Look Ma: No Hands!
By Al Albers
In 1994, if you went to a science or toy store, you probably saw it, stopped to get a better look and after seeing it wondered, “How in the world—?” Many customers were so mesmerized by this amazing toy that they immediately bought one. This captivating device was the Levitron. If that name sounds familiar, chances are you, too, saw the spinning top that effortlessly floated above its base without the use of wires or strings.
Regardless of where you placed your Levitron – on a desk, countertop, even a fireplace mantle – it was bound to catch someone’s attention and kindle a conversation. The question everyone asked: “How does it float in midair?” The answer is magnets! Though this is a generic explanation, suffice it to say that this phenomenon involves physics.
Three years later, a team of British and Dutch researchers studying diamagnetism announced their success in levitating a live frog. Using a powerful magnet, they also successfully levitated grasshoppers, flowers, hazelnuts and drops of water. Diamagnetism is the process whereby objects are slightly repelled by the magnet’s force in a normal, room-temperature environment.
It’s been said that diamagnetism can also be used to levitate – magnetically – every material and every living creature on Earth, due to the ever-present effect of molecular magnetism. While it may be possible, there’s one problem. Molecular magnetism is very weak; millions of times weaker than the more widely known effect of ferro-magnetism (the physical theory which explains how materials become permanent magnets). Furthermore, the magnetic fields required to levitate non-magnetic materials have to be 100 times more powerful than refrigerator magnets. Using diamagnetism to levitate a human being would require a magnet weighing approximately a million pounds.
It’s time to call in the magic squad. Why? Magicians mastered this amazing feat, without using magnets, a long time ago.
The earliest written description of human levitation came from an Arabic manuscript written in the year 1355. Because an itinerant magician worked alone, he would levitate himself – to the astonishment of his audience. However, in 1847, French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who is considered the father of the modern style of conjuring, came up with a novel idea. Rather than levitate himself, he levitated his six-year-old son. Soon, other magicians followed his lead. By the 1900s, magicians were levitating female assistants.
One hundred eleven years later, magicians are still levitating female assistants every day of the week, in most every city of every country around the world. This dramatic presentation, which is sometimes performed as the finale, is a crowning moment of a magic show. Just ask any audience.
No doubt experiments with diamagnetism will probably continue well into the twenty-first century and beyond. Hey, I’m all for the advancement of scientific knowledge. But I think we should let the magicians of the world continue to perfect the scientific principles involved in human levitation. After all, they’ve been actively improving this technology for the past 655 years.
“Look at me, Ma; no hands … I’m levitating a frog I found in the backyard creek.”
“That’s nice, son.”
“Gee, she didn’t applaud. Rats … I think she suspects I’m using a magnet.”
To the aspiring magicians of the world … I can’t stress enough the importance of having the right partner for this magnificent illusion. A pretty lady makes all the difference.
Trust me on this.
Besides, she’ll undoubtedly be much prettier than that frog you found in the backyard creek.