One for the Kids: Houdini's Copy of the Book of 'Scientific Amusements'

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A relic from the age when the magic of the fundamental properties of the universe was embedded in the everyday.

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Harry Houdini liked a good science experiment. He was a magician, yes, and an escape artist, too, but both of those pursuits also made him an amateur scientist. Science found, Houdini applied, audiences raved. 

So, it is with special interest that we recommend you check out Houdini's copy of Scientific Amusements, a book by Henry Firth that is filled with things you might call simple magic tricks, if they did not demonstrate principles of science. The book was gifted to the Library of Congress and now available as part of a special collection online

What's most interesting about this book is that it reflects a time, 1890, when science was not so far from the realm of human experience. For all the excitement about citizen science, there is no way to comprehend the Large Hadron Collider's investigations into supersymmetry with a stack of coins placed on your elbow, but you could learn about inertia that way. 


This book was written at a time when the laws of the universe, though still mysterious, could be glimpsed in the day-to-day motions of one's life. "It is surprising," its author wrote, "how near we are to the most fundamental principles of science when we perform some of the simplest operations." An apple falling, as perceived by human eyes, could still mean something. Even the most basic cooking possible held a lesson about the world. "The toasting of bread is an example of evaporation of water change of structure, owing to heat, and the appearance of a black substance out of a white one by a change in chemical combination," Firth announced. 

Nowadays, most science requires a complexity of infrastructure, computation, and organization that extends far beyond the tinkerer or Bill Nye fan. The instruments of science peer to the early moments of the universe and down to levels beyond the size of our cells. Seeing with your own two eyes is not the best way to learn something about the fundamental nature of the world any longer, and sadly, that means, the realm of the scientific amusement has shifted decidedly from the former to the latter.

via io9

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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