Making magic with the scientific method

Chris Chan


Roger Highfield’s book, The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works is an ambitious project. Highfield takes a look at the six Harry Potter books (the four novels and the two “textbooks” by J. K. Rowling) and attempts to explain the magical goings-on in scientific terms. Unfortunately, while parts of Highfield’s book are genuinely fascinating, the overall product is less than magical.Highfield begins by expressing his enjoyment for the Harry Potter books and then attempts to prove that all of the “magic” is really nothing more than extremely advanced science.

For example, Highfield briefly outlines the workings of flying broomsticks in the books, and then goes on to explain scientific attempts at levitation. Many of these scientific discoveries are just plain cool: Highfield’s account of how scientists have managed some brief moments of levitation via powerful magnetic waves is highly readable and intriguing.

Highfield asserts that humans may eventually be able to fly in a horizontal position due to these carefully controlled waves, meaning that although “Muggles” (non-magic folk) may never complete a transatlantic flight via broomstick, games of Quidditch may someday become a reality outside the world of special effects.

Had Highfield titled his book How Science Can Create the World of Harry Potter, it might have been a thoroughly satisfying read. However, Highfield seems to adopt the position that there’s no such thing as magic and the characters in the books know it.

If Highfield had his way, the seventh book would end with Professor Dumbledore handing Harry his diploma and whispering in his ear, “By the way, Harry, we’re all frauds. The magic you’ve seen over the last three years? It’s all done with mirrors.”

Highfield theorizes that the only reason Harry can play Quidditch is that a naturally occurring electromagnetic field surrounds Hogwarts.

Try to explain this to a seven-year-old Harry Potter fan. (“Billy, you know that there’s no such thing as magic. All Harry and his friends are doing is utilizing scientific technology and not sharing it with the rest of the world.”)

Highfield does bring up a lot of interesting scientific discoveries. The best is the invention of an illusion wall. Scientists have found that by projecting a picture of bricks upon a specially lighted fog wall, they can create a barrier that looks solid, but can be passed through at will, just like the wall at Platform 9 3/4. Also, fiber optic cable may someday be woven into an actual, working “invisibility cloak.”

Unfortunately, after the entertaining first few chapters, the rest of the book is tainted with Highfield’s scientism, i.e. the belief that science can and should be used to explain every occurrence, even those to which such explanation do not logically apply, such as the plots of children’s books.

It seems Highfield is saying that the reader should pay attention to every single curtain at Hogwarts, because there’s a man behind each one. Highfield uses one chapter to explain how genetic engineering may someday be able to turn ordinary people into giants, or create unicorns and dragons. Highfield ponders for quite a while about the possibilities of creating a race of house elves, but while he believes that science may one day create a race of two-foot tall creatures with an aversion to clothes, he never stops to debate the moral dangers of enslaving them.

Halfway through the book, I realized whose voice Highfield’s reminded me of: Dana Scully from The X-Files. Throughout the series (at least the first seven seasons), Mulder and Scully came across all sorts of phenomena, and while Mulder would swiftly pronounce the occurrence to be the work of aliens or ghosts or monsters or a government conspiracy or divine intervention, Scully would roll her eyes and in the voice you might use to address a mentally retarded earthworm, suggest a scientific explanation.

Highfield uses such a tone in the last few chapters, where he addresses the evolution of magic in European history. Unfortunately, his explanations are a lot more simplistic and a little less humane than the ones I heard in Professor Kern’s Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft class last year.

Highfield’s book is one that will have many rewards for people interested in scientific advances, but it isn’t required reading for Harry Potter fans. I’ve read Scully’s interpretation of the world of Harry Potter; now I want to read Mulder’s.