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The Uses and Limits of Science in the Magical World
By Velse


In discussing the role of science in the magical world, it’s important to understand that there are many aspects of science, not just the popular Muggle image of men and women in white coats, experimenting in laboratories or scribbling on blackboards. Dictionary.com provides the following definitions:

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.

4. systematized knowledge in general.

5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

6. a particular branch of knowledge.

7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.1

I’ll argue below that, based on what we’ve seen of their world and their Hogwarts curriculum, wizards have many of these types of science, and in fact emphasize some types of science more than we Muggles do. However, they stop mysteriously short of a full scientific exploration of their world, and I will also speculate as to why that may be.

Magic-users do have science in the sense of general laws (definition 1), similar to Muggle science. For example, both have identified “laws” derived from empirical evidence (in Chemistry, Muggles have the First Law of Thermodynamics,2 in Potions, wizards have Golpalott’s Third Law3). However, the empirical experience of wizards and Muggles means that we don’t have the same laws. To a Muggle, science and magic can have nothing to do with one another. Despite how weird things get at the level of particle physics and black holes, Muggles tend to think of (to us) rational, “what goes up must come down,” physical laws when we think of science. It’s all very safe, very clear, completely reliable… Until, that is, some magic we inadvertently witness turns our rational world view upside down and shakes the change out of its pockets. (Bring on the Obliviators, please!)

Conversely, science in the sense of a Muggle’s physical laws is a closed book to a wizard, because none of it fits their own everyday, empirical observations. Perhaps that’s why wizards and witches don’t know much about Muggles, and even less about Muggle science, even though they live in our midst. The Muggle world-view is as disorienting to wizards as magic is to Muggles. The conservation of energy and… animagi? Gravity and… Quidditch? The physics of light and… invisibility cloaks? They just don’t belong in the same universe.

The two universes collide in young Muggle-born wizards and witches. They first experience magic when their wishes are magically realized—by growing their hair back overnight after a particularly bad cut, or shrinking a hideous sweater to doll-size, to choose two random examples.4 But neither they nor their parents understand the full import of what has happened, because on the surface, their experience is common to all children, Muggle and wizard: it’s called magical thinking, a developmental stage described by the famous French child psychologist Jean Piaget.5 In magical thinking, a child believes that the world revolves around him or her, and therefore that his own wishes can cause things to happen. Magical thinking starts at around the age of two and if all goes well starts to taper off at around the age of seven.6

In early childhood, magical thinking is shared by Muggles and wizards. For example, a small child, Muggle or wizard, who wishes desperately to go out and play on a rainy day will think it was his wish that made the sun suddenly come out—which wouldn’t be true even for the wizard child. Importantly, it’s not always fun, magical thinking. Children wish for things passionately, and they are not always little angels; they can be vengeful and selfish. When the “bad” wishes seem to come true, children are left feeling guilty as well as powerful. They can be traumatized by believing that their bad feelings caused grandma to die, or their parents to divorce.

As magical thinking begins to decline at about the age of seven, however, the Muggle and wizard worlds diverge. With a mixture of disappointment and relief, we Muggles learn that our wishes don’t actually come true. It takes a while, and it’s never a perfect process, but most of us come through this transition fairly well. As our reward, entire cable TV stations worth of fascinating, complex, and ultimately rational science awaits us. We relax in the knowledge that even if we don’t happen to understand why the world goes round or how a TV works, somebody does.

Conversely, this must be a very confusing time for Muggle-born wizards! Just as they are emerging into the social world of school, they discover that for them, the world is… different. They are old enough to realize that their wishes can sometimes make a difference, despite what everyone around them says. For Muggle-born wizards, early magical experiences typically express their deepest hopes and fears. Harry’s breakthrough magical experiences often protected him from bullies (such as “flying” up to the school roof when chased by Dudley and his gang7); he tried to find natural (i.e., Muggle) explanations, but the list of odd events was growing longer and more worrying.8 By contrast, Tom Riddle’s wishes helped him to bully others,9 and this was so pleasurable to him that he figured out what was going on early, and began to control his powers.10 We aren’t told, but perhaps Hermione Granger’s wishes helped her to read incredibly fast, or remember everything she read; she’s such a logical person that she may have begun to suspect something was going on. In any case, for all three of them, wishing successfully would have created a different empirical experience of the world from that of their adult teachers and guardians.

