mean, or should mean, all things.


Yet some still think the theory of creation

Is valid[19]—let me give a demonstration.

Imagine this black hanky is a void—

Like outer space without an asteroid,

Without a star or planet or electron,

No reason and no rhymes, just like“electron.”

If you find this impossible to think

Come afterwards and join me for a drink;

We’ll celebrate that nothingness is only

An absence, not some presence that is lonely.


But many of my colleagues say there sprang

A cosmos from a big but empty bang!

To me their difference is very slight[20]

From those who think God gave us day and night[21]

By saying (to Himself), “Let there be light.”[22]


I do believe my magic would be dated

If you believed that things could be created.[23]


3. Creation science, though, is not the sole[24]

Moot point[25] in which I want to poke a hole.[26]

This time a pun’s intended, that’s a fact,

On black holes. It is said black holes attract

Whatever comes too close, into their center.[27]

There gravity’s a pretty stern tormenter,

So much so that it snuffs existence out.

A candle caught inside a waterspout

Would leave some residue[28]—some wick and tallow—

With which to rouse the flame when tides get shallow—

But that, they say, is not what happens here:[29]

The hapless stuff, they say, will[30] disappear

With nothing left to build it back. Sound queer?


4. Well, don’t seek out a couch of Sigmund Freud;[31]

Deep down,[32] you’ve sensed a truth one can’t avoid:

That what exists can’t wholly be destroyed—


5. For with the thought that matter’s not created

Its[33] indestructibility is mated.[34]

Otherwise[35] we’d have a one-way street

With everything becoming obsolete.[36]


6.[37] It’s just another proof of what I’ve said

That now I can’t restore to black and red[38]

The whiteness that you see—it was a figment.

So[39] let me switch[40] to cards of louder pigment.[41]

One finds this color on a rusty door hinge—

Let’s change it to the more “appealing”[42] orange.

Perhaps you find mixed yellow more congenial;

I’ll do it,[43] it’s a chore that’s rather menial.



This nonsense has a point, a saving grace.

The masks may change, but matter shows its face[44]

In one way or another:[45] for to be

Or not to be are absolutes, you see.

Where fundamental substance is concerned[46]

The truth of it cannot be[47] overturned.


I know some sages take the firm position

That nature has made war with intuition

Quite often; and it nowadays outfoxes

Brilliant men with modern paradoxes.

But yet, in ages past, men were resistant

To paradoxes—all must be consistent!

If something seemed to clash with common sense

They merely polished up their arguments

Until the contradiction was resolved;

To forge new links was all that was involved.

The modern problem seems to be more basic,

And even experts ask themselves, are they sick?

For they deny the essence of all being,

Not just of what we’re capable of seeing.


7. I’ll give you an example of the eerie

Conclusions drawn in modern Quantum Theory.


Suppose you say, “I’ve burning curiosity

About a thing’s location[48] and velocity:[49]

I wish to know[50] exactly where to find it[51]

And if it leaves a cloud of dust[52] behind it.”

Well, physicists will answer thus: “Ah, you

Desire to have your cake[53] and eat it too!

As careful measurement of speed increases

The certainty you’ve gathered falls to pieces

Regarding the location;[54] and we’ve found

It also works[55] the other way around.

The reason is a very simple fact:

To measure something, you must interact[56]

With it, and your doing so will alter[57]

The outcome. From the great Rock of Gibraltar

To minute subatomic[58] particles—[59]

Uncertainty envelops[60] solid articles.”

Got that? As well, they’re taking the perspective

That ultimately truth is not objective—

That on the micro level, things are random

And causeless, and we only understand ’em

In terms of properties we choose to hand ’em.


Yes, nature and researchers work in tandem!


8. And here’s one more example of the eerie

Conclusions drawn in modern quantum theory.[61]

Now, most of us can easily accept

The four dimensions time,[62] length, width, and dept(h).[63]

But recently there have been some extensions

Of space-time with a host of new dimensions:

Some say we’ve 26, and some say 10,[64]

And some say “What’s the use?”[65] and take up zen.


