One of the most endearing things about the Harry Potter books is that they are set in the real world. Unlike a lot of other fantasy writing, they are not set in a distant future, or a fictional universe, but in the very real country of England, today. The scene is set from the very first line of the very first book with the Dursleys, who are “perfectly normal, thank you very much.” 1
The Dursleys, however, stand out from other “normal” people, because they know that there is such a thing as magic, and that it is everywhere. They know that “perfectly normal” people could have magical relatives, “perfectly normal” cats could really be humans in disguise and if you watch closely, a “perfectly normal” barn owl may be carrying a letter. It may all be hidden to the untrained eye, but magic is all around us.
Because J.K. Rowling’s wizards live in the world as you and I know it, it only makes sense that even they are governed by the earthly Laws of Nature. In this world of science, physics and innovation, could magic still work? In this essay I will be looking at some of the types of magic we see in the Potterverse and I will try and determine if the Muggle Laws of Nature still apply. Furthermore, I will be speculating on a possible “missing link” between science and magic.
Transfiguration and the Laws of Conservation
There are many branches of magic in the universe created by J.K. Rowling. Hogwarts classes include Arithmancy, Potions and Divination. Although these subjects are not a part of the regular Muggle curriculum and many “rational” Muggles do not believe in predicting the future or love potions, none of these types of magic are in direct conflict with any physical Laws of Nature. Of course encountering magical creatures like dragons, unicorns or Hinkypunks is unlikely in the real world, and I have yet to see anyone grow a crop of Bubotubers or vines of Devil’s Snare, but still no actual Natural Laws are broken.
It gets more interesting when it comes to “physical magic” such as Transfiguration, Charms and Apparition. These forms of magic interfere with and change the physical environment; they make people or objects change shape or disappear, or animate inanimate objects and vice versa. The physical world relies on energy and forces. Force is required to make objects change speed or direction, energy to keep them moving. Many charms, such as Mobiliarbus or Petrificus Totalus simply rely on a transfer of energy onto or away from an object. Summoning and banishing spells require force to set a stationary object in motion. Even Wingardium Leviosa simply requires the conjuration of a force opposite in direction and greater in magnitude than the force exerted by gravity onto a feather or troll’s club. Muggle children do this all the time when they skip a rope or throw a ball up in the air. Wizards simply have one more way of creating such a force: by magic (more about this later).
Things get really complicated when it comes to transfiguration. Transfiguration is the magical act of changing one object into another. It is taught at Hogwarts by Professor McGonagall, who claims that it “is some of the most complex and dangerous magic [students can] learn at Hogwarts.” 2 The transfiguration lessons also include conjuring, making something appear out of thin air, and vanishing, making something disappear.3 Let’s start with conjuring and vanishing.
One of the Muggle Laws of Nature is the Law of Conservation of Matter (or mass), also known as the Lomonosov-Lavoisier law.4 This law states that, in a closed system, matter cannot be created or destroyed.5 So how does this work for conjuring and vanishing? Surely that is the creation or destruction of matter? Not necessarily.
The term “closed system” can be interpreted very liberally, and for our purposes, the universe can be considered a closed system. It contains all the matter it will ever contain and all the matter it needs to sustain itself. The earth itself contains all the elements of the periodic table,6 and even the “thin air” around us consists of matter: predominantly nitrogen and oxygen, but also carbon, hydrogen and trace elements.7 Considering this, every element required to construct any object thinkable, is right there at one’s fingertips! All a wizard needs to do is “call it together.”
Matter is held together by electromagnetic forces.8 In brief, the particles that atoms are made of, protons and electrons, are electrically charged. Coulomb’s law states that opposite charges attract while equal charges repel each other, like the poles of a magnet.9 Thus, the positively charged protons are magnetically drawn to the negatively charged electrons to form atoms. These electromagnetic forces also cause atoms to bind together into molecules, and molecules into substances.
In order to conjure an object, the wizard summons the magical force inside him, focuses on the object to be conjured, and drives the force outside his body through his wand. In the case of conjuring, this force is most likely of electromagnetic nature, attracting the correct atoms from the surrounding environment and rearranging them into molecules, materials and finally, objects. Thus, although objects are created “out of thin air,” the actual matter required is not.
Vanishing would be the reversal of this process. To vanish an object, the wizard needs to break the bonds between the molecules of the object, so they can be reabsorbed by the environment. There are many different forces that can break molecular bonds - heat, laser, sonic - and the magical force required for vanishing could be any of these.