What confused feelings there must be when magical children get their first letter from Hogwarts! On the one hand, everything in their lives that feels crazy and unnatural is finally explained. On the other hand, discovering that magic is real is one heck of a challenge to everything they’ve been taught to believe. It must be liberating for them to find out they’re not crazy but that physical laws just don’t apply to them. However, it must be shocking, too, even for the power-hungry Tom Riddle (“‘I knew I was different,’ he whispered to his own trembling fingers…” 11). It changes their view of those who have raised and taught them. They, mere children, are right, and the adults who protect them are wrong, creating a separation that is not only physical but also, in some sense, existential. That’s a relief for poor Harry, who is glad to see the back of the Dursleys,12 but is it such a relief for those from loving homes?

The feeling of confidence in our own reason and that of our loved ones and our neighbors, our trust in a universe that is logical and predictable… what Muggle adult would trade all that for wishes and a magic wand? Because mysterious forces govern the world of magic; they are dark, whimsical, and terribly unsympathetic. For every magical camping tent, there is an enslaved house elf.13 For every bone quickly mended by a practiced Healer,14 there is a curse that makes your shoes eat your feet,15 or leaves bat wings flapping all over your face.16 In the wizarding world, as in fairy tales, wishes are tricky things; the ones that matter most turn out all wrong or go nowhere at all, while the petty, vengeful ones often come true. No wonder that, as a child, Neville Longbottom showed so little capacity for the magical thinking that would have called forth his magical talent.17 He used it all up in wishing for the impossible—the health of his cursed parents.

Poor wizards! J.K. Rowling tells us that a magical child is recognized at the moment of birth, their names jotted down by an enchanted quill.18 From that first moment, they enter a world in which their inner impulses will never be easily separated from the scientific laws of their universe. They learn that yes, wishes do sometimes come true, and also that it is difficult to control which do and which don’t. For them, the journey to adulthood is fraught with more danger than we Muggles can imagine. They will dwell in the nightmare world of magical thinking forever, and to survive there they have to develop control.

That’s where wizard science comes in. Just before those dangerously moody teen years, young wizards are whisked off to a lonely fortress where they can be taught to manage and focus their powers in a safe place where mistakes can be prevented, or at least corrected. They’re taught arcane words and gestures, potions recipes, caring for magical plants, the movement of the planets—the basic science of their kind (in the sense of “skill”—definition 7—or the sense of “systematized knowledge”—definition 4). At Hogwarts, at least, there’s no literature or art class, no exploration of wizard social studies or philosophy—with the exception of History of Magic and Muggle Studies, the classes are all science. Verifiable, testable knowledge and precise skill in applying that knowledge are so critical to their survival, there’s little time left over for the liberal arts.

Through the study of wizard science, the raw emotional power of wishes is channeled into categories such as Arithmancy, Charms, Transfiguration, Divination, Potions, and practical compilations like Defense Against the Dark Arts (C.f. definition 4: “systemized knowledge”). There is especially great emphasis on science in the sense of definition 7: “skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency”. Young magic users are taught the importance of precision and the consequences of sloppiness. Professor Flitwick makes this point early in Harry’s magical education: “Never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.” 19 Thus the exhilaration young wizards must naturally feel at the power of their wishes is inhibited by a healthy respect for the knowledge it takes to avoid disaster.

