Creative Education, 2010, 1, 11-17
doi:10.4236/ce.2010.11003 Published Online June 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education
Pierre Schott
Art et Recherche NUMérique, Ecole Supérieure d’Informatique, d’Electronique et d’Automatisme, Paris, France.
Received December 14th, 2009; revised March 20th, 2010; accepted April 16th, 2010.
Why use Magic for teaching Optics? Magicians know that, once the surprise has worn off, the audience will seek to
understand how the trick works. The aim of every teacher is to interest their students, and a magic trick will bring them
to ask how? And why? And how can I create one myself? In this article we consider a project I gave in 2006. I summa-
rize the project scopes, the student theoretical studies, their new” Grand Illusion realization. I conclude by the weak
and strong points of this approach… but let’s not reveal all the secrets just yet! Whatever the student’s professional
ambitions, they will be able to see the impact that originality and creativity have when combined with an interest in
one’s work. The students know how to perform a magic trick for their family and friends, a trick that they will be able
to explain and so enjoy a certain amount of success. Sharing a mathematical/physical demonstration is not easy and
that they do so means that they will have worked on, understood and are capable of explaining this knowledge. Isn’t
this the aim of all teaching?
Keywords: Optics, Ray Tracing, Use Magic for Teaching, Higher Education, Engineer, Educational Method, Grand
Illusion, Hodges
1. Introduction
From the beginning of time people have feared what they
don’t understand and sought logical explanations for in-
explicable phenomena. To begin with they considered
them to be the work of magic, then the work of the gods,
then the work of God himself. The church discouraged
the spread of the conjurer’s art as it preferred not to have
rational explanations for what was considered super-
The first magic tricks were performed in the Middle
Ages by clowns and/or con-men who would entertain
passers-by by getting them to bet on the position of a ball
hidden in one of three up-turned goblets, the bet being
usually lost. This trick is known nowadays under the
name “cups and balls” [1]. The first book considered to
be about modern Magic (or should we say “conjuring”)
was written and printed the 16th Century. It was about
Magic with ropes [2]. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th
Century that the word Magic took on its present-day
meaning when the famous magician Houdini, father of
modern Magic, made it the art it is today.
Since then a good number of principles have been in-
vented and improved on by magicians and gamblers [3],
especially for card tricks with bets. Since the 1980s the
secrets that were once passed on from master to appren-
tice are now universally available through the use of
video cassettes and modern communication technology,
and Magic has become a Big Business.
The aim of the magician is to hide the principles he
uses (using maths, physics, psychology, sleight of hand,
etc...) by disguising the trick so that the audience has no
way of discovering how it is done thus allowing the
Magic to remain.
The teacher can do exactly the opposite: unraveling a
Magic trick to high-light the principles used!
2. The P.E.S Project of ESIEA in the French
Higher Education
We shall see successively the organization of higher
education in France, the scope and the objectives of the
P.E.S project.
2.1 The Higher Education in France
In France, the secondary education is sanctioned by the
high school diploma. Ideally the pupils obtain it the age
of 18. Then, they have a plethora of possibilities follow-
ing 3 axes:
1) Some undertake short studies called “professional”
in an I.U.T1 at the University or in high school with the
aim of obtaining a BTS2. Both programs lead to a 2-year
1IUT: Institut Universitaire de Technologie (in French)
2BTS: Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (in French)
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education
technical degree,
2) Others undertake longer studies. In this case, if they
have obtained their high school diploma they can:
Enrol in university,
Or enter preparatory courses (classes for entrance
into Grandes Ecoles) for 2 years, which will lead
them, via national entrance examinations, to enter a
‘Grande Ecole’ in business or engineering.
The studies take 3 years and once they have their de-
gree in hand, the students find employment easily.
The school in which I work, named E.S.I.E.A, is an
engineering school.
2.2 The Scopes of the P.E.S Project (Project of
Engineering Sciences)3
The P.E.S. is a 6th semester project, taking place between
February and May (75 homework hours are planned for
each student) and students are organized into groups of 4.
Their work is closely followed by a professor. Because
the project is to be developed during the student’s free
time, they also take other courses during this semester.
