The Harry Potter story is coming to an end – all seven books in the series have been published and in six months the final chapter will be released in the cinema. Leila Sattary ponders the distinction between magic and advanced science and offers explanations for some of the supernatural occurrences in Harry’s world while trying not to destroy the ‘magic’.
How do we define the magic? Could it be that magic is based on a superior knowledge of science and nature? Throughout history, many pioneering scientific ideas have taken years to be accepted by the scientific community, and scientists have even been accused of sorcery. Are these ground-breaking innovations effectively magic? Does magic thrive at the frontiers of science, and eventually, when it becomes mainstream, transform into science rather than magic?
British science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I have long believed that if you were to look at Harry Potter’s magical world with scientific eyes, it would not seem that magical at all. The Marauder’s Map, which Harry and friends use to track the movements of Hogwart’s residents, could be easily recreated with GPS. Numerous wizarding spells are unimpressive when you take a moment to think about it – Lumos versus a flashlight, Sonorus verses a PA system, Stupefy verses a taser gun. Admittedly we have not combined these functions into one piece of apparatus or ‘wand’. Harry continues to wear glasses, a muggle invention might I point out, and no magical attempts have been made to fix his eyesight when laser eye surgery is available in our world. And with all the powerful magic available, Hogwarts students continue take a completely normal steam train, to get to school every year.
Of course there are many things in Harry’s world that muggles cannot easily recreate. Aside from the Hogwart’s Express, most wizarding travel is quite extraordinary – flying broomsticks, Floo powder, portkeys, flying cars and motorcycles and most impressively apparition (the ability to appear somewhere instantaneously at will). While these are all things that are not easily achievable by muggles at present, they could be explained by science that has yet to be fully developed. Apparition could be the advanced use of quantum teleportation or perhaps wizards have learned how to control wormholes. A flying broomstick is just the combination of the right propulsion and aerodynamics, but a combination we are, unfortunately, yet to perfect. In the meantime, muggles are playing the broomstick sport of Quidditch with their feet safely on the ground. The Quidditch World Cup was held in New York this year and saw 43 international teams compete.
Another wizarding innovation I admire is the invisibility cloak. However, invisibility is being developed at a number of research institutions –there is no reason why, with enough time, an invisibility cloak could not be developed by muggles. Much of the current research into invisibility is funded by defence organisations – it is a serious endeavour. However, the current invisibility cloak just works in two dimensions and only comes in the extra small size of 10 micrometers in width.
The Sorting Hat, which reads a young wizard’s personality and thoughts to decide which Hogwarts house they should reside, is another amazing feat of technology. Muggle scientists are also working on understanding the brain better. Again, it is completely possible that in the future we will be able to read someone’s thoughts by tracking the electrical activity in their brain. However, such an invention might not be as compact, portable or comfortable as the Sorting Hat.
Harry Potter’s magical world should remind us, as scientists, that great things are possible, and that things that today can only be explained by magic may one day be real technology. The way I see it, scientists are the wizards themselves pushing back the boundary between science and magic. We are just a little bit behind the innovations of Harry’s world.
I hope that you do not regard my scientific approach to Harry Potter’s world as ‘spoiling the magic’. I like to think that trying to understand something does not take away from its beauty or fun. Physicist Richard Feynman once said “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”