About Peter Prevos

Social scientist and engineer with an interest in the horizon of reason.2

Magic Library: Scientific Literature about Conjuring

Magic LibraryMany magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.

The Magic Library

Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:

Parallel to the literature about magic, written by magicians, a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour exists. These books and journal articles are mainly written for the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.

Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten-page journal article. Over the past three years, I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.


  1. Kattelman, Beth A.  (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161 

  2. Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, mas­ter magi­cian. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gal­lacher, L. (2006). Cast­ing the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. 

Social networks in 1796: Family Relations in an Ancien Régime village

Social networks are considered the latest development in how humans interact with each other. This is, however, not correct as a social network is based on relationships and not limited to electronic communication. Social networks are an integral part of human existence and are as old as humanity itself. The term has been popularised due to the rise of social electronic media.

Before modernity, before the rise of individualism, social networks were defined by kinship, which was mainly based on genetic connections between people. Kinship is, however more than a network of genetic relationships as it is the social language in which society is expressed. In pre-modern collective societies kinship defined the boundaries of society. In the time before Facebook, social networks in Catholic societies were recorded in church books.

I have undertaken research to determine the kinship boundaries for the Southern Dutch agricultural hamlet of Heugem, combining the 1796 census and local church records. In 1796 the hamlet consisted of 39 houses with 172 inhabitants, of which 54 below the age of 12. Almost 90% of the population was born in Heugem. The social networks of genealogical relations have been been graphically displayed using the Pajek software for the analysis of large networks. The analysis shows a high level of interrelatedness within the community, with the priest as the only person without relatives. The research also shows that the overwhelming majority of people were born and died in Heugem. As such, a high correlation between geographic and kinship boundaries was found.

Nodes for men are triangles and nodes for women are circles. Blue nodes indicate people born in Heugem, red nodes indicate those from outside the town, and white nodes indicate deceased people. Parent-child relationships are indicated with black arrows, while marriages are denoted with blue lines. Click on the diagram for an enlarged view.

Social network for Heugem in 1796

Social network for Heugem in 1796.

The preliminary results of this research will be presented at the XXXth Frontiers in Genealogy and Heraldry conference in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Catholicism is a Pagan Religion: Examples from Portugal

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

For hundreds of years Catholics converted tribal people from all over the globe to Christianity. This conversion was often combined with violence and conquest in a zealous quest to drive out the “false gods” of paganism.

But Catholicism itself is more like a pagan religion than it wishes to admit. During Eucharist, believers eat the actual body of Christ — not symbolic, but the real flesh as dictated by Papal dogma. This is pure magic and no different to the tribal rituals they once abolished. In Lisbon I got caught up in a large procession, Corpo de Deus, where this miracle was celebrated.

Another fine example of catholic paganism in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of the bones. An alter built from the bones of monks as a reminder of the temporal nature of our existence.

If anything all this makes Catholic religion a lot more interesting than the austerity in Protestant churches. The ability of Catholicism to incorporate ancient local customs has been its secret to success over the world.

How to make airline food taste good: Using perception psychology to enhance travel enjoyment

Airline food: dinner on board CX134 from Melbourne to Hong Kong

Dinner on board CX134 from Melbourne to Hong Kong

Just arrived in Hong Kong and had a great flight with Cathay Pacific. Even the food tasted great. This might, however, not necessarily be the case because it objectively did taste very nice, but because I was wearing noise cancelling head- phones.

In a recent paper in the Food Quality and Preference journal it was shown that background sounds unrelated to airline food diminish the taste qualities.1 Research subjects were blindfolded and ate different foods either in silence or while listening to a quiet or loud background white noise. They found that tastes are dampened by noise. Saltiness and sweetness diminished when eating in the presence of loud compared to quiet background noise. Second finding was that food was reported to taste crunchier in the presence of background noise. Lastly, but most importantly, the more the subjects enjoyed the noise, the more the liked the food.