And so, wizards may not comprehend (or obey) a Muggle’s physical laws, but wizards definitely have science; it’s safer that way. In fact, given their potential for mayhem, they probably developed the scientific method rather earlier than the rest of us. Ancient shamans and priestesses may well have actually been wizards and witches, sequestering themselves and any young talents from temptation and risk, secretly experimenting with their powers and learning what does and does not work, telling superstitious Muggles that their magic was the work of gods.20

The magic-users we meet in the Harry Potter series study time-tested, ancient knowledge (science in the sense of definition 5: “knowledge, as of facts or principles”) that has been shown to work safely—presumably as a result of either purposeful or accidental experimentation. Young witches and wizards are instructed to imitate and repeat words, gestures, and thoughts that have been used by other wizards for a thousand years or more. Even prehistoric wizards must have found magical ways to record what they learned and pass it on; a Pensieve may be the oldest kind of book. Innovation is possible (like the Half-Blood Prince with his sprig of peppermint21), but not encouraged in the curriculum before the NEWT-level classes. They even use Latin words in their spells! Certainly there are other magical traditions, elsewhere in the world, with different practices and beliefs. Yet all are likely to be conservative; a Chinese wizard couldn’t safely pronounce “Wingardium Leviosa,” but I suspect he uses an ancient version of Chinese in his own incantations.

Despite this conservatism, however, there is evidence of adult scientific exploration, which enters into the realm of definition 2, “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” While we don’t hear of wizard universities, we have met wizards who want to learn more about their gift and their world: Hagrid is passionate about Magical Creatures; Mr. Weasley collects Muggle plugs.22 And magic is such an interesting subject! I imagine that research wizards will be found poring over scrolls and books, discovering conflicts between one authority and another, and experimenting their way toward a resolution (a dangerous business; think of Luna Lovegood’s mother, who died during such an experiment23). Many of them must publish, and much of what is published will be read by a people raised to respect the importance of reading the instructions.

Evidently, there is also strong market demand for new ideas; inventions abound, which requires some understanding of magical principals, beyond simple proficiency at applying rote patterns. Entrepreneurial wizards and witches like Fred and George Weasley develop disposable pre-packaged spells for the less talented wizard; creating something as innovative as a scripted, on-demand daydream goes beyond the applications which are taught in classes at Hogwarts.24 That strongly suggests that Fred and George must have learned something about how magic works which allowed them to innovate, even though we don’t learn much about that part of their education. There is a hint that innovation is not entirely absent from the Hogwarts curriculum. In Horace Slughorn’s NEWT-level potions class, for example, true success demands more from the students than just following a recipe, which leads to only mediocre results (to Hermione’s chagrin25). Instead, the superior results achieved by the Half-Blood Prince26 show that creative experimentation is an important part of success in potions.

Still, from the point of view of a Muggle-science enthusiast, it’s all very practical: applied science. Even though wizards probe into the way magic works at the level of what they can make it do, they stop short of truly understanding the underlying forces that make magic work. It seems that wizards do not deeply seek “knowledge of the physical or material world” (definition 2) as a Muggle scientist would define it, because knowing how aspects of magic function (cf. Golpalott’s Third Law) doesn’t tell you anything about why. Where is the pure science? Isn’t someone studying why it all works? Identifying a Unified Magical Field Theory? Do they wonder whether magic springs from the earth itself, and wish to find out if it works in outer space? Surely, somewhere, once upon a time, there was a less fragmented, more powerful magic, perhaps back when Indo-European was the language of the day, and before magic wands were invented. Does anyone but me wonder if something crucial has been lost along the path to refinement and control? Doesn’t anyone want to know what it was, how it worked? I’m curious; aren’t they?

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t seem so. In the Muggle world, this type of exploration takes place in universities, but we haven’t heard anything about wizard universities, or even a mention of magical theory. It’s interesting to speculate as to why not. Could it be that ancient wizards proved that the true nature of magic was unknowable, and everyone ever since has accepted this received wisdom and given up? This doesn’t seem like human nature to me, and wizards surely partake of human nature—there’s always someone who wants to prove the ancestors wrong. At the very least, this non-explanation would fail to satisfy the Muggle-born magic users, who must face questions from their (un-Dursley) families and indeed have questions themselves about how to bridge the gulf between Muggle and magical science.

