The Mathematics of Magic

I don’t particularly like math.  I’ve never been a fan of magic either.  For some reason, however, when I heard about a new book entitled Magical Mathematics written by two first-rate mathematicians, Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham, I felt compelled to buy it and read it.

I have to say that it is really good, and I would highly recommend it to any nerd.  It is a really artful melding of card tricks that are remarkable, with explanations of the underlying math concepts that are at one level so simple and clear that almost anyone could get the basic intuition for what they are talking about, but at another level so deep and difficult that it is probably hopeless for someone like me to ever truly understand.   

It also got me thinking.  I can’t name a single economist who has magic as a hobby or interest.  I’m sure there are some, but it is extremely rare.  Maybe love of magic among adults is just not very common, but I think it is something deeper.  Whatever it is that makes someone like economics, I think it tends to make them not like magic.

Any theories or evidence on this question from blog readers?


Classic left brain vs right brain. More neurons are living in one or the other.


While economists might not have magic as a hobby, what about the hobbies of magicians?

For instance, Penn Jillette is very active on political and social issues, including free markets. Seems like quite a few magicians get involved in areas where they see misdirection used for any purpose other than entertainment.

John S.

Laurence S. Moss. Economist and amateur magician.


Thank you for metioning Larry Moss, John. I was a sudent of Prof. Moss and he would often begin his lectures with a magic trick he would relate to economic principles.


I'm not an economist, although I often worked with economists when I was practicing antitrust law. But I am a magician. I'm also deeply skeptical by nature. I've been both -- magician and skeptic -- for as long as I can remember, and I've always assumed these things are related; i.e., knowing how easily people can be fooled -- even the smartest people -- is a lesson one takes into account in his own approach to the world. In the same vein, I'll cite James Randi and Penn Jillette, and the largely silent Teller as well. All of which makes me surprised that there are no (or few, relatively speaking) economist-magicians.


My guess is that economist is one of the least creative professions out there. So, the personality type tends to be more towards bland. Its not just magic, its everything.


NO! Social economics requires more creative thinking than almost any field of endeavor. In my opinion.

Caleb b

I enjoy both. At one time I was very active in magic, attending regular meetings and paying dues in a society. I also am very interested in econ...considering it as a profession.

I think they go quite well with eachother bc expectations play such a big role. Both are built on understanding how other people think and behave.

A great magic trick is usually very simple bc it is the simplicity makes the magic look so extraordinary.


I think it has to do with how logical economists are in general. You like to have data and present the truth about that data, whereas with magic, it's taking something that can be explained logically but you have to deceive your audience in the process. Economists are not deceptive (at least not on purpose).


Does representative Ryan like magic ?


The above is an imposter!


If they don't like magic, how come they gave the nobel prize to Keynes and his marry tricksters?

caleb b

I imagine that performing a magic for an economist would be horrible. I envision them doing everything they can to ruin the trick as best as possible.

Magician (M): Pick a card, any card
Economist (E): Okay, I've selected one in my mind
M: no, physically remove a card from this deck
E: no, I've already chosen the card I want in my mind
M: well I can't perform the trick if you don't pull a card
E: i don't want to be tricked


As a mathematician, I promise you that the only obstacle to you understanding the mathematics in this book is your own belief that you are someone who can't understand mathematics.


Don't sell your profession short - you do have a Stand-Up Economist!

I'm not aware of any Mathematician that does comedy - at least not intentionally.


Magicians are usually very rational. Economists still cling to theories that people act rationally, so they're basically nuts.


David Dicks at UNC finance worked as a magician

Jim Takchess

Nice to see that someone beat me to the punch. I had the pleasure of meeting this fellow while attending Babson College.


lol...I'm sure we are digging deep into the barrel of conversational oddities when we say it is remarkable that more economists don't have magic as a hobby. It is like saying few concert violinists seem to enjoy luging.

That said, I'll bet that both groups have a very advanced average age of losing their virginity.

Sam McNerney

Well, there just aren't that many magicians in the first place!

Peter Prevos

Laurence Steven Moss was economist and an amateur magician. He used his magical skills in the lecture room to illustrate economic phenomena. Economics is after all quite esoteric, just like magic.

Tim Piper

Dara O'Briain is pretty darned funny for a mathematician. Ben Miller probably counts too. Find them on YouTube if they aren't so well known in the States yet.


I'm an adult that loves intelligent magic like Penn & Teller. It's not just magic, it's magic and comedy and social commentary. I am not a adult that likes cheesy "tiger based" magic.

With all art, it's about the experience.

Derrill Watson

I have my PhD in Economics from Cornell and enjoyed toying with stage magic for years and thinking deeply about the various magical worlds fantasy authors create.

In our economics story-telling there is a clear element of the magician, who transforms the well-meaning policy designed to help the poor into inefficiency and suffering (minimum wage makes unemployment, rent laws, etc., and that's just 101). With a multiplier effect, we turn handkerchiefs into birds, while fresh-water economists cry that it's all a trick done with mirror and assumptions. The counter-intuitive is itself a form of magic.

Actually, now that you've piqued my interest, I suppose I shall have to do a series of posts about the economics of fantasy magic (which the better fantasy authors think about), and expound on this economist-as-stage-magician. Expect it early next week at