October 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A critical look at the promise from magician Ben Earl of miraculously defying science, plus medical hero Rami Habib in Syria ...


There’s always something weird about magic shows on TV. The camera can all too simply deceive. Sleight-of-lens rather than sleight-of-hand. So how to combat this? Well, you get an audience, or a couple of members of the public as eye witnesses, but then you think hang on, how do I know this isn’t just a cousin, a lover, a mate from the local darts team? So if you decide to watch a TV magic show, you have to fend off scepticism and accept a couple of things: first, that witnesses are honestly and randomly plucked, and second, that production reflects more or less what actually happened. That dealt with, Ben Earl: Trick Artist becomes a chain of amazing science-defying tricks. Because this week’s episode aimed to defy science. And, magically, it did.

Reviews are good. But less good if you haven’t watched the programme (so here’s the link to 4oD). And even worse if the review’s about a magic show. How can you possibly do justice to a magic trick on the written page? Anyway, to give it a go: Ben puts a leather bag on some weighing scales and, behind him, float twenty-odd helium-filled balloons. Along comes a ten-pin-bowling guest (cousin? lover? brother?) and gives him a bowling ball which Ben places in the leather bag (on the scales). The scale gauge goes up; the ball weighs 8 lbs. He asks the guest to look at the bunched balloons floating above their heads and choose a colour. The guest says, “Yellow.” And immediately the scale gauge decreases to zero; the ball becomes weightless. And a yellow balloon falls from the buoyant bunch and bangs to the ground with a bowling-ball like clunk. Ben splits the balloon open and the guest identifies the ball inside as his exact one. I hope you get the impossibility of this. Watch it. How is this done if the camera – in seeps the cynicism – doesn’t fib? Surely Channel 4 wouldn’t be that dishonest. Ben Earl: Trick Artist is great. Ben’s being heralded as the next Derren Brown, but I guess there aren’t too many other TV magicians about. Though they say Paul Daniels is probably still going, somewhere.

Also from Channel 4 comes Unreported World (episode 4) is about NHS doctor, Rami Habib who’s risking his life providing front-line medical care to victims of the conflict in Syria. Two years ago he was holidaying in Salma, a Syrian holiday resort, when war erupted. He decided to stay. Salma, he says, needs a doctor and without him there wouldn’t be one. The city of 70,000 has been deserted except for 5,000 anti-government rebels, a handful of brave residents and Rami. His hospital is an apartment block basement and an inch-wide pipe is its only water source. Medical resources, in fact all resources, are scarce and every day President Al-Assad bombs the city indiscriminately. Indiscriminate bombing is a war crime because too many innocent citizens are killed. Stories like this about doctors, or anyone, making a difference against all odds always inspire. I suppose, the greater the odds they’re up against, the more they inspire. And Rami’s up against monumental odds. But still he keeps going. It’s well worth watching.


IMAGE: Magician Ben Earl