Another possibility is that the wizarding world already knows what magic is—it’s just so basic that it’s like breathing, so they don’t bother to teach it or talk about it. Evidently, Muggle-born magic users adapt quickly to their new world and revel in it, like little Dennis Creevey, delighted about his encounter with the beneficent giant squid that lives in Hogwarts’ lake.27 Possibly this acceptance is in some way built in to wizard genes; even Harry, who at first has trouble believing he is a wizard,28 is not skeptical that magic exists, only that he is a magic user. It also may be that since magical thinking is an early stage of development for all humans, the transition from the Muggle world to the wizarding world isn’t really all that hard. You don’t question your magic if it’s something you’ve always believed in on the deepest level.

That’s plausible, but fails to explain--at least to me--why the theory of magic isn’t taught. Schools love to teach about ordinary things if they can manage to do it in complicated ways; I myself remember an excruciating biology lesson on the biochemical process of breathing! A thorough student like Hermione loves these kinds of complexities; she would surely have found a book somewhere that broke magic down into phyla and processes, explaining in grinding detail why some people are magical and others aren’t—if such a book existed.29

It’s also possible that far from being simple, magical theory is too complicated to teach at a secondary school level. In my Muggle experience, nature rarely gives up its secrets easily. For one thing, you seem to need to know an inordinate amount of math (which isn’t even taught at Hogwarts, unless there’s algebra in Arithmancy). In our own world, few Muggles have tried to understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and when they do they have reported unpleasant side-effects, including headaches and existential angst.30 But at least Muggles can study Relativity if we want to, and some brave souls do. We respect them for it; they are rewarded with prestigious prizes and proudly pictured on dormitory posters. Wouldn’t wizards also celebrate the rare genius among them who can bring them closer to a fundamental understanding of the nature of their universe? At least their work would be touched on in History of Magic, along with those boring goblin wars. No, even a very complicated theory of magic would not be so completely lacking from the Hogwarts curriculum. Why do we hear nothing about it?

I suppose it’s possible that ancient priest-wizards created a magical inhibition against probing too deeply into the source of magic, and imposed it on the race. But that begs the question… why? Is it dangerous? If so, the goings on in the Department of Mysteries may have something to do with scientifically exploring or working with the theory and source of magic. We know that they have delved deeply into mysteries like time and death, creating Time-Turners and the mysterious veil.31 It may turn out that they do have the secret. But we still don’t know why the fundamental nature of magic would be a secret in the first place. And in any case, we can’t forget that the Department of Mysteries is a government department. From what we’ve seen of their Ministers, it’s hard for me to imagine that the Ministry of Magic is funding much in the way of pure research. It seems most likely to me that the Unspeakables32 will be working on things that are useful to governments, like weapons of mass destruction and tax collection spells. For example, Time-Turners are very practical inventions, useful for spies and policemen.33

Only J.K. Rowling knows for sure, but… I do have a theory. The individual wizards we meet, even Hermione, seem remarkably incurious about their gift, and there may be a psychological explanation. I believe that—at least in part—the lack of interest in magical theory stems from the nature of childhood experience. Wizards and witches first encountered their power in the form of magical thinking, when they were small children, and magic a scary, inchoate thing of wishes and nightmares. Wizards and witches never leave magical thinking behind and enter the sunlit world of rationality. They retain the fears and taboos of early childhood (“step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back”). Children tend to be afraid of the dark! Just as a child won’t look under the bed because she knows there’s a monster there, wizards don’t look too closely at the sometimes dark impulses that drive their magical powers.

For despite the importance of magical science, magic as a force of nature is as unpredictable as the human heart. Evidence strongly suggests that magic springs from the deepest reaches of the human psyche: Harry draws magical strength from the wished-for Love he barely remembers from infancy, and so desperately needs after a childhood of heartless neglect; Voldemort from a Fear of death engendered by the trauma of his mother’s unforgivable abandonment. If these inner impulses are the true source of magic, then when magic users seek the source of their power, they face their deepest fears and losses.

