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The Magic Years?

Born to Talk

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IT'S A KID'S WORLD: The Magic Years?

A man escapes from a locked box, a balloon turns into a bird and a cake mysteriously appears -- is it magic? Watch Frontiers and find out! Liam Malanaphy, a magician-turned-psychologist, talks with kids after the show to find out what they think. Two other researchers, who use magic to find out how much kids know, invite us to see their work in progress. Psychologist Renee Baillargeon concludes that babies know more than we ever thought they did about their world.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Produce a Magic Show
For Further Thought...



nervous system,
regulation, senses

scientific method


child development, perception,
illusion, reality


In Show 505, you watched magician Liam Malanaphy perform three magic tricks for an audience of young children. After the show, Malanaphy interviews the children to gauge their views about magic. You can produce a magic show of your own, using the three tricks described in this activity, or others you know. You can also purchase ready-made tricks at magic stores.

You might want to stage the production after school or on a weekend for younger siblings of your classmates. Or, work with your teacher to arrange for a class trip to an elementary school. You could also make your show part of a larger event, such as a carnival or fair. If you wish, take a cue from Liam Malanaphy and interview members of the audience after the show.

What's the secret to good magic tricks? Practice, practice, practice. A good magician creates an illusion using sleight-of-hand and other skills. But much practice goes into the act before it is performed. Some experts recommend practicing the trick at least seven times before performing it in front of an audience. And, to help maintain the illusion, they recommend performing the trick only once in each show. You might want to include music or other special effects in your performance.


Before you begin this trick, prepare the following prop. Tie one end of a six-inch-long string to an inexpensive ring or washer. Sew the other end of the string to the center of a handkerchief. The key to this trick is its presentation. (Note: A handkerchief with a pattern works best to hide the stitches.)

  1. Ask for a ring from any member of the audience. Place this ring in the middle of your palm.

  2. Drape the magic handkerchief over your palm. Both the audience ring and the attached duplicate ring should be side-by-side, hidden from view by the handkerchief.

  3. Grasp the audience member's ring with your palm. As you do so, pick up the handkerchief and hidden duplicate ring.

  4. Drape the handkerchief over a small container (cup or glass). As you do, the duplicate ring on the string will fall into it; make sure everyone hears the ring fall to the bottom. Pass the covered container around and encourage the audience to shake it to confirm the presence of the ring.

  5. Then, whisk the handkerchief (containing the unseen, attached duplicate ring) away. The empty container remains. Can you figure out another trick to return the ring?


Add these two card tricks to your repertoire of magic tricks for your magic production. Remember, practice is crucial to a good performance and good magic. How many times do you think magician Liam Malanaphy practiced his tricks shown on Frontiers? What makes a card trick "magic"? What kinds of tricks do you consider truly magical?


To do this card trick, you need a deck of standard playing cards. Perform the following setup without anyone watching you: Remove four aces and any other three cards from the deck. Place the deck face down on the table. Fan out the four aces. Carefully insert the other three cards behind the aces so they are hidden from view. Now you are ready to perform the trick.

  1. Fan out the cards and hold them up to an audience. Observers see only the four front aces. The other three cards remain hidden from view.

  2. Close the fan and place the seven cards face down on top of the deck. Although observers will think that the top four cards are aces, you know that the top three cards have other identities.

  3. Carefully remove the top card and slip it anywhere into the deck below. As you move the card, tell your audience that you are moving one of the aces to the middle of the deck.

  4. Repeat with the next two top cards.

  5. Now tell your audience that you will bring all four aces to the top of the deck.

  6. For effect, tap the deck three times. Then remove the top four cards. The audience will be surprised at the appearance of all four aces.


  1. Engage your audience by claiming that the nerves in your fingers are so sensitive that you can identify a playing card by the imprint of its ink.

  2. To prove this ability, have an audience member extend a card with its back pattern toward you.

  3. Take the card and place it between the thumb and middle finger of your right hand. Keep the face-up side away from you, concealing its identity. Bend the card slightly (unknown to the audience, the bend exposes a distinguishing corner of the face-up side).

  4. Rub your left hand over the card's face-up surface. As you rub, quickly glance at the exposed corner. As soon as you identify the card, look away. Keep rubbing the card.

  5. As you continue to rub, release facts about its identity. Your patter could sound something like this: "It feels bright. It's a red card. Yes, it's red and it has sharp angles . . . a diamond. I can feel someone's face. There's no beard or mustache. It's a queen, the queen of diamonds!"


After your magic show, survey your audience with these questions or others asked on Frontiers (questions should be age-appropriate).

  1. Do you believe that this was real magic? Why or why not?

  2. Are there any tricks you've seen that you don't understand? If so, describe the trick.

  3. Do you believe in UFO's? Why or why not?

  4. Do you believe in ESP or being able to forecast the future? Why or why not?

  • Why do certain cultures sanctify fantasy or magical figures such as the tooth fairy?

  • Can you figure out how all the tricks shown on Frontiers are performed?


All the Secrets of Magic Revealed by Herbert L. Becker (also known as "The Great Kardeen"). Published by Lifetime Books, Inc., 1994.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.