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Stanford cancer researcher Parag Mallick: He’s a magic man

Stanford Medicine researcher Parag Mallick, PhD, was enthralled by science as a kid growing up in northern California. He was also passionate about magic. And as he told me in this 1:2:1 podcast, he sees a commonality in both worlds: "Part of what magic and science share is curiosity. They share a skepticism for the impossible. As scientists, we often tackle things that seem impossible, but then we make them possible."

Mallick's research at the Canary Center at Stanford entails finding ways to diagnose cancers earlier and "to predict what they're likely to do. We're confronted with these huge populations of people who have cancer and people who don't, or people before they have cancer. We need to find those hidden clues that we can look for and say, 'This is what's different between someone who has cancer and somebody who doesn't."

As for his magic, Mallick became a juggler in college, "which as it turns out," he said, "is a slippery slope dragging you down into the rest of the circus arts." He did formal training in the circus arts and during graduate school at UCLA, he started taking classes in magic at the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood. He's a master juggler and he calls that art "very meditative... Juggling is very musical. There's a tempo, there's a cadence. You can also represent juggling patterns mathematically describing the heights of the throws and the spins and the rotations."

I asked Mallick whether he thought magic informed his science or how science informed his magic. He had this to say:

There's a concept called assumption bias... when you think you're looking at something, you will tend to see it. It's a reasonable thing to do. As humans, we need to do this all the time. For instance, when you look at half a stop sign, you infer the other half of the stop sign. You need to do that otherwise if you only stopped when you saw the whole stop sign, there'd be a lot of accidents. That same predictive power that our brains do to fill the blanks in our every day life are also the same things that can mislead us as scientists, can make us intentionally make assumptions that are wrong. They are also things that make magic work.

For many years, Mallick kept his science and magic separate. He was concerned that people in each world wouldn't take him seriously if they thought he wasn't serious about that particular profession. Yet, he wishes both science and magic would seek more common ground. "It's actually unfortunate that science and magic don't spend more time together. Historically, scientists and magicians were actually very close. If you go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the best scientists were also magicians. The communities talked frequently."

Mallick will soon make a presentation at Stanford to scientists about magic, and when I asked what he hoped to accomplish in his lecture he said, "I think I am hoping to open people's minds to the blockades that they don't even realize they have." He continued:

Magic is all about perception It's all about how you observe things. I've become very cognizant that there really is a role for magic as an educational tool. I think there's also a role for understanding the principles of perception in doing good science. In the future, I really would like to make the scientific community more aware of their perceptual blockades and use the magic as a vehicle for doing that.

Mallick performs professionally with the LA-based magic group, the Mums. His cancer work is featured in the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

Previously: What art and the humanities bring to medicine: a look from Stanford Medicine magazine and An evolutionary look at cancer
Photo, which originally appeared in Stanford magazine, by Toni Gauthier

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