Errors in Magic – As Taught by NASA

We don’t know about you and what you love.  From some of the emails we receive daily at InsideMagic (editor@insidemagic.com) we do know that there is a wide variety of love in the Inside Magic community.  Some of the love is even magic related, so that’s kind of nice.

We received a link to a NASA document that has nothing to do with magic at all.  But in a special way, it is instructive to us magicians who on occasion (or always, in our case) make mistakes in the presentation of our tricks.  You can find the document here.  We posted a picture of the Apollo – Soyuz Command Test Team for reference.  It was a close call for these folks but we learned a lot about how to keep later astronauts and cosmonauts safer.

The document could be seen as overly scientific and technical — because it is.  It has charts, pictures of people and places and rockets and molecules — but it also has a great message.  It is the study of errors and accidents involving several unintentional hypergolic fluid related spills, fires, and explosions from the Apollo Program, the Space Shuttle Program, and the Titan Program.  The Titan Program deals with America’s ICBMs and so they could be sensitive to unintended spills, fires and explosions.  We’re no rocket scientist, we’re just sayin’.

Hypergolic fluids are fluids that can immediately catch fire, explode or poison if they come in contact with certain materials.   That is great for rockets but terrible for hand-lotion or shampoo.

(Speaking of technical papers, we did write a 12-page technical document for the cosmetic industry titled “Bad Things to Put in Your Hair.”  (Quinlan, Tim. 1979. Bad Things to Put in Your Hair,  Nat ShampooSci. 5 Suppl:127–129.) No one asked us to write the document but we thought it important and were trying out a new electric typewriter at Sears on a Saturday and no one said we couldn’t.  We had to pay for the paper we used and the ribbon and the eraser tape).

The NASA document is 100 pages long (including a list of acronyms) but concludes thusly:

Some type of human error can be traced to nearly every studied incident as a root cause, whether it be an error in the design phase or an error prior to or during operational use of hardware containing hypergols. Humans are most definitely not perfect and even when the most knowledgeable personnel are intimately involved in the design phase or during an operation, mistakes can be made and critical items can be overlooked. One can deduce, however, that most incidents happen during some sort of dynamic operation.

Given the pages of errors and very serious injuries and death related to the use of Hypergols, the authors ask if NASA should continue to use the compounds.  The answer is yes, but we should learn from our mistakes.

So much for the NASA and their rather serious, downer study on how we need to be careful when launching people into space.

Now we turn to the magic part.  Setting aside flash paper — a substance that can cause injury (and according to an article by Joshua Jay, death) — we don’t deal with much in the way of explosive materials.  Our tricks are based on coins and cards.  That’s pretty much it.  We can get a paper cut or maybe have a coin stuck in our nostril but that is about it.  Our mistakes do not result in injury or death but embarrassment and shame.

And yet, we learn from those mistakes.

We were performing a Classic Force with an antiquated and sticky deck of cards yesterday and missed it entirely.  (We’re speaking in code so only magicians know what we mean).  We had to do a quick corrective maneuver like a palm to the side (more code) to get a satisfactory ending to the trick.  Some how the selected card appeared in our pocket.  A miracle.  A mistake and failure but saved by a risky move distracted by intense, almost creepy eye-contact.

What did we learn?

We learned how to do a side palm almost one-handed (more code but if you think about it, and you are a magician you’ll be impressed but you shouldn’t be, we got lucky), and we learned how not to perform a Classic Force.  These were real lessons for us.  We wanted to perform one of our beloved tricks but didn’t have a deck that would work.  We should have performed a different trick — after all, that’s what happened at the end.  Our pride led us astray.  We figured we could do a Classic Force with a deck that had been used for years and could not be properly fanned.

Oddly, that was not our only mistake in our bazillion year career of magic.  But we have learned from each.  Don’t look down the muzzle of a flash wand, ever.  Don’t toss balls of flaming flash paper towards the audience.  Get a good grip before you riffle cards for a force or selection.  Double check your stack – always.  Never let your animals wait too long.  Don’t pull coins from a child’s ear that may be infected and thus sensitive.  Have a key nearby if you’re going to do a handcuff escape – just in case.  Don’t try fire-eating unless you are trained by someone who knows what they are doing and even then don’t.  Juggling broken glass bottles looks fun but there is a risk of quick and deep cuts to the essential veins and arteries around your wrists.

We’re guessing you have lessons you’ve learned as well.  Share them with your fellow performers — don’t expose secrets, but tell us what you learned.  We all benefit.

Thank you to the Inside Magic reader who sent the Hypergols paper.  It was fascinating reading and inspiring.

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