Transfiguration, changing one object into another, is less easy to explain. Although they have some physical resemblance, hedgehogs and pincushions are not made up of the same components, so transfiguring one into the other is not simply a matter of rearranging the molecules of one object so that they form the other. There may be some overlap of material – the hedgehog’s fur may be made up of some of the same type of atoms as the fabric of the pincushion – but to make up the pins you will need an amount of metal that not even the hedgehog’s haemoglobin can provide (apart from the fact that most dressmaker pins are made up of aluminium while haemoglobin only contains iron). Therefore, to transfigure one object into another, new material needs to be conjured while other substances have to be vanished. Transfiguration therefore in fact appears to be conjuring and vanishing at the same time!
Vanishing is not taught at Hogwarts until fifth year and conjuring is only taught at N.E.W.T. level,10 indicating that these subjects are likely to be more difficult to master than transfiguration. However, transfiguration appears to include both conjuring and vanishing and yet it is taught at Hogwarts from year one. It is possible that the mere fact that some of the components of the “source object” can be re-used for the “target object” makes it easier to do. However, it could also be a matter of mental focus. This will be explained more fully later in this essay.
Apparition, Time Travel and Space-Time
Though none of the subjects taught by Minerva McGonagall noticeably go against the Laws of Conservation, they cannot actually be fully explained by the Laws of Conservation either. Conjuring and vanishing appear to be rather instantaneous. One moment an object is there, the next it’s gone (or vice versa of course). As far as we know there is no visible process of coalescence or disintegration. The atoms that make up the object all appear at the same time and in the right order; it is almost like they Apparate to the spot.
Now, Apparition is one of the most difficult magical concepts to explain in physical terms. We would have to talk about things like Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, spacetime and wormholes. To go into this in detail would be far beyond the scope of this essay, but we can go through the basics and do some speculation.
We are all used to thinking of our physical world as being three-dimensional: length, width and depth. Most of us will probably also know about time being considered the fourth dimension: an object does not only exist at a certain position in space, but also at a position in time. For simple mechanical physics, time is not much of a factor. However, in relativistic terms, time is very important, as both time and space are perceived differently by two observers travelling at different speeds from one another.11 Einstein showed the significance of time on the perception of reality by proving that an object appears shorter to a person who perceives that the object is moving than to a person who is moving at the same speed as the object (Relativistic Length Contraction). Similarly, he proved that time is perceived differently by two observers travelling at different speeds from each other. In other words, a clock appears to tick more slowly to an observer who perceives that the clock is moving than it does to an observer who is moving at the same speed as the clock (Relativistic Time Dilatation).12 Therefore the concept of spacetime was developed: time and three-dimensional space making up one four-dimensional continuum.
Now, you don’t have to try and understand this, but Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity states that spacetime is curved by the presence of matter13 – and if you can’t believe Einstein, who can you believe? Very generally speaking, this means time is not necessarily a linear concept. You could imagine spacetime as a piece of fabric, with folds and waves and wrinkles. Put an apple under it (or a planet or star) and you get new wrinkles and curves. Theoretically, one could connect one fold in the fabric with another by pulling a piece of string through it, creating a shortcut from one point to the other. It has been hypothesised that such shortcuts could exist in spacetime, and these shortcuts are generally called “wormholes.” 14 A wormhole could connect one location in the four-dimensional spacetime with another like a worm would eat through the core of an apple and come out the other side. Through a wormhole it would be possible to travel from one place to another in less time than it would take a ray of light to travel that same distance outside the wormhole (around the apple). Whether wormholes really exist is still a matter of debate, but if they do, it is not hard to envisage the possibility of Apparition, and even time travel! The wizard would have to summon a localised, personal wormhole and be able to travel through it to a different place in spacetime, faster than the speed of light! And, in the Potterverse, all this would take would be “Destination, Deliberation, Determination.” 15
However, even though Apparition and time travel may be theoretically possible, Muggle physicists are still very far removed from finding out how it could be physically possible. There have been claims that physicists have been able to create such wormholes in laboratories, resulting in both time travel and teleportation (the Muggle word for Apparition).16 However, reports of such experiments are now generally accepted to be mythological. According to physicists, the creation of a wormhole large enough to allow a person to travel through (let alone two people in side-along Apparition) would require more energy than even the sun could produce in its lifetime.17 In sum, Apparition through specially created wormholes may be theoretically
improbable, but it is not necessarily impossible.