But now that I have grabbed all your attentions[66]

Allow me to digress on these “dimensions.”

This one is depth, this one is width, this one is length.[67]

The first thing I will do is test their strength.[68]

Besides, they seem so different:[69] this is far

From what their mathematic meanings are![70]

I pull, and pull, and pull—before you know it:

There’s one, and two, and three[71]—Let’s play guitar![72]


It’s funny[73]—new dimensions sprouted wings

When physicists came up with ... superstrings.[74]

I’ll speak of superstrings in just a minute;

Meanwhile, if there’s a pun,[75] I won’t begin it.

You fools! I’ll have you know that I’m a poet—

You don’t crack jokes while swinging on a star.


Now let’s get back to all those weird extensions

Of space-time with a host of new dimensions.

They tell us that the superstring idea[76]

Poster 1

Was offered as a useful panacea

For mathematic stumbling blocks that lurked[77]

Behind old thoughts that formerly had worked.[78]

They used to visualize the seeds of matter[79]

As ... much like points[80]—now strings have come to shatter[81]

The old idea—strings make much more sense.

At once again they’re making progress. Hence

The superstring, with its superior math,[82]

Is next to lead us[83]—down the garden path?

Poster 2

9. I say the error here is: mathematics

Does not apply directly to the real,

But only through swift mental acrobatics

That practice and accomplishment conceal.


For instance, we use zero[84]—nothing to it!

But when you seek for naught,[85] you misconstrue it.[86]

For zero can’t be found—it’s zilch, it’s zip.

When it’s a temperature,[87] you catch the grippe;

And, on the Kelvin scale, you can’t get colder.[88]

How do we use it? As a mere place-holder.

In tennis, love’s declared to mark a space

During the match till someone scores an ace.


And minus one’s a sheer impossibility.[89]

Apart from someone’s debt, it lacks utility:[90]

Poster 3

You have to run up some kind of account[91]

To make sense of a negative amount.[92]


The moral of the story? On occasion

You’ll find that life conforms to an equation. ...


And so therefore, these ropes are just that—ropes,

And not three space dimensions; I have hopes

That I can turn them back to different sizes ...[93]

Yet happy is the man who realizes

The things he can and things he cannot do.

Look! See? The loops are playing peek-a-boo.[94]

I’ll solve it temporarily like this.[95]


Now, with the middle rope I cannot miss:[96]

I have to neither shrink it nor extend it—[97]



I’ll let you have some time to comprehend it[98]

(And while I’m waiting, let it hang suspended).



Ready? Now, the third rope[99]—there’s the rub.

You think it’s harder? Welcome to the club!

I pull, and pull, and pull, and pull, and pull—[100]

Come on, now—there you are—it’s beautiful![101]


I have to neither shrink this nor extend this—[102]

I’ll let you have some time to comprehend this—[103]

But not too much—I think it’s time to end this.[104]


10. What have we here?[105] The subject of our lecture![106]

You want me now to sum things up? Oh, heck, sure.

My basic theme has been amazing blunders[107]

Now being trotted out[108] as nature’s wonders.

I began by heaping all my curses

On those who set up[109] other universes:

Because, does not “the universe” still mean

All things, including aspects[110] unforeseen?

I then compared the big, fat, empty bang[111]

To a TV evangelist’s harangue.

For if all things explode where nothing was[112]

That indicates at least some natural laws.

And these two observations interlace

To tell you that this world will be the case

In one way or another: for to be[113]

Or not to be are[114] absolutes, you see.


I went on[115] to explain about the quantum:

Objective truth? Causation?[116] It don’t want ’em.

We saw another problem:[117] mathematics

Carried a bit[118] too far[119] by some fanatics.



11. What does it all add up to? What am I saying?—

Does science need a drastic overhaul?[120]

And some will think: “This can’t just be a call

For common sense—his props[121] are disobeying.”[122]



Ah! That’s the point—just ask: What’s underlaying

The small surprises I have made you feel

This evening? When you thought “That can’t be real,”

What mute considerations were you weighing?[123]



Existence. Objectivity.[124] And cause.

