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VOL. 23, NO. 2September 12, 1997


A Master of Chemistry and Magic

World-Renowned Chemist Nakanishi Impresses Colleagues with His Skill in the Lab and on Stage

Professor Nakanishi says: "Magic is antiphysics, so it can't really exist. But it shares one thing with science. I can explain the principle behind a good science experiment in 15 seconds; the same with magic."

By Bob Nelson

In the days before the fall of the Soviet Union, the wiry magician with wispy white hair stood before a conference of Polish chemists and tore an issue of Pravda in half, to audible gasps, only to produce it whole again a moment later. He has reversed the stripes on handkerchiefs and joined severed pieces of rope before, among others, the Crown Prince of Japan, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield and cardinals at the Vatican.

  The sleight-of-hand artist is Koji Nakanishi, Centennial Professor of Chemistry at Columbia and one of the world's best-known bioorganic chemists. He has studied red tide toxins, insect and crab molting hormones, shark repellents, and wasp and snake venoms, often suggesting commercial or therapeutic uses for them in nearly 700 research papers in a career that now spans more than 50 years.

  His reputation as a magician has been boosted by his friend, Stanford chemist and novelist Carl Djerassi, whose short story about Nakanishi's exploits features a thinly-disguised magician-chemist of Japanese extraction. "The character's name is Jiko Nishinaka, but everyone knows it's Koji Nakanishi," Djerassi said.

  At chemistry symposia, dry academic meetings and formal banquets, he will pull out a small bag of tricks and set attendees at ease. "Magic always relaxes the atmosphere, especially after these big, formal conferences," said Nakanishi, who came to Columbia in 1969 and maintains contact with some 300 former graduate students. "Almost invariably, my magic is more remembered than my lectures."

  Not a month goes by without a Nakanishi performance. After receiving the prestigious Welch Award in chemistry, one of dozens of prizes he has claimed, he entertained some 200 guests at the Welch Foundation's banquet last October in Houston—with magic.

  One of his favorite illusions is to place a spectator in a cloth bag, tie the bag tightly, have the knot signed to prove it has not been tampered with and place the spectator behind a screen. After a minute, the spectator reappears holding the bag, which is passed around for inspection to show there are no openings.
The black cape helps impress the audience at Faculty House.

  At a Gordon Research Conference in New Hampshire some 10 years ago, the illusion backfired. Before about 100 colleagues, Nakanishi drew the cloth bag around an attendee, John Partridge, and tied the bag. Partridge played a trick on the magician, however, and when he reappeared, to the astonishment of all, it was without any clothes at all.

  "I was there and saw it, although I still have trouble believing it," said John Clardy, Horace White Professor of Chemistry at Cornell. "As an aside, I believe that Koji was as surprised as anyone that Partridge didn't have clothes on. He was, however, holding a small gong to preserve some level of modesty."

  At a symposium to celebrate Nakanishi's 70th birthday in May 1995, the chemist-magician took the stage in Low Rotunda to deliver a short address—and do magic. Assembled as his assistants were five respected organic chemists: Duilio Arigoni of ETH Zurich, Yoshito Kishi of Harvard, Jerrold Meinwold of Cornell, Guy Ourisson of the University of Strasbourg and A. Ian Scott of Texas A & M University.

  "The master magician enlisted some of the world's most eminent organic chemists to serve as his apprentices," said Roy K. Okuda, professor of chemistry at San Jose State University and a former Nakanishi postdoctoral student. "It was quite a performance."

  Magic can be a tool to communicate with others, says Nakanishi, who has taught simple tricks to colleagues and graduate students, often watching a retiring scientist bloom into a facile entertainer.

  "I think Koji is a delight to watch not because he is a great magician, but because he is a much better entertainer," said Babak Borhan, a postdoctoral student in the Nakanishi lab. "It's fun to watch how he interacts with people."

  Nakanishi has tutored Columbia chemistry professor Ged Parkin in the "dark arts", and Parkin has also become a frequent performer.

  Nakanishi began doing card tricks in his late teens, mainly at wedding receptions in Japan, to avoid singing duties at such ceremonies. He moved on to more complicated tricks, usually trying them out first on his wife, Yasuko. "Her reaction, that's my barometer," Nakanishi said. They celebrate 50 years of marriage in November.

  No one has yet figured out his favorite card trick, in which he picks the card an observer has chosen. And it may be his rapport with the audience that keeps attention focused on his patter, and not on his hands.

  "You have to convince the audience you are a good magician in the first two or three tricks," Nakanishi said. "Then they fall into your hands.

  "Magic is antiphysics, so it can't really exist. But it shares one thing with science. I can explain the principle behind a good science experiment in 15 seconds; the same with magic. But I never discuss how I perform an illusion."

  He also never does tricks that involve mixing chemicals. For that, there are plenty of opportunities in the lab.