The Missing Link
In this essay I have mentioned terms like “magical force” and “mental focus” several times. But what is this force? Why do some people have it while others do not? Now, if you thought General Relativity was frightening, you have another think coming. To speculate on what constitutes magical force I would like to take you by the hand and lead you into the realm of Quantum Physics. Don’t worry, I am as scared as you are, so we won’t go far.
First, we need to take a small detour into the history of physics and talk about the properties of light. Physicists of old have argued and debated at length about the question of light being wave-like or particle-like in property. A classic experiment, named the “double-slit experiment” was devised to give conclusion to this debate. In this experiment, a beam of light was shone at a plate with two narrow slits in it. The hypothesis was that if light was in linear, particle form, the light coming out of the other side of the plate would take the pattern of two beams of light overlapping: the middle section where they overlap being of double intensity of the outside areas, where each beam shone by itself. If light was wave-like in property, the pattern would be very different: the waves of the two beams of light would interact and create areas where the waveforms would either reinforce each other or cancel each other out, creating a “bar-code”-like pattern of lighter and darker bands, called an interference pattern (Figure 1). The experiment showed out that the latter appeared to be true and that light was indeed wave-like in property. Later, Einstein would prove that light does also possess particle-like properties. He formulated the idea of photons – small particles of light that travel in wave-like patterns. This finally resulted in the wave-particle duality: light is both particle and wave-like.
Figure1: Young’s Double-Slit Experiment.18
When quantum physicists (those who investigate the physics of subatomic particles or quanta, photons being a type of quantum) got their hands on the double-slit experiment, things started to get very strange indeed. They changed the experiment so that light would be emitted at the plate one photon at a time. Even when one photon was emitted at the plate, the interference pattern was observed. Somehow, the photon created two “beams” of light that interfered with each other. This meant that the photon would have to pass through both slits at the same time! As it seemed improbable that anything could be in two places at the same time, the experiment was altered once more, and detectors were placed inside the slits to try and determine through which slit the photon would travel. The result was mind-blowing: simply by adding a detector to the experiment, the interference pattern disappeared, resulting in a light pattern similar to one observed if only one slit is open: a single beam. Therefore, it appeared that a photon passes through both slits at the same time, unless it is noticed by a detector, which forces the photon to choose one slit or the other.
It is very difficult to make sense of this, but you can picture it like this: for an image to be imprinted on a film inside a camera, the photosensitive material of the film needs to be exposed to light. In other words, the light needs to interact with the film in order to make an imprint. Similarly, for a photon to be noticed by a detector, it needs to interact with the detector and transfer something of itself onto the detector. To do this, it is forced to be in one singular place. The interpretation of this given by the famous quantum physicists Bohr and Heisenberg (also known as the Copenhagen Interpretation19) was that a photon of light exists at every point until it is detected at any location along its probability wave (the probability wave being the sum of all the paths it is likely to take, some paths being more probable than others). Richard Feynman later refined this interpretation and postulated that a particle will travel every possible path through spacetime to get from point A to point B. When a detector is placed along the way, a new point B is formed at the location of the detector. The particle will then travel through every possible path through spacetime to get from A to the detector, but it has to pass the detector in order to move on.20
Now, I can hear you thinking “this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with magic?” Well, it appears that in perfectly normal, every day Muggle life, we already alter our physical world simply by looking at it. Matter is made up of a little bit of energy and a whole lot of nothing. And even those little bits of energy (the quanta) only exist in probability until they are observed or detected as in the experiment above. This means that somehow our brains (or eyes) interact with and influence the physical world to make it into what it is. Sounds a bit like magic, doesn’t it?
In the real world, Wiccans and followers of the New Age movement have already jumped on the quantum mechanical interpretation of the concept of reality. They have taken it as evidence that there is a scientific, factual connection between science and magic, and that people will be able to influence their environment by mental power and be able to create their own reality.21 Just exactly how the mind would interact with its environment is uncertain, but it is imaginable that the mind could emit energy, which could interact with the environment. Indeed, the term mental quanta has already been coined.22
Although there is as yet no empirical evidence to support these claims, clear examples of situations where a person’s mental processes result in physical changes do exist. It is common knowledge that stress or depression can affect a person’s physical well-being. The generic term for physical afflictions that are caused by mental processes is “psychosomatic illness.” Just by thinking you are ill, you can make yourself ill. Furthermore, the development of the brain itself is actively affected by mental processes. The whole concept of learning is that neuronal pathways are formed by repetition of thoughts and stimuli. This is also the basis for rehabilitation after brain injury: new neuronal pathways are formed to replace the lost ones simply by practicing mental functions.