I thus enjoyed my Cathay Pacific meal, bopping away at the sweet sounds of Miles Davis on my noise cancelling headphones.


  1. A.T. Woods et al. (2011) Effects of background noise on food perception, Food Quality and Preference 22(1): 42-47. 

The Myth of Sustainability: Renewable Energy is a Perpetuum Mobile

Proposed Perpetual Motion Machine

Proposed Perpetual Motion Machine.

The most ubiquitous buzzword of the past decade is sustainability. It has replaced value laden words such as environmental, ecological or green. Sustainability moves the environmental movement from a ideological driven movement to a scientifically driven endeavour.

Achieving full sustainability is, however, not possible. The idea of renewable energy is fundamentally flawed as it would imply the discovery of a perpetuum mobile, which is not possible following the immutable laws of thermodynamics.

It has always dawned on me that if all the world’s energy would be produced by wind power or solar that eventually less energy will be available in the atmosphere, which will lead to unpredictable climate change.

My intuition has recently been confirmed by Miller, Gans and Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute. They convincingly argue that also wind and solar energy are not limitless sources. The sun will keep on burning for several billions of years to come, but the amount of energy available to us at any time is limited.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not environmentally insensitive. I am convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a threat to civilisation as we know it and that there is a urgent need to find alternative source of energy. I have never owned a car in my life and am a happier person because of it. Cars are evil, but that is for another post.

We live in a time of unprecedented wealth which allows a large proportion of the global population to consume. As a lecturer in consumer behaviour I know that there are very powerful psychological forces that drive us to this behaviour. I have no solutions, but will end with quoting Jonny Rotten:

There is no solution to the problems, so enjoy the chaos.

The Evolution of Magic as an Art Form

One of the most interesting developments in modern painting is the movement towards abstract art. Although this form art is often controversial and ridiculed by those who do not know how to appreciate it, its development is a very deliberate movement away from the confounds of naturalist painting. Abstract painting is quest to find the essence of painting, stripped bare of its relationship with reality it expresses ideas and dreams rather than things.

This is no better illustrated than by the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan. He started his career by painting naturalistic and impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen in the top left below. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. Mondriaan later experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.

The evolution of painting and magic

The evolution of panting and magic.

The same type of evolution can also be seen in conjuring. The naturalistic painting style can be compared with the time when conjurers pretended to be real magicians. Dressed in exotic clothes, summoning spirits and uttering occult words to impress their audiences. Magic as we know it today started with Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, more often than not labelled the father of modern magic. He created the iconic figure of the gentlemen magician in evening dress, pretending to be a real magician. This modern form of magic lasted for more than a century. But now the stereotypical idea of the magician has been destroyed by post-modern conjurers such as Penn & Teller and David Blaine. They perform in ordinary clothes, no longer even pretending to be real magicians. The magician is no longer somebody pretending to be somebody else, but has become an independent archetype. Interestingly enough, some magicians went totally against this development and created the Bizarre Magic movement in which they try to relive the early days of magic. The abstraction in conjuring is, however, continuing.

Conjuring is making its next breakthrough to the complete abstraction of the magician, just like Mondriaan’s paintings are complete abstractions of what art once was. This new magic is stripped down to its bare essentials. One magician who is moving down this path is Canadian Jay Sankey. He creates magic with ordinary objects, bolts and nails, straws, key rings and anything he can get his hands on. All but gone are the playing cards, coins and sponge balls and other even stranger props. The future of magic is a simple and direct bending of reality. Just like abstract art can be confused with a child’s painting, abstract magic is deceivingly simple, but is laced with psychological subtleties to create extraordinary experiences.

Wikileaks and the Masked Magician

By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Espen Moe (Julian AssangeUploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The WikiLeaks website has created a media storm around the world. The website facilitates whistle blowers from all over the world to anonymously publish material that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.

On his motivation, the WikiLeaks website states that:

Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. … the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.