The subjects can be of three kinds:
1) “Professional” subjects requested directly by the
partner companies of the school,
2) “Research” subjects’ given by research centers,
3) “Educational” subjects proposed by the school’s
The subjects are collected by the school administration,
communicated to the students and finally 3 subjects are
chosen by each 4-student group. Though an internal
process, the students are assigned a subject (most fre-
quently their first request).
2.3 The P.E.S Educational Objectives
The main objective is to apply to a project the knowledge
acquired during coursework, and if need be, to enrich this
A second objective is to raise students’ awareness that a
project is not reduced to a single academic subject but is in
fact a conglomerate of knowledge taught in various courses.
Finally, let us note the importance of project manage-
ment among these objectives.
An extract of the program, available for consultation
on internet [4], is given in Appendix A.
3. The Assigned P.E.S.
The contents of a project I assigned to a group of stu-
dents, the motivations and my expectations are described
3.1 The Proposed Subject in 2005-2006
3.1.1 Study and Realization of a Grand Illusion
Purpose of the project: to study a new theory through the
design performance of a Grand Illusion.
The magic arts consist of several specialties: close-up,
cups and balls, coin tricks, transformists, card trick, and
so on... The most mediatized specialty, enjoyed by all
kinds of audience, is: the Grand Illusion.
We suggest that you design and perform a Grand Illu-
sion which can be presented several times in the school
year to all students and/or to parents and/or to future new
students, etc....
3.1.2 Purpose of the P.E.S.
The purposes of the P.E.S are thus multiple:
1) To think about the management of confidential in-
formation within industry.
2) To read about and understand optics theory.
3) To find documentation about Grand Illusions, and
to study it.
4) To write specifications for a NEW Grand Illusion
and to construct it.
3.1.3 Summary
1) If you want to know the secrets of the greatest magi-
cians, come!
2) If you want to learn a new theory of physics in a fun
way, come!
3) Given the vast perspectives of this project, several
groups of P.E.S can be trained. So if the work in col-
laboration between several teams (= services in the com-
pany) interests you, come!
ATTENTION: once the secret is known, the illusion
loses all its magic… but not its spectacular beauty!
3.2 My Motivations to Propose Such a Subject
I chose the topic of magic, a subject which fascinates me,
to be virtually certain that the topic would be completely
new for the students. So they are in an unknown situation.
They will thus have to implement all the necessary
means complete the project succeefully.
I also try to arouse the students’ curiosity by proposing
subject that is more playful than usual.
Following these objectives, I propose a project in op-
tics, while the school in which I work does not teach this
subject. I go out very slightly of the project scope be-
cause once in a company, the students will have to study
or to solve problems that they have never seen during
their academic career.
Consequently, the students have to look for, find and
understand a new theory of physics.
After all I give them work that is more difficult than
that expected by the school. Indeed there is little chance
that I will have a student, who is the son or daughter of a
magician or who is magician himself.
Finally, I try to change the traditional way of teaching:
a downward method (the professor teaches the student)
usually used in France, become an ascending method
here (it is the student who will have to explain to the
3P.S.I. Projet des Sciences de l’Ingénieur (in French)
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education13
The ascending method has the merit of showing whe-
ther the posed problem is well understood. As wrote
Boileau [5] “what conceives well expresses itself clearly,
and the words to say it arrive easily”4,5.
3.3 My Expectations
I thus expect from my students:
1) That they make perform research on magic and
Grand Illusions based on optical illusion,
2) That they perform research in optics:
Geometrical optics:
Theory of beams for a single lens system.
Equivalent one lens for several lenses system (for ex-
ample: the astronomical telescope).
Undulatory optics (several Grand Illusions are
based upon)
Study light interferences due to the electromagnetism
taught in the 3rd and 4th semester (for example: Young’s
An introductory study of the phenomenon of diffrac-
3) That every group-member knows (by heart) the
theories and that each of them can explain these theories
to the professor.
4) That the realization is interesting about both angles:
magic and optics.
The Grand Illusion will have to be original and crea-
tive and, it must solve the given problem correctly. Fi-
nally its presentation during the diva must be well or-
ganized and as magic as possible.
3.4 The Group Composition
Two groups chose this project. Each met one of the two
objectives that I had set but neither managed to meet
both objectives. Is this due to the subject or to the com-
position of the groups?
The first group consisted exclusively of students who
were members of the Student Union6.
