Engineers Explain: the Magic of Engineering

By Engine Room Posted 5mth(s) ago Reading Time: A few minutes

Meet Tan Jui Kuan (JK), a senior lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, teaching Wafer Fabrication and Semiconductor. He’s also a magician, who’s performed at the Singapore Science Centre, various old folks home and at National Engineers Day several times, to bring the joy of magic to different groups of people. But most of the time, you can find him performing tricks during his own lectures, using magic to explain certain engineering concepts! 

Read on to find out how he got into magic and what it really has in common with engineering.

What got you started in magic?

I’ve always been curious about how things work and as a child, I would dismantle my toys to try and figure out how they work. But it was the street peddlers who used to visit my neighbourhood and perform tricks that really sparked my curiosity. They would promise to reveal their secrets after their last trick, and I would hang around eagerly for it. Of course, they never did and so I decided to learn them on my own. I started trying some tricks out myself, and soon I was hooked! 

Tell us about your favourite trick!

Editor’s note: this was a n00b question. Obviously, a real magician doesn’t just tell you about his tricks - he shows it to you!   

Why did you end up putting magic and engineering together?

Science and engineering have actually been behind every single magic trick in history - from making objects vanish to the well-known cutting a person in half trick. One day, a colleague who knew of my love for magic suggested packaging it as a “Magic of Science” presentation to share with Secondary School students. It became a hit and students would come by in busloads to watch the show. 

This inspired me to make magic tricks a regular part of my lectures, as a way of explaining certain engineering concepts. I believe it makes it more exciting for students, and helps develop their curiosity about how things work. 

What do magicians and engineers actually have in common?

To me, we have three very similar traits:

1. Can-do spirit: both are about problem-solving, and even when faced with challenges and difficulties, magicians and engineers don’t give up. Which leads me to my next point… 

2. Open-minded: we’re always looking at things from a different angle and for new ideas, which helps us problem-solve!  

3. Inquisitive: we’re always looking for an answer, and in the process, we ask a lot of questions.

What is the most challenging part about being a magician?

Unlike other performers, people don’t like it when magicians do the same trick twice. There’s a mentality of “I don’t want to be tricked twice”. So I have to keep coming up with new tricks, or putting a new spin on old tricks - you have to constantly be innovating, just like engineers do! 

And finally, what advice do you have for aspiring engineers?

I think there are two things that will help you grow as an engineer: the first is to have a curious mind that wants to know how things work - this will help fuel your passion for the subject. The second is to be a problem-solver and never give up! 

Earlier this year, Elon Musk tweeted “engineering is magic made real” and we didn’t realise he meant it so literally. But with so many world wonders and phenomena that can be explained by engineering, we’re not surprised at all! As engineers, we love uncovering how things work, and it’s this curiosity and passion to innovate that makes magic, real. 

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