The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix FlickerThe Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix Flicker

The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix Flicker book reviewFelix Flicker’s relatively unique take on popular science is right there in the title: The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life. Taking Arthur C. Clarke’s old adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Flicker presents his layperson’s explanations of modern-day physics as a wizard’s manual of sorts, as in one scene where a wizard illuminates her path with a crystal spelled into glowing and then cuts through a bolt with a “stream of light.” In reality though (at least our reality), the magic crystal is “merely” an LED and the beam of light “just” a laser. How dully mundane.

But is it? Flicker’s argument is that “it takes work to see the magic in the familiar, but it’s there.” And from that premise, he’s off into the wild world of physics. Or, more specifically, condensed matter physics, a branch that in popular science often gets ignored, or at least gets far less shelf space than the two bookends of popular physics books: cosmology (the very big) and particle physics (the very small). Flicker speaks for the trees! Um, I mean, the middle realm of condensed physics, which he defines as the “study of what emerges when many elementary particles interact.” A study whose tagline, if it had one he says, would be “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Some of what he covers includes, but is not limited to: magnetism, crystals, entropy, thermodynamics, superfluids, superconductors, quantum physics, decoherence, and more. Being popular science, Flicker eschews math, equations, and too much specialized vocabulary. But while the book simplifies its subject matter, that isn’t to say it is simple. I read a lot of popular science and a good amount of popular physics, and this book is at the higher end in terms of the attention it requires. You have to think about what your reading here, and sometimes rethink it; I did a lot of pausing to more fully consider some of his points, and on occasion flipped back a paragraph or two and reread a bit more slowly to take another stab at comprehension. The subject matter can be tough, and the language can at times be dense, as with : “physicists refer to ‘real space’ as the familiar place in which we live and ‘reciprocal’ space as the world reached by Fourier transform, where lengths and times transform into their reciprocals” or “Through this magical act the emergent quasiparticles in the fractional quantum Hall effect breaks the rule that all particles must be bosons or fermions. They are something entirely new: anyons.The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life by Felix Flicker

Luckily, while the requirement to pay close attention is near constant, passage like these or pile ups of specialized terms/names are not particularly frequent. For the most part, Flicker does an excellent job of explaining what needs to be explained as introduction, then guides us lucidly through whatever is being described (an experiment, an effect in the real world, etc.), then explains it again in simpler terms, often using that old standby in the toolbox of popular science — the analogy. Mostly Flicker’s analogies do what they are meant to – make things clearer. Every now and then, though, I thought the metaphors were less than helpful and at times almost made things less clear. And while the “wizardry” references didn’t cloud comprehension, I have to confess I didn’t much care for them past the opening, where they’re used to make the point about how physics truly is as wonderful and awesome (in the literal sense of the word) as magic. Beyond the introduction, though, all the magic and spells felt superfluous (though I get the desire/need for a “hook”).

The Magick of Physics wasn’t an easy book, but it is an often fascinating one, filled with information (I highlighted many, many notes) and Flicker is a generally engaging tour guide. It’s probably not the book I’d suggest to someone who hasn’t yet read popular physics books, but once you’ve read a few, I’d definitely recommend it as it will introduce some points those cosmologists and particle physicists don’t and will cement any prior learning of more basic/general concepts such as thermodynamics.

Published in March 2023. If you were to present the feats of modern science to someone from the past, those feats would surely be considered magic. Theoretical physicist Felix Flicker proves that they are indeed magic—just familiar magic. The name for this magic is “condensed matter physics.” Most people haven’t heard of the field, yet more than a third of physicists identify as condensed matter researchers, making it the most active area in the subject—with good reason. Condensed matter is the solids, liquids, and gasses that surround us—and the more exotic matters—which dictate every aspect of our present existence, and hold the keys to a brighter future, from quantum computing to real-life invisibility cloaks. Flicker teases out the magical threads that run through our daily lives. Condensed matter physics allows you to create anything abiding by the laws of reality—and often, we find that those laws can be bent. Flicker explains how to create new particles which never existed before, how to make crystals shoot out such intense light they can cut through metal, how to separate the poles of a magnet. And more. The Magick of Physics will open your eyes to the miracles that surround us.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.