What Will Magic Be Like in the Future?

Question: Describe the first magic trick you ever performed.

Penn\r\n Jillette: I was interested when I was very young in card magic... \r\nbut I was interested in card magic, the kind that's like juggling. I \r\nmean, there are kind of a couple different—many, many but I'm breaking \r\nit down to two different styles of magic. There are people that are very\r\n concerned with "How do you fool people, what are they thinking, how do \r\nyou get them to think something else?" Very important to Teller.

Then\r\n there's the part of magic that has to do with manipulation and when I \r\nwas a child I cared very much about the manipulation stuff, which is the\r\n juggling side of magic. I mean, I wanted to learn a perfect shuffle so \r\nyou could shuffle the cards 52 times and end up with the same order you \r\nstarted in. You know, that's what I was interested in. I was interested \r\nin manipulating the cards and holding things in my hands that looked \r\nhard. I was not very concerned with fooling people.

I was more \r\nconcerned with the flourishes and the technique which is why I didn't \r\nspend much time in magic but moved right onto juggling, which is very \r\nmuch inline with my heart. I mean, juggling is very, very \r\nstraightforward; very, very black and white; you're manipulating \r\nobjects, not people. And that's always appealed to me.

Question:
\r\n What is the future of magic?

Penn Jillette:  Magic \r\nhas so few people working in it that it moves very, very slowly. I would\r\n say that you don't get much, you know, you've got this huge burst of \r\nchange in magic with Houdini, who did not event but popularized the idea\r\n of magician as a spokesman for skepticism. We've learned to lie to \r\npeople now we'll teach you how there's no lying to you. That wasn't \r\nstarted with Houdini, but Houdini certainly made the most coin off of \r\nit.

Then you go on and you've got this... you've got Doug \r\nHenning bringing, you know, magicians with kind of a hippie sensibility,\r\n which doesn't mean much. You've got a bunch of other magicians doing \r\nthat kind of torturing women in front of mylar to, you know, bad Motown \r\nmusic, in front of a mylar curtain. You know, I mean, that kind of \r\nstuff. Then you have the biggest break through done in our lifetime was \r\nDavid Blaine's "Street Magic," where his idea was to do really simple \r\ntricks but to concentrate... to turn the camera around on the people \r\nwatching instead of the people doing.

So to make the audience \r\nwatch the audience, which that first special "Street Magic," is the best\r\n TV magic special ever done and really, really does break new ground. \r\nThen a lot of people jump in and start doing it and turn it in to pure \r\nsuck. I mean, that whole form is... sucks now. I mean, no one is doing \r\ngood stuff but when David Blaine first did it, before he did all the \r\n"I'm really no kidding, honestly I'm not going to eat, swear to God I'm \r\nnot eating, no really I'm not eating, no it's not a trick I'm really not\r\n eating." I don't know what that is.

But that first street magic \r\nthing was just brilliant. I don't think the future of... I think the \r\nfuture of magic... you don't want to forget Siegfried and Roy who \r\ninvented the idea of doing an animal act while doing a magic act and \r\ninvented the idea of full Vegas show. I mean, all of those are big break\r\n through but you don't get the kind of... you don't get the number of \r\njust the raw number of people like you have in music. When you have the \r\nnumber of people you have in music you can have, you know, instantly \r\nHendrix and James Brown turn into Prince, you know, OK Go was able to \r\npop up out of the lack of irony that comes in out of kind of punk but \r\nalso emo. You don't have hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions of\r\n people working in it. In magic you're talking about thousands of \r\npeople. So being several orders of magnitude down you just don't get \r\nthat kind of evolution.
\r\n
\r\nSo in 20 years I imagine magic will be damn similar to how it is now. \r\nAlso, magic doesn't tend to work in the cutting edge of technology. I \r\nmean, you've got that... I believe he's Japanese, forgive me if he's \r\nnot. That Japanese kid doing the stuff out of the iPad where he's \r\npulling stuff out. And that's just film-to-life stuff.

That was \r\nstuff that was done a hundred years ago in France. There's no new \r\ntechnology there. The screen is different but the ideas are not new and \r\nmost shows are shows certainly... but David Copperfield, Chris Angel, \r\nDavid Blaine, Lance Burton, none of us are using really what you call \r\ncutting edge technology. And the problem... the reason you can't is that\r\n people are more aware of what's possible with cutting edge technology \r\nthan they are with threads and a line.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

"Damn similar to how it is now," says Penn.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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