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?

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


Economists are realists and not easily impressed


Magicians are rational agents who convey the illusion of irrationality; economists are irrational agents who convey the illusion of rationality. 'Nuff said.


I find myself thinking as an economic most of the time. That mindset makes sense to me and I tend to be on the very logic side. On the other hand I love magic, but I prefer to be on the showing side, the one who knows the trick behind it.


I'm a struggling econamist, struggling to understand a quite simple concept in a much bigger sence. I probably just havent read the right books, or attended the proper lectures. In fact I know so little about economics, I'm sure I know more than what I think I know. I need to purchase a volume of essential economics, come back and post something on this website. If there is one thing I do specialize in, it is Magic. Magic as the transfer of energy from one point of contact to another. All Musik is Magik and all Musicians are Magicians. Wizzards are known to carry wands. Wands are made of Wood. Wood is a living being, that carries Energy from its previous precious life. That energy can be transfered into sound that can move mountains. Possible? Quite. You see the soundwaves carried from the musicans body through the wooden drumsticks to the wooden kit, is tranferred into the air and reaches the ears and is heard and therfore felt, that feeling is shared and enterpreted into movement and movement is universal. To lift a foot, to raise a hand, to nod your head allong with the magic precious life energy called music is magic. METAL IS ALSO ALIVE AND FELT AND HEARD. IT HASNT DIED YET, IT NEVER WILL FOR THERE ARE STILL METAL FANS OUT THERE THAT WILL WAVE THEIR BLADES OF HAIR WILDLY TO THE SOUNDS OF CRASHING WAVES THAT IS METAL MAGIK.


Douglas Turner

What do you mean economists don't do magic? All of the Keynsians believe in creating something from nothing.

Patrick Monahan

I also do not know many mechanics, english teachers, engineers, doctors, florists, or lawyers who have magic as a hobby. Not many people do magic. Therefore, I am not suprised that not many economists do magic. I am not yet conviced that the prevalence of magic as a hobby is lower for economists than for other professions. But if an analysis does indeed show a statistically significant lower prevalence for economists, then it would be interesting to determine what variables (e.g., I suspect there are several personality characteristics) are associated with being a magician versus an economist.


Here's my two cents on the matter:
Magic isn't economical for the logical economist. The time to master a 10sec trick isn't economical.
The rewards of performing such a trick isn't high either. You get tokens of appreciation and awe from audience. But do you get the girl you were trying to impress? Or get the attention of some special with hopes to that the relationship will blossom when there is always an alternative?


Richard Wiseman ( isn't an economist, but his books on behavioural biases are very relevant to economists. And he's a talented magician.

A Bradford

I'm a dark-side economist (i.e. I work for a bank rather than a think-tank / college) and I've always had a penchant for the dark arts. I do more street magic and card manipulation than math magic, though.

Interesting thing to note: some of my tricks that blow people away have absolutely no effect on children. They figure them out straight away. I think its because the 'trick' itself is usually so simple that adults overlook it, whereas kids are more attentive... but really I'm not sure.

Maybe its unpopularilty within the economic sphere has something to do with the way economists think? (the same discrepency as between the adult/child mind..?)


I've been practising/performing close up magic since my early teens and I also love my economics classes at school (politics major) so I would have to disagree. In my experience people who study any scientific field, physical or social, tend to enjoy magic. However I think you'll find that they appreciate it for different reasons than the average spectator.

For most people a good magic trick is a miracle which defies the natural order and is beyond explanation. For anyone with an interest in science and objective truth on the other hand, magic is an anomaly that begs for an explanation. It's also a brilliant demonstration of how fallible the human mind is and how easily it can be manipulated into believing something to be true. I think the appreciation you have for this book has confirmed this.

Billy D

This is simple.

Economists live to explain how things work.

Magicians live to obscure how things work.

Dave Brooks

Persi Diaconis was immortalized within the magic-math-geek world for proving that it takes at least seven riffle shuffles to randomize a deck of cards.

Bill Mullins

From a 1997 issue of _The Magic Circular_, journal of the UK-based Magic Circle:
"Paul Fleming was the stage name adopted by Paul Fleming Gemmill, for many years Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, an academic who combined his university career with touring a large magic show in the style of Karl Germain during summer vacations and who, in association with his brother Walker, ran a notable magic book and publishing business."


For what it’s worth, I do a “probability” card trick. Does that count?

The trick culminates in four cards, face down. I then ask the audience, “If I turn up each of those cards, and they’re the Ace of Spades, Ace of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds and Ace of Clubs, would you be impressed?” Yes, everyone would be impressed.

“Why would that impress you?” It’s rare; it would be unlikely to occur simply by chance, etc.

“What if I turned up the 2 of Clubs, the 9 of Spades, the Queen of Spades, and the 6 of Diamonds? Would you be impressed then?” Not so much.

“Why not? Don’t you realize that the probability of turning up the Ace of Spades is equal to the probability of turning up the 2 of Clubs?” I guess so.

“In fact, the probability of turning up any specific combination of four cards is equal to the probability of turning up any OTHER specific combination of cards.” I guess so.

“No matter what cards I turn up, the outcome will be just as unlikely as if I’d turned up the Ace of Spades, Ace of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds and Ace of Clubs!” I guess so.

“So, regardless of what cards I turn up, the outcome was equally unlikely – and you should be equally impressed, right? Well then, why bother turning over the cards? THANK YOU! THANK YOU!” And I wave my arm grandly to acknowledge the (generally non-existent) applause.

(Ok, ok, I ultimately do turn the cards over. Pointing at one card, I say, “Here we go: This card is the 2 of CLUBS!” I turn it over: it’s an ace. “This one is the 9 of SPADES!” Nope; another ace. “Queen of SPADES!” Another ace. “Ok, last try: 6 of DIAMONDS!” The last ace.

Having produced four aces, I then slam my fist on the table, mutter “stupid trick never WORKS...!” and storm off in a huff.)


David E. Ortman

As a collector of card trick books, I would often run across card tricks based on some mathematical principle or requiring a lot of memorization. Back in the early 1980's after learning some BASIC programming, it occurred to me that you could teach a computer to do card tricks. So I wrote several BASIC card trick programs that were published in Tim Hartnell's Second Giant Book of Computer Games (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

You can teach a old computer new tricks.

Porcelain Frost

Sorry, but your holier than thou attitude positively grates on me! Why shouldn't there be economists who "like magic"?