The second consisted of “above average” students ac-
cording to the standards of evaluation used in France.
4. Realization of Group Number 1
4.1 Theory of Optics
In a few pages, the students gave only the theory of
geometrical optics onto the forming of images (conver-
gent and divergent simple lenses, mirrors, association of
two simple lenses); this part of the work was relatively
complete. But only one of them knew only approxi-
mately this theory (what we noticed during the oral
Finally, they did no work on interferences and the no-
tion of diffraction-in spite of my repeated requests during
4.2 Summary of Grand Illusion in Literature
I think that among all Grand Illusions they found, the
students have decided to explain in their report only
one—with which a magician is able to make disappear an
object, a human being or a part of it…—which is the
base of their own Grand Illusion.
In their report, they wrote:
“The first idea, which we had, consists in being able to
hide something or somebody behind a mirror7. The prin-
ciple is simple. Our set up consists of a cube opened on
the front (Figure 1).
Then we place a rectangular mirror in the same cube
(Figure 2).
The right wall (BCGF) is reflected by the plane mirror
when we8 are in front of the cube. So each person situ-
ated in front of the stage sees the background of the cube
in the left side, and on the contrary, in the right side, the
background is hidden by the mirror and the spectators see
the reflected image of right side by the mirror (Figure 3).
A bar placed on the (IJ) edge from top to bottom is
enough to hide the mirror edge.
In small-scale cube (approximately 50 centimeters
cube edge), we can hide small object or even our hand if
we drill a trapdoor on the top9 to be able to reach inside
Figure 1. Display of the Grand Illusion “Disappearance”:
simple cube
4“ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire
arrivent aisément”
5Pierre Schott’s translation
6“B.D.E” in French as Bureau Des Etudiants
7Magician note: it would be greater to write “thanks a mirror”
8We = the spectators
9Lecturer note: better read bottom!
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education
Figure 2. Display of the Grand Illusion “Disappearance”:
simple cube with the mirror
Figure 3. Display of the Grand Illusion “Disappearance”:
multiple reflections beams
our stage. In large-scale cube (approximately 2 meters
cube edge) we can remove persons but we do not envis-
age this eventuality in the first place due to the budget
but also for handiness reasons on the stage. Even if this
system is practicable, we did not intend to create it be-
cause a spectator situated too close to the stage could
discover the secret.”
It is a very classic Grand Illusion which is a direct ap-
plication of the image construction thanks to the geomet-
rical optical theory. I am very satisfied that the students
found this idea and even more that they do not content
themselves with it. Indeed their project would lack of
personal creativity.
4.3 Their Own “New” Grand Illusion
“The second idea we had is to create an unlimited tunnel
thanks to two opposite mirrors. The principle is slightly
more complicated but can be more interesting. Our tun-
nel is also based on a cube (Figure 4).
This time, all the faces are closed. For the sides, the
bottom and the top of the cube (AEGD, BFHC, CDGH,
ABFE), we used some wood or some cardboard. On the
background (EFHG), we placed a mirror and on the front
side (ABCD) we placed a two-way mirror allowing the
vision in the one way from outside to inside (direction
AE for example).
It is necessary, for well working, that the inside of the
cube is much more brilliant than the outside. Indeed, the
two-way mirror although if it makes dark all around the
observer and it is luminous inside the cube. The simplest
solution to remedy for this problem was to place a light
source in our cube for becoming in darkness. To become
the outside dark, it is necessary switch off any light
The principle of such a construction is that the specta-
tor looks through the two-way mirror the only thing
which he can see is the reflection of a mirror on the other
to infinity. Our cube gives the illusion to be an unlimited
tunnel (Figure 5).” [6]
The technical drawing of this Grand Illusion is pre-
sented to the Figure 7, in Appendix B.
It is necessary to add that this idea is very old and was
realized many times and not always in a “magic” way.
For me, its most beautiful realization is the gallery of
Figure 4. Display of the Grand Illusion “unlimited Tunnel”:
simple cube
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education15
Figure 5. Display of the Grand Illusion “unlimited Tunnel”:
explanation of the beams ways
mirrors, in the castle of Versailles wanted, by Louis XIV.
