I Believe in Magic

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 · 3 min read

Ever since I was a little kid, I loved magic.

I didn’t love rabbits coming out of top hats, or various deceptions with colorful pieces of cloth. I loved real magic: magnetic levitation, periscopes, and predicting the weather.

I owned a few of those books that are filled with fun elementary school science experiments like baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. The only experiments I cared for were the ones where the result looked like a miracle unless you understood the science.

As I got older, I started giving up on the real world’s reliability. But I still found magic everywhere. I found magic in very clever puns (the kind which are so perfect, they can only exist due to willful human interference in the evolution of the English language). I found magic in music, in pieces that seem impossible to play based on a cursory examination of the anatomy of the human hand. I found magic in perfect murder mysteries, with delicate plots hinging on countless trivial details placed harmoniously throughout the chapters.

Most of all, I found magic in math.

I don’t find much pleasure in pretty proofs and groups and all those other things that mathematicians find beautiful. I appreciate them for what they are, but I can’t look at a prime number and feel a rush of joy or tranquility like Christopher Boone does. I don’t like doing math for the sake of math. In that sense, I haven’t seen the true divine light that many successful mathematicians have, and I doubt I ever will. I’m not that kind of person.

But I still find magic in math.

I’m entranced by the fact that you can draw a regular 17-gon with just a compass and a straightedge. I’m amazed by the fact that you can find the sum of the factors of a hundred million million million fast, without a calculator.

I like the math that lets you do magic—real magic—with just a bit of thought. I like proofs whose results I don’t believe (c’mon, there’s no way the ant reaches the end of the rubber rope). Proofs that give you an edge over everyone else, even though everyone else could have come up with them on their own (because believe it or not, switching doors makes a difference).

I like math that beats intuition (how is this the closed form for the Fibonacci numbers? Is this even an integer all the time?!). I like math that gives us superpowers (how can you possibly communicate with someone without agreeing on a shared key ahead of time?).

In short, I don’t find fractals beautiful but I have deep spiritual moments when I realize that you can compute their areas.

And I’m content with this appreciation, because it gives me something to wonder and marvel at, which is all you really need to be happy. Perhaps I’m incapable of appreciating the intrinsic beauty of the existence of certain mathematical truths. But I am certainly capable of appreciating the wizardry required to discover—rather, create—them.

To me, magic is the ability to take something impossible and make it possible. And I believe in magic.

Luckily for us, it turns out that the world is a huge, mysterious, magical place. The moment you realize that, you want to become a wizard. You want to learn.

It’s not just math. History is magic when you realize that you can explain why certain villages in India speak fluent Portuguese. Chemistry is magic when you can predict the outcome of a reaction just by looking at the inputs. And on and on and on and on.

The best incentive to learn is a prospect of wizardry. When we see miracles, we want to be capable of causing them.

So please show people miracles. Show your kids, students and friends impossible things and maybe if we’re lucky some of them will teach themselves how to make them possible.

It’s the only way to instill a real love for knowledge.

◊ ◊ ◊