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Case Studies: Magic?

Case Studies: Magic?

| On 04, Nov 2018

Darrell Mann

Back in 1987, Michael Jackson amazed the world with his biomechanically impossible dance moves in his music video Smooth Criminal. In the routine, Michael leans from the ankle at a 45-degree angle, while keeping his body straight as a rod.

Manjul Tripathi and colleagues from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, say in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine: “Most trained dancers with strong core strength will reach a maximum of 25 to 30 degrees of forward bending while performing this action. MJ pulled off a gravity-defying 45 degree move that seems unearthly to any witness.”

If a person were to attempt the Smooth Criminal lean, they would notice that the bulk of the strain to strike the pose moves to the Achilles tendon in each ankle, rather than the erector spinae muscles of the back. This allows for only a very limited degree of forward bend, even for someone matching Michael’s strong athletic abilities, explains Assistant Prof Tripathi.

So how did The King of Pop achieve the feat?

Here’s what the problem looks like when mapped on to the Contradiction Matrix:

Figure 1: Smooth Criminal Contradiction

The illusion, which many have tried to copy, was thanks to specially designed (Principle 8, Anti-weight and 17, Another Dimension) shoes and the artist’s (Principle 29, Fluid) core strength.

Figure 2: Smooth Criminal – Contradiction Resolution

A V-shaped slit (Principle 17) in the bottom of each heel of his spats slotted onto a strong nail or “hitch member” driven into the ground, allowing the dancer to pivot and lean further forward, for the gravity-defying move.

Prior to the patented footwear invention, Michael had relied on the much more difficult to hide solution of supporting cables and a harness around his waist. It’s said that he and two Hollywood colleagues borrowed the footwear idea from US astronauts’ boots, which can be docked to a fixed rail when working in zero gravity. But even with specially designed footwear and the support of the hitch member, the move is incredibly hard to pull off, requiring athletic core strength from strengthened spinal and lower-limb muscles, say the doctors. “Several MJ fans, including the authors, have tried to copy this move and failed, often injuring themselves in their endeavours,” they caution. Dr Tripathi said: “The chances of injury to the ankle are significant. You need strong core muscles and good support around the ankle. It’s not a simple trick.”

The recent publication of the Smooth Criminal story reminded us that ‘magic’ is, exactly like humour, all about contradictions. The viewer of the magic trick is sent in one direction by the magician, who, meanwhile, takes the trick in a different direction. If the job is done well enough, unlike humour, the viewer, although they experience a contradiction only resolve it by assuming that it was done by ‘magic’. Now we have the Internet, it is very difficult for magicians to stay ahead of the game. The Magic Circle had the job of keeping the contradiction resolutions secret to the magicians. Nowadays we just have to watch a YouTube video to see how most tricks are done. Especially card tricks.

Here’s a few contradictions we can set into the context of TRIZ and the Contradiction Matrix: A lot of card tricks revolve around the magician’s uncanny ability to select your card from a deck. Here’s what the trick looks like as a Contradiction:

Figure 3: ‘Find My Card’ Contradiction

The idea of using the Amount Of Information parameter is that, in theory at least, the backs of all of the playing cards in a deck are identical to one another. Not, as it turns out, with the decks that magicians use. Here’s a cunning example of a combined Principle 3 (Local Quality) and Principle 7 (Nested Doll) means of establishing exactly what every card in the deck is:

Figure 4: Principle 3/7 Solution To The Playing Card Detection Contradiction

After knowing this solution, I don’t think I dare trust any card game ever again. This next solution is a bit more benign in terms of potential ‘un-ethical’ use, but is still a very simple wow moment for those tricks where the magician asks a person to select a card from the deck, look at it and then replace it. Enter Inventive Principle 17, Another Dimension and a deck of tapered cards:

Figure 5: Principle 17 Solution To The Playing Card Detection Contradiction

Or how about the classic, ‘sawing a person in half’ trick?

No contradiction any more, once you realise the answer is Principle 1, Segmentation…

Figure 6: Principle 17 Solution To The Playing Card Detection Contradiction

Ultimately, the only magic is how the 40 Principles see through any magic. That plus a bit of human (Principle 29) flexibility and core strength.