What recovers of the originality of their project is to use
a two-way mirror what allows to have really a magic
trick which I am now going to describe below and what
was presented to me during their oral presentation.
A student (finally I shall have to say the magician)
takes a box and show it to the public who can test the
rigidity of all the faces. He is standing and puts this box
on his belly. The magician switches on the inside of the
box and the spectators see the box lengthening towards
the back through the magician stomach! The magician
switches off the box and show it to the public (it takes
back its initial size!). He taps too his abdominal muscles
to show that they are very hard and that there is not a
hole anymore!
5. Realization of the Group Number 2
5.1 Theory of the Optics
In few pages, the students gave all the theory of the
geometrical optics onto the images construction (for
convergent and divergent one lens system, mirrors, asso-
ciation of two lenses) and also simple applications of the
undulatory optics by the study of the holes of Young.
5.2 The Grand Illusion
The idea we chose to realize a mini illusion is the idea of
one of our P.S.E members: Charles Weisgerber. He saw
it in the exhibition “La Seine des photographes” in the
Conciergerie in Paris. Indeed, the concept of mirrors
“W” was realized with Seine’s photos and impressed us
at the first sight by its realism of three dimensions vision.
We have chosen to conceive an appropriate model for
our workgroup. That was going to help us to understand
the physical phenomena which hide behind this illusion.
We naturally construct it with our personal touch to an-
swer to our subject. We did not consequently invent
anything but we understood an idea to reshape it for our
P.E.S by bringing it the necessary modifications [7].
The example was put in the report and was explained
during their oral presentation, is presented in Figure 6.
For me, there is no creativity enough and their realiza-
tion is not at all magic! We find right now the optical
illusion… and not a Grand Illusion.
6. Synthesis, Conclusions, Going Further
and Prospects
Before asking the following question “Is it opportune to
develop this type of teaching?”, let me make a synthesis
of students’ work, then a conclusion in relation to my
expectations and finally suggest ways to go further.
6.1 Synthesis
Let us sum up my expectations in Table 1:
[Rq 1]: The “grand” illusion is only a mirage!
[Rq 2]: The astronomical telescope was not dealt with.
[Rq 3]: This group invented a new Grand Illusion (to
my knowledge), and presented it with an elaborated ar-
tistic sense: which gave a perfect answer to the magic
[Rq 4]: This group learnt nothing in terms of theory
except for one member.
[Rq 5]: The link between theory and practice was made
for the oral presentation but regrettably not in their report.
6.2 Conclusions
Let us look at the work supplied by both groups in Table 2:
If the work of group 1 and group 2 could be brought
together, the report would completely reach my expecta-
tions and objectives. That is why I can think that this
method is efficient and practicable.
Figure 6. Realization of the “Grand Illusion” by the second
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education
Table 1. Synthesis of student work
Expected objectives Group 1 Group 2
Magic documentation Good
[Rq 1]
Theory of beams for a
single lens system Very Good Very Good
optics Equivalent one lens system
for several lenses system
[Rq 2]
[Rq 2]
Approach the lightly inter-
ferences thanks to the
electromagnetism given in
the 3rd and 4th semester
Not done Very good
Approach slightly the
diffraction phenomenon Not done Quite good
Conception and realization
of their new Grand Illusion
[Rq 3]
Explanation of the theo-
retical points during the
oral presentation
[Rq 4]
Good – very
good [Rq 5]
Table 2. Synthesis of students work by macro objectives
Objective N Asking Objectives Group 1Group 2
discover a new (for students)
existing theory and perfectly
know it.
No Yes
2 Implementation of a project in a
very different context from theirs Yes No
But each group was interested in only a part of the
whole project subject.
We can thus conclude that if each group had been less
homogeneous, it would have been able to achieve fully
the objectives and the expectations. This leads to a more
directive role than I imagined on the part of the teacher
regarding the composition of the groups.
These groups are formed spontaneously according to
the affinities and the common points of the individuals. It
is this homogeneity which will allow them to work to-
gether and to achieve successfully the given project.
6.3 Going Further
So I’m wondering if, half-way through, I should not have:
1) chosen one of the two illusions and imposed it on
each group?
2) chosen one of the two illusions and imposed in on
both groups to realize this project successfully by merg-
ing both groups into one?