Are these not an unfolding[125] of the gauze,

For all to see the barest threads, of truth?[126]

Don’t they reveal the essence of all being

And not just of the objects[127] we are seeing?

Who will decide?[128] What awesome kind of sleuth?[129]



Not scientists.[130] No data they’re obtaining

Can ever bear on questions such as these.

(Remember, while his friends fell on their knees[131]

To hail the quantum, Einstein[132] was abstaining.[133])



It’s[134] for philosophy that I’m campaigning—

There only can the root facts[135] be defended;

For in the labs,[136] most think they’ve been transcended—

You ask them how, they shrug without explaining.


Poster 4

It’s time for philosophical retraining;[137]

Or failing that, a little more awareness

Of philosophic controversy. Fairness

And[138] waxing philosophical, not waning.[139]




It’s getting late. But in the time remaining,

I’ll simply say I need no firmer seal

Upon the truth and logic of my spiel

Than that you clapped and found it entertaining.[140]


And[141] take my word, you’ll really have a ball[142]

The moment[143] that you realize[144] … That’s all.[145]


[1] Performer shows his hands. [If you got here by clicking on the number, keep hitting BACKSPACE to return to the text from these notes.]

[2] Spoken as a confidential aside.

[3] Shows each hand empty.

[4] That is, the suspicion that the magician is hiding something in his hands.

[5] Puts hands together.

[6] A small spherical sponge appears by magic, which the performer squeezes.

[7] The ball is held up to display.

[8] Puts it in his hand.

[9] Opens his hand showing that it has vanished.

[10] The ball reappears.

[11] Performer puts the ball on the table.

[12] Points to ball, then picks it up again.

[13] Waves hand below the ball.

[14] Waves hand above the ball.

[15] Shakes his head and puts ball down in view.

[16] Pauses—then points to ball suddenly.

[17] Points repeatedly to ball.

[18] In other words, the universe is all that exists.

[19] Picks up black hanky.

[20] Closes left hand into fist and drapes black hanky over it.

[21] Pokes hole into fist through hanky with finger.

[22] Slowly pulls a bright yellow hanky from out of the hole.

[23] Shows both sides of the black hanky, and puts yellow one over arm.

[24] Makes left hand into fist.

[25] Throws black hanky over fist.

[26] Once again pokes hole into hanky.

[27] Begins to push yellow hanky into hole.

[28] Pushes the last of the hanky into the hole.

[29] Points to hole.

[30] Shows that the yellow hanky has vanished.

[31] Once more puts hanky over fist.

[32] Pokes hole yet again.

[33] The yellow hanky has reappeared. The hankies are both discarded.

[34] A deck of cards is picked up from the table.

[35] Both sides of the deck are shown.

[36] Suddenly the deck has gone completely blank.

[37] A helpless expression on the performer’s face.

[38] The normal colors of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs.

[39] Puts the deck back on the table.

[40] Picks up the second deck of cards and fans them out.

[41] Turns them around and shows that the backs are rust-colored.

[42] Closes the fan, then reopens it to show that the cards have changed to orange. (Please note that I found a rhyme for “orange”!)

[43] Changes the cards to yellow.

[44] Performer brings the cards to his face, registers surprise; turns the fan around to show these cards also have become blank.

[45] Closes the cards.

[46] Fans them out again, backs to the audience.

[47] Once again turns them around, showing they are back to normal.

[48] Closes the cards against his body with one hand, while producing a fan of cards from behind his knee with the other.

[49] Springs the cards from one hand to the other.

[50] Pulls a fan of cards from behind his head.

[51] Makes single cards appear out of thin air one by one.

[52] Throws the last card up into the air and it vanishes.

[53] Reproduces the card from his mouth.

[54] Reaches into the air and produces a fan of cards.

[55] Makes some of the cards appear from his breast pocket.

[56] Waves the previous fan of cards over those.

[57] The cards shrink. Separates a few of those, fans them, and waves them over the rest.

[58] Those shrink.

[59] The feat is repeated and the leftover cards shrink even smaller. One tiny card is separated from the rest.

