Do you believe in magic?

I love this picture. But it's not the 'real' thing...

Would you say you’re superstitious? Or that you have magical beliefs?

a)      Of course not!

b)      Maybe a bit, but not really

c)       Only on Friday the 13th!

I would want to answer (a) to that question – but I’d have to admit that I was lying. It’s not as if I believe in fairies (or even God), but I still touch wood and wish people luck. I even read a horoscope every now and then (just for fun, I tell myself).

But there are far more unconscious, unquestioned magical beliefs than this. I really did think I was a fairly rational person until I heard a lecture by Dr Bruce Hood, at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. He asked the married people in the audience a simple question – would you exchange your wedding ring for an exact replica?

Of course not, we all thought (whether we were married or single). What a stupid question. But the next one left us stumped. Why not?

Well… because… it wouldn’t be the real thing. Exactly the same, yes, but not the real thing. Dig a bit deeper into this reaction, explained Dr Hood, and you realise that in fact you’re attributing some sort of ‘essence’ to your treasured ring, something that ties the physical object to all the memories you associate with it. It’s not rational, but it certainly is powerful.

I was reminded of this while watching ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ recently (yes, ok, I watch Star Trek… but you’re reading a science blog). There’s a lovely scene in which Data the android tries to understand Captain Picard’s magical beliefs. They’ve travelled back in time (of course) and Picard is seeing for the first time the Phoenix, the spaceship that makes first contact with the Vulcans, changing the course of human history. Data is looking curiously at his captain as he touches the ship:

Picard: It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian but I was never able to touch it.

Data: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?

Picard: Oh, yes! For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.

Data touches the ship. He still looks puzzled.

Data: I’m detecting imperfections in the titanium casing, temperature variations in the fuel manifold, but it is no more real to me now than it was a moment ago…

Data’s right to be confused, because Picard’s reaction doesn’t make rational sense. But these magical beliefs seem to be with us from very early on – Dr Hood described a lovely experiment that involved asking toddlers if they would exchange a favourite toy for an exact replica (made in a fake ‘copying machine’). He showed a video of these small children clinging to their toys saying ‘NO!’ – and we all know exactly how they feel.

This idea of the magical beliefs that we can’t seem to ignore really challenged my confidence in rational thought. Science is meant to be all about setting aside prejudice and letting the evidence speak for itself – but it seems that this is something humans sometimes just can’t do.

I remember being so disappointed when I discovered that the painting of a hare by Albrecht Durer that I’d been staring at in rapture was in fact a ‘facsimile’. Suddenly all my excitement was gone. But why? I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the real thing and the copy. My concept of ‘real’ wasn’t rooted in the real world at all – it’s much stranger and much less logical.

In many ways this is a good thing – I wouldn’t want all the magic to drain out of the world. But every now and again I have to remind myself that scientists (and science) are only human.

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