For the most part, the old alchemists and magicians were fooling their audiences with plain ol' science. If you knew nothing of chemistry, the sight of water turning instantly into oil would seem like witchcraft.
But even for us jaded modern types with our fancy "education" and "skepticism," science can do things that not only seem like magic, but make magic tricks look like a bunch of ridiculous bullshit.
As awesome as the concept of telekinesis is, it's remarkably hard to do, and if you pull it off, the government will almost certainly hunt you down and/or force you to join a team of crime fighters. Pretty much every "He's moving things with his miiiiind" trick is easily explainable as either sleight of hand or some neat physics cheat code.
But where magicians fail, science delivers -- here's a handful of sand, moving by itself and forming patterns like it's practicing the halftime show for the Super Bowl:
Later in the video someone spills beer on the sand and it starts drawing dicks.
And here are some drops of water calmly ignoring all laws of physics and walking on the surface of a pool:
Roberto Zenit, National Autonomous University of Mexico
All the more reason to never pee in the pool.
Science's much more awesome version of this trick is done with vibrations. That masterful sand dance is just a day at the office for cymatics researchers, who study visible vibrations and how frequencies relate to geometric patterns. The higher the frequency, the more complex these sound-shapes get.
Five down and dead center: dicks, courtesy of Science.
It's the same thing with the water trick: Putting speakers under a water container makes the fluid vibrate and causes small droplets to bounce on the surface indefinitely. Boom up the bass, and they'll happily cluster and bob along until the vibrations end. Then the party's over, and the drops become boring, normal water again. Scientists call these wandering droplets "walkers" and use them to study the dual relationship of particles and waves.
However, you're not going to be dazzled by mere water and sand. You want science to really impress you. So let's see what the vibration trick looks like with some non-Newtonian oobleck fluid:
Deegan, Merkt, & Swinney, University of Texas at Austin
It's like a T-1000 had a wet dream.
Apparently, all it takes to create an angry, sentient blob monster is cornstarch, water, and dubstep.
This is what appears to be a totally unremarkable picture of two coins:
Via Stoneridge Engineering
Man, Tiny George has a jawline.
Yep, that's clearly just a normal quarter, next to a strangely misprinted dime that may or may not have been carved into existence by a man who has started a counterfeiting business to finance his vision-impairing meth addiction. But despite the fact that the coin on the left is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger to the right one's Danny DeVito, these quarters are actually twins. (Man, someone should make a movie out of that concept.)
But while the Incredible Shrinking Penny is an entry-level magic trick that's probably as old as pennies themselves, with the aid of some hardcore electromagnets, science has found a way to shrink-ray coins to a fraction of their size for real. Oh, and the whole shrinkage takes less than a second:
This wonderful madness is the end result of a process called electromagnetic forming. It's a wire coil rig that can shrink -- or rather condense -- metal objects in the blink of an eye using powerful magnetic fields. The currents involved are massive, and the fields are arranged so that they repel each other, leaving the coin trapped in the push and pull of powerful electromagnetic forces. With enough power, the coin starts re-forming inward, becoming smaller and denser:
Via Stoneridge Engineering
We're not sure the tiny versions retain their value, but they do sting like crazy when thrown off a bridge.
Unfortunately, as the effect is based on magnetic fields, you can only do this to metal objects. This leaves Ant-Man style shrinking powers a potential possibility only for Wolverine and cyborgs. Still, it's probably for the better, seeing as this is what happens when the process is applied to objects that aren't as sturdy as coins:
Since Uri Geller made bending spoons popular in the 1970s, magicians have often claimed that they can shape metal with their will, despite the fact that the trick has been thoroughly debunked. (Spoiler: He pre-bends it manually.)
Still, that doesn't mean you can't do ridiculously impressive tricks with metal. You just need to pick the right metal -- namely, bismuth. Treat it well and it responds by turning into this:
Alchemist-hp, Richard Bartz, via Wikipedia
Joseph's sex toy of many colors.
The object above may look like it broke off a carnival float in Rio de Janeiro, but it's actually just an ordinary bismuth crystal, and it's so easy to make, it's a small wonder Geller hasn't claimed the trick for himself. Here's a guy cooking up a batch of these crystals, just melting the stuff on his stove top and cooling it down while moving the mass around every once in a while.
When bismuth is heated past its melting point and cooled back to a temperature where it starts to solidify, its atoms lock into unique, geometrical structures, resulting in a phenomenon known as "bitchin' shapes." You can see them forming here:
Beautiful complexity often begins by looking like crap boiling on a hot car hood.
Those crystals take shape in a matter of minutes -- the metal just spontaneously starts forming elaborate stair patterns and oxidizing into awesome colors, because it's bismuth and it damn well can. The end results of this phenomenon are amazing constructs like this:
Via Amazing Rust
You just know David Bowie is hiding in there somewhere.
Although it's possible for bismuth to form its crystals naturally, it hardly ever does that because the metal rarely encounters its melting point in nature. And that's the most wonderful thing about bismuth, really -- it has basically just been lying around for us to find, figure out, and sell as jewelry on Etsy.