University of Melbourne Magazine

Narrowing the reality gap

  • Simon Coronel

    “The links between psychology and magic are well-documented,” says Simon Coronel.

    BY SIMON CORONEL (BA, BE(SoftEng)(Hons) 2004)

    In April 1999, I began the first year of a combined BA/BEng in Psychology and Software Engineering. On a whim, I also joined the Melbourne University Magicians’ Society. It was one of the 200 or so clubs and societies on display at first-year orientation week, and one of about 15 I joined with a desire to connect with interesting sounding things on campus.

    I had no background in magic whatsoever. Like many people, I’d had a magic kit when I was about 12, but nothing about it particularly resonated with me back then. The few magic shows I’d seen in my life had just seemed like vaguely baffling show-off sessions that I couldn’t really connect with.

    However, the people at the magic club seemed cool, and were offering to actually teach beginner-level tricks to people who joined. I figured learning a card trick might be fun, so I paid the $5 sign-up fee. I turned up to a meeting and, to my surprise, discovered a fascinatingly deep art and craft.

    Most people have never actually seen a really good magic performance. I don’t even like using the word “magic” to describe what I now do professionally, because it carries a lot of the wrong connotations. I’ve spent almost my entire life, at heart, as a truthseeking scientist/engineer. My initial interest in magic stemmed purely from a desire to understand what I’d just seen, and then later to share it in a way that leaves the audience understanding more, not less, about reality.

    It was oddly fortuitous that just as I was starting to learn about magic I was also studying psychology and software engineering. The links between psychology and magic are well-documented. Illusions, in the “magical” sense, literally happen in the mind of the observer. You don’t make the coin disappear; you provide a set of visual stimuli that will create the impression in the audience’s minds of seeing a coin disappear. Making a coin disappear is impossible. Making someone “think’’ they saw it disappear is a complex and interesting challenge.

    The links with engineering are more subtle. A good illusion, when performed properly, looks effortless. It’s easy to forget that there’s a huge amount of complexity behind the scenes. Some illusions are based on sleight of hand dexterity. Some are based on incredibly clever optical principles. Some are based on the subtle use of secret devices or obscure physics principles.

    All of them, however, have a method. A method that needs to be designed, developed, tested, and executed near-flawlessly each time. To this day, when working on a new show, I still find myself thinking in terms of the lessons I learned when studying software deployment. Design, test, deploy… and iterate.

    Throughout university, magic was simply something that fascinated me. When I graduated, I briefly considered trying to do it professionally. Instead I got a graduate position at a business consulting company, which lasted six years. In those years though, the magic hobby grew. I started to win awards, and to get paid gigs. After six years of business consulting, I leapt from the safety of a corporate career into the maelstrom of professional showbiz.

    That was five years ago. Since then I’ve performed in seven countries across four continents, and had far too many stranger-than-fiction experiences to even begin to describe here. Now, ironically, the majority of my income comes from corporations booking me to entertain, MC, or speak at their events – sharing the insights I’ve gained about perception, innovation, and things that seem impossible but aren’t.