WikiLeak’s philosophy is based on Bergson’s concept of the Open Society, later popularised by Karl Popper. In an open society, the government has no secrets and people enjoy freedom. The open society is an Enlightenment ideal where people have to make their own decisions based on the information available to them.

The idea of the open society is contrasted with the closed, authoritarian, society. Knowledge is closely guarded and people’s freedom is limited by what they are allow to know. In closed society, decisions people make is based on the collective ideal rather than individual choices.

Most traditional societies are closed and do not share knowledge as freely as in the Western world. In traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures knowledge was only passed on to those initiated in certain traditions. Aboriginal culture is traditionally secretive and knowledge is passed on along generational and gender lines.

The reason for secrecy is because knowledge is considered dangerous to those not prepared to wield it. Australian Kevin Solway has compiled a great collection of wisdom from traditional sources called Venom Crystals. The words contained therein are beautiful crystals, but they can also be a venom to the spirit to those not ready for it.

Wikileaks

How does Val Valentino, the Masked Magician compare to Wikileaks?

Val Valentino, the Masked Magician.

The material published by WikiLeaks can, however, in no way be called wisdom. The information preciously guarded by governments and organisations around the world is banal and barely goes beyond what can be deduced from public sources anyway. WikiLeaks does not publish venom crystals of information that need to be guarded from feeble minds. WikiLeaks defends the open society in a way that is only possible since the advent of the Internet.

Just like magicians around the world are vexed by the Masked Magician, politicians, business leaders, church officials and military are vexed by WikiLeaks. But just like the Masked Magician has not damaged magic as a performance art, the revelations of WikiLeaks will not bring down our society.

The secrets of politics, religion, war, business and magic are banal. It is only when they are exposed that we can take their keepers seriously and are able to fully appreciate what they do. The words of magician Jim Steinmeyer can be applied to magic and politics:

”… to appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician” (Hiding the Elephant)

The Pope is a Magician

Mary MacKillop was canonised using a pagan ritual.

Mary MacKillop was canonised using a pagan ritual.

Last Sunday Australia’s first saint was canonised by Pope Benedictus in Rome. Mary MacKillop, now called Saint Mary of the Cross was undoubtedly a very good person who deserves to honoured, that is not what this post is about.

On one of the many news segments covering this event, an Australian devotee was asked to give an impression of the ceremony and called it “magical”. Looking at the ceremony, which was the culmination of decades of lobbying and religious bureaucracy, there was indeed a lot of magic going on.

The process of becoming a saint is a protracted and political process whereby the ‘fan club’ of a certain religious person puts forward the case for canonisation. The candidate gradually moves from the status of Servant of God, to Venerable through to Blessed and when all conditions have been met. a Saint.

One of the most remarkable hurdles to be taken is the declaration of Non Cultus. The declaration of Non Cultus entails that the candidate has not inspired heretical worship in the form of a cult. This is a nice example of a Catholic contradiction. Sainthood is the pinnacle of worship in the form of a cult. In some instances this even includes a exhumation of the body to collect relics, i.e. body parts of the candidate for sainthood. In the case of MacKillop her grave was left in peace.

Interesting aspect of her canonisation was the handing over of a red-gum wooden cross with strands of Mary’s hair, which is the only relic of the brand new saint. Relics are the most interesting aspect of Catholicism as they form a direct link between the current times and the heathen religions of our ancestors.

The canonisation of Mary certainly a magical event, not in the sense that is was beautiful or inspiring, but as wonderfully occult ceremonial magic. Relics, canonisations and many other esoteric aspects of the Catholic church are fascinating. These aspects of Catholicism are the reason that you never see Protestant preachers saving the day in horror movies—you can’t kill a demon with words, only Catholic religion has held on to the pagan vestiges required to manipulate the spiritual world. The Catholic church basically ignores warnings in the Bible against magic and practices beautiful occult rituals. This is great because they thus preserve our primordial heritage into the 21th century.

Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.