Somehow, the mind affects the body it controls. Most people know that the brain sends electrical impulses down the nerves to make muscles contract or relax, making the body move. For each voluntary movement, the mind needs to translate intent into action. The simple intent to pick up a pencil somehow generates energy in the brain which can then travel in a series of coordinated impulses through a network of brain and nerve cells towards the muscles in the hand and fingers. How exactly the intent causes the generation of energy inside the brain still puzzles even the most knowledgeable medical scientists, but it may well be quantum based. Who is to say that the mechanism of focused intent causing physical change could not work outside the body as well?
There are people who already claim to be able to somehow alter their physical environment with mental power. In Muggle terms this would be called telekinesis: “the power to move something with the mind without using physical force.” 23 The most well known of these people must undoubtedly be Uri Geller, who famously bends spoons and keys with psychic powers.24 Strong believers in telekinesis ascribe this power to the ability to emit energy from the mind in the form of quanta, thereby translating a person’s intent or mental focus into a physical force.25 In fact, it is claimed that everyone has this ability and that mastering it is only a matter of practice.26 However, it appears that telekinesis has never been scientifically proven, and sceptics claim that most known telekinetic acts can be replicated by stage magic and trickery.27
Applied Quantum Magic in the Potterverse
Though in our real world the concept of “Quantum Mysticism” is controversial and not generally accepted, it definitely could be true in the Potterverse. There have been numerous references throughout the Harry Potter books about how mental focus or “intent” is required to perform most magic. The most striking example is possibly the Patronus Charm: in order to successfully conjure a Patronus, one needs to focus intently on a happy memory while uttering the words Expecto patronum.28 The happy memory appears to generate the force – or quanta – required to produce a Patronus, and when enough force is generated, the incantation somehow releases it, expelling it from the wand in the form of the Patronus. Another example of how magic relies on mental focus is the summoning spell, Accio. In order to summon his Firebolt while facing the Hungarian Horntail in the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, Harry only had to say “Accio Firebolt,” and his own Firebolt came flying towards him.29 There must be hundreds of Firebolts in existence, but Harry just wanted his own. He had his own Firebolt on his mind, and so that is what he got. The way magical intent causes the generation of a magical force which can then be expelled through the wand may well be very similar to the way the intent to move a body part causes an electrical impulse. The wand could help converge the energy generated into a focused beam, making it more powerful, more controllable and easier to aim.
These beams of energy could be used in many different ways. They could provide a force opposite to and greater than gravity to levitate an object, such as the feathers the students were learning to levitate in professor Flitwick’s Charms class.30 They could be used to make an object change colour, as after all, colour is nothing but the perception of light emitted at different wavelengths. The mental quanta could easily interfere with light reflecting off an object to change the wavelength and make it appear to be a different colour, such as Harry’s eyebrow in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.31 It would be possible that mind quanta emitted by the Alohamora spell could alter the probability waves of the quanta that make up the matter of a door lock, so that they are forced to be in a different position in spacetime than before – or rather, forcing them to be detected elsewhere in their probability wave, thereby changing the properties of the lock and unlocking the door. One could imagine how mental quanta could be used to penetrate someone else’s mind in the practice of Legilimency, or be used to block the penetrating quanta while applying Occlumency. One could even imagine a beam of quanta counteracting the electrical impulses that are required to keep a heart beating, making the heart stop instantly, without any need for injury or toxins, such as the effect produced by the Avada Kedavra curse.
The Quantum Magic hypothesis could also help explain why transfiguration is easier to master than the seemingly more simple conjuring and vanishing: when two objects have some physical resemblance, it is easier to visualise the object you want to conjure, making it easier to generate the right force required to perform the spell correctly. We have also seen Professor Dumbledore literally draw a chair in the air with his wand while conjuring up a chair for the unexpected arrival of Professor Trelawney at Christmas.32 Of course, it may simply have been because our beloved headmaster is always game for little jokes and clever wordplay, but he may have stumbled across a better way of teaching the art of conjuring: drawing the object to be conjured in the air could help focus the mind and generate the right force. All these examples could be explained by the concept of Quantum Magic outlined in this essay.
Though the processes behind many of the forms of magic in the Potterverse may be explained in terms of Muggle physics and quantum physics, truth remains that only members of the magical community are able to perform magic. Magical acts like conjuring, vanishing and Apparition may be physically possible, but for the non-magical community it is a practical impossibility. Somehow, those of magical descent are able to generate a force inside themselves that can physically interact with and change their physical environment. It may be that this force is indeed “supernatural” in the sense that it cannot be explained in Muggle terms and only wizards are able to generate it – it may be that magical folk simply have a deeper subconscious understanding of the Laws of Nature and a more easily accessible way of conjuring a force that is present in all of us. The discoveries made by quantum physicists on the properties of reality at the subatomic level do provide food for thought and present us with the possibility that some day in time, Muggle physicists could “catch up” with magical people and consciously learn to understand and control the physical world in the same way that wizards do today. However, until that day, supernatural phenomena will remain what they seem to be: magic.
1. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 7.
2. Ibid., 100.
3. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 232.
4. Wikipedia, s.v. “Conservation of Mass.”
5. The more discerning reader will of course realise that the Law of Conservation of Mass only holds in most cases, as certain reactions may be envisaged that convert matter into energy – as, according to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, mass and energy are one and the same. It would thus be more accurate to speak of the Law of Conservation of Energy. However, for the purpose of this essay we will concern ourselves with the conversion of mass.
6. Wikipedia, s.v. “Periodic table.”
7. WeatherQuestions. “What is air made of?”
8. Wikipedia, s.v. “Electromagnetism.”
9. Ibid., s.v. “Coulomb’s Law.”
10. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 232.
11. For a really good, simplistic explanation of spacetime and special relativity I recommend Schwartz, “Spacetime 101.”
12. Schwartz, “Special Relativity.”
13. Wikipedia, s.v. “Introduction to General Relativity.”
14. Ibid., s.v. “wormhole.”
15. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 360.
16. Wikipedia, s.v. “Montauk Project.”
17. Ibid., “Time travel.”
18. Ibid., “Double Slit Experiment.”
19. Ibid., “Copenhagen interpretation.”
20. For further reading I would like to refer to Wikipedia, keywords: an introduction to quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics, observer effect, wave-particle duality, uncertainty principle.
21. Wikipedia, s.v. “New Age.”
22. Pither, Complete Book of Numbers, 27.
23. The Free Dictionary, s.v. “Telekinesis.”
24. Wikipedia, s.v. “Uri Geller.”
25. Wingmakers, “Telekinesis.”
26. For those of you interested in trying, step-by-step instructions can be found at http://home.xtra.co.nz/hosts/Wingmakers/Telekinesis.html.
27. Mayes, “Telekinesis: fact or fantasy?”
28. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 176.
29. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 309.
30. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 126-127.
31. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 290-291.
32. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 169.
The Free Dictionary, s.v. “Telekinesis.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/telekinesis (accessed 28 October 2006).
Mayes, Keith. “Telekinesis: fact or fantasy?” Theories with Problems. http://www.thekeyboard.org.uk/Telekinesis%20Fact%20or%20fantasy.htm.
Pither, Stephen Scott. The Complete Book of Numbers: The Power of Number Symbols to Shape Reality. St Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Schwartz, Patricia. “How does Special Relativity Work?” Theoretical Physics Fun. http://www.theory.caltech.edu/people/patricia/minktop.html (accessed 22 October 2006).
———. “Timetravel in Flatland: Spacetime 101.” Theoretical Physics Fun. http://www.theory.caltech.edu/people/patricia/st101.html (accessed 22 October 2006).
WeatherQuestions. “What is air made of?” WeatherQuestions.com, 2004. http://www.weatherquestions.com/What_is_air_made_of.htm (accessed 28 May 2006).
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Conservation of Mass.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_mass (accessed 28 May 2006).
———, s.v. “Copenhagen Interpretation.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_interpretation (accessed 22 October 2006).
———, s.v. “Coulomb’s Law.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulomb%27s_law (accessed 28 May 2000).
———, s.v. “Double-Slit Experiment.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_slit_experiment (accessed 23 October 2006).
———, s.v. “Electromagnetism.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_force (accessed 28 May 2006).
———, s.v. “Introduction to General Relativity.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Introduction_to_general_relativity (accessed 23 October 2006).
———, s.v. “Montauk Project.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Project (accessed 22 October 2006).
———, s.v. “New Age.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Age (accessed 23 October 2006).
———, s.v. “Periodic Table.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periodic_table (accessed 28 May 2006).
———, s.v. “Time Travel: Using Wormholes.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_travel#Using_wormholes (accessed 22 October 2000).
———, s.v. “Uri Geller.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uri_Geller (accessed 28 October 2006).
———, s.v. “Wormhole.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wormhole (accessed 22 October 2006).
Wingmakers. “Telekinesis.” http://home.xtra.co.nz/hosts/Wingmakers/Telekinesis.html (accessed 28 October 2006).