[60] When the other cards are waved over this one, it vanishes.

[61] Picks up the three ropes.

[62] Points to his watch.

[63] Displays that the ropes are three different lengths -- long, medium, and short.

[64] Indicates numbers with hands and fingers.

[65] Throws up hands despairingly and drops ropes on floor.

[66] Picks up the ropes again.

[67] Indicating each of the three ropes in succession.

[68] Tugs on the ropes.

[69] Referring to their different lengths.

[70] In other words, length, width, and depth.

[71] The ropes are now seen to be all the same length.

[72] Strums the ropes like a harp.

[73] Spoken as an aside.

[74] Points to the ropes.

[75] On the word “strings” with reference to the ropes.

[76] Show first half of Poster 1, showing the science professor and blackboard.

[77] Point to desk in picture.

[78] Point to blackboard in picture.

[79] Uncover second half of Poster 1.

[80] Point to top part of this.

[81] Point to bottom part.

[82] Show first half of Poster 2, with cartoon “superstring” winking and beckoning.

[83] Pause -- slowly reveal second half, with the flowered path leading to a rising question mark.

[84] Form one rope into a circle.

[85] Grab the loop.

[86] Make the loop break open.

[87] Move finger up and down the length of the ropes.

[88] Place hand below bottom ends of ropes.

[89] Show first half of Poster 3.

[90] Show second half.

[91] Point to second half.

[92] Point to first half.

[93] Start bunching the long rope up to make it look like the medium one.

[94] The audience can see the resulting loops.

[95] Turn hand the other way to hide the loops.

[96] Pull it out horizontally.

[97] Because it never changed its length.

[98] Drop the end and let it swing.

[99] Take hold of the end of the third rope (the short one).

[100] Repeatedly pull the short rope, making it appear to grow longer and longer.

[101] Show that it is once again the longest rope.

[102] Pull the medium rope out horizontally. Pause.

[103] Short pause -- put medium rope over arm.

[104] Open hand to show that the last rope is once again tiny.

[105] A red billiard ball the same size as the original sponge ball is magically produced from out of the short piece of rope.

[106] (That is, the ball, which represents the universe.) Discard ropes and repeatedly toss the ball into the air.

[107] The ball suddenly vanishes.

[108] It is produced from a trouser pocket.

[109] The one ball multiples to two between the fingers.

[110] The two balls become three between the fingers.

[111] After knocking them together one of them vanishes.

[112] The missing ball is pulled out of the air.

[113] Again a ball vanishes.

[114] After a bit of looking around, it is pulled out of a trouser pocket.

[115] The three balls suddenly become four between the fingers.

[116] One of them again vanishes.

[117] Look around for the ball.

[118] It reappears between the fingers.

[119] Performer’s other hand is suddenly seen to contain another four balls between the fingers, for a total of eight.

[120] The balls are discarded.

[121] Gesture toward the receptacle on the table.

[122] That is, they are not behaving “sensibly.”

[123] Pick up the sponge ball and put in right hand.

[124] Put it into left hand.

[125] Open hand finger by finger, to show the ball is gone.

[126] Performer pulls it from his pocket.

[127] Pull on the sponge ball, making two of them magically.

[128] Mime “balancing” the two objects, one in each hand.

[129] Put the sponges to the face as eyes.

[130] Look at one sponge critically.

[131] Put sponges to knees.

[132] Put them to the groin area, then recover and quickly move them to the eyes, saying “I mean -- Einstein!”

[133] Discard one of the sponges.

[134] Slowly reveal entire Poster 4.

[135] Point to the remaining sponge.

[136] Grab lapels of lab coat smugly.

[137] Point to the words on Poster 4.

[138] “Waxing” motion on poster with yellow hanky.

[139] Sink Poster 4 slowly behind the blank poster.

[140] Say next word without much pause and lifting finger in emphasis.

[141] Pause.

[142] Squeeze the sponge.

[143] Put it into the left hand.

[144] It transforms to the shape of a rabbit.

[145] Bow, and as a sudden afterthought make the rabbit bow to three sides of the house.