3) mixed the ideas of both groups’ proposed illusions
in order to invent a new one and impose it on both
groups (or both groups united together)?
4) mixed both groups by breaking their homogeneity
but by obliging the students to use the talents of each?
None of these solutions seemed interesting to me be-
cause they break an essential aspect of the project: by
choosing a single illusion, I depreciate the other one in
the student’s eyes, by mixing the groups I break their
homogeneity and risk demobilizing them. It is therefore
up to the teacher to show himself more directive when
monitoring the project.
The project of group 1 shows that strangely, the writ-
ten work is focused on the area of magic: the students left
aside the physical problem to concentrate on the elaboration
and the realization of the illusion. This group probably
thought that, if the illusion was achieved, the project would
be too and the professor would be clement with them.
The project of group 2 shows the opposite. By not be-
ing interested in the magic, the students doubtless
thought that if the theoretical aspect was well learnt and
displayed, the aim would be achieved.
The professor will thus have to remedy it by being in-
flexible: the students will have to reach the final aim and
all the objectives and the sub-objectives must be ach-
ieved too. The teacher must be careful that the ludic as-
pect remains rewarding but without it predominating the
given theoretical work.
6.4 Prospects
I continued to propose these kinds of subjects and by a
more formal follow-up, the results improved. One group
even suggested to me a different (magic) subject which I
reformatted to fit the P.E.S imperatives.
What leads me to think about adapting this to the
whole physics teaching is to use illusions (or magic) as a
method of investigation to lead students to understand
the principles of Physics and to come to love this subject.
7. Acknowledgements
This paper could not have been written without the en-
couragements of Bernard Schott, my father, the invalu-
able help of Anne Serrie, my mother, Claire Leroux, the
head of ARNUM, Susan Loubet, Jane Jacquemet and
Peter Wilson, who corrected the English.
[1] H. Mayol, “La Magie des cordes Maestro,” Human Body
Model Production, 2000.
[2] M. Ammar, “The Complete Cups & Balls,” L & L Pub-
lishing, 1998.
[3] S. W. Erdnase, “The Expert at the Card Table,” Chicago, 1902.
[5] N. Boileau, “La scolastique,” Souchay, Paris, 1740.
[6] G. Levental, P. Ly, B. Spagnol, C. Guichard and A.
Azzopard, “Etude et réalisation d’une grande illusion,”
Mémoire de P.S.I, ESIEA, 2006.
[7] A. Boue, J. Elbaz, A. Friedlander, N. Tamburini and C.
Weisberger, “Etude et réalisation d’une grande illusion,”
Mémoire de P.S.I, ESIEA, 2006.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Use of Magic in Optics in Higher Education
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Appendix A A.4 The Teacher
He accompanies the students group in their work and is
in charge of the evaluation.
A.1 The Objectives
The Projects of Engineering Sciences (P.E.S), workshops
proposed to the 6th semester students, group activities of
project type which take place throughout the winter se-
mester (from 01/30/2006 till 05/31/2006).
He assures three major meetings:
1) In the beginning of activity, he advises and directs
the students group.
2) During the intermediate balance report, he reorient-
tates possibly the group and estimates the presented
Their main objective is the study of concrete applica-
tions in companies, technico-scientific matters leading to
a realization or an experiment. The aspects of human
formation and of project management will have to be
there approached.
3) At the end of activity, during the oral presentation.
Appendix B: Technical Drawing of the
Grand Illusion “Unlimited Tunnel”
They also allow developing the work in a group, the
communication techniques as well as the collaborative
A.2 The Activities
The students, 3 to 5 students per group, are accompanied
by a teacher.
1) They develop their project.
2) They make an intermediate report.
3) They draft a final report.
4) They speak during an oral presentation.
A.3 The Subjects
The subjects are proposed by teachers of various matters:
electronic systems, physics, signal and Fourrier-analysis,
scientific calculation, human formation, communicati-
on, ...
The proposed subjects list will be available on the of-
fice of the assistant educational and posted at the latest
on December 14th, 2005.
Every domain has a number of limited subjects.
A students group can propose a subject: they have to
find a teacher who wants to follow this group with their
subject. Then the group must contact the educational
assistant which takes care to register the project. Figure 7. Display of the ‘Grand Illusion’ unlimited: unlim-
ited drawing