The stories of the wizarding world’s two most powerful wizards contain intriguing suggestions about the source of magical power. Dumbledore, the strongest magic user of Harry’s time, told Harry that in the Mirror of Erised, which shows you the thing you desire most, “The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is.” 34 When Harry asks him, he says that he would see himself “holding a pair of [...] socks.” 35 Just a pair of socks, nothing to do with power, wealth, personal losses, frustrated hopes. Harry, a deprived child who is filled with poignant wishes, assumes that Dumbledore did not intend to tell him what he would really see.

But Dumbledore is old, and wise enough to thoroughly understand how wishing for what you cannot have will rob you of what happiness is truly available. “This mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it...” 36 I believe he was telling the truth: he would see himself just as he is, give or take a pair of socks. Could it be that he is so powerful because he can master his fears and wishes, to the point where he accepts himself and his life completely?

Conversely, is Voldemort so powerful because he has actively (if horribly) challenged his fear of death, and even thoroughly embraced his sadistic impulses (which would make most people collapse in self-loathing)? The “exception that proves the rule” is that Voldemort’s only magical weakness arises from his failure to understand Love,37 something he never received in the orphanage (“a grim place in which to grow up”).38 Unlike Harry, who was showered with Love in his first year of life, Voldemort has missed this key element completely, and perhaps for that reason has never explored or developed the part of his inner being that could tap into the power of Love. Dumbledore shows Harry this phase of Voldemort’s life because it is so critical to understanding this single weakness.39

If this is so—that the source of magical power is the wizard’s deepest fears and wishes, no matter how petty, tragic, heroic, or vile they may be—few magic users will ever make the journey of self-knowledge that could help them to gain access to the source of their own power. I believe that Dumbledore has carefully prepared Harry to make this journey, keeping him away from undue attention in his childhood that could have turned him into a Voldemort-like narcissist. As a result, Harry’s already on the right path by his first year at Hogwarts. His deepest wish (Love) leads him to resist cruelty in all its forms: in his last encounter with the Mirror of Erised (so far), Harry saw himself protecting others from Voldemort’s schemes by hiding what Voldemort desired, even though he could die for doing so.40 I predict that as Harry continues to confront his suffering and his anger and, emulating Dumbledore, gains the self-understanding he needs to accept that not all wishes can or should be granted, he will become a stronger magic-user—strong enough to overcome the ultimate bully.

If all of this is true, then in understanding the source of magical power, we stray far from science, into realms of morality and spirituality. When it comes to finding out why the world is as it is, Muggle science diverges completely from the wizard’s path. Muggle scientific theory is based on the idea that the secrets of nature are entirely “out there,” whether in the vast reaches of the cosmos or in the tiny forces that bind atomic particles. Our scientists can pry into the nature of existence without facing their inner darkness; not so magic-users. Understanding the fundamental nature of magic requires an inward journey that is dangerous to the unprepared mind. Tapping into its greatest power brings out the worst in magic users (Voldemort) as well as the best (Dumbledore). So the wizard mind protects itself by limiting scientific curiosity about magic to its most external, “out there” form: how to apply and control it. Perhaps wizards don’t wonder why magic works because, when you come right down to it, they don’t want to know. That would be really dangerous.


Notes

1. Dictionary.com, s.v. “science.”

2. Wikipedia, s.v. “Thermodynamics.”

3. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 374.

4. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 24.

5. Notes from: Coon, Dennis. Introduction to Psychology, Exploration and Application.

6. Ibid. Anyone who has ever known a child of two will understand Mr. Piaget’s point about believing you’re the center of the universe. And anyone who has ever watched grown men scream at the TV during a football game will understand that it’s something we never entirely get over.

7. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 25.

8. Ibid., 24–30. In this rare case, Harry’s guardians had a better idea of what was going on than he did.

9. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 270–73.

10. Ibid., 276.

11. Ibid., 271.

12. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 58.

13. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 80, 136–37.

14. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 156.

15. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 485.

16. Ibid., 760.

17. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 125.

18. “Scholastic Online Chat,” 3 February 2000.

19. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 171.

20. Support for this theory is found in Muggle anthropology, where it has been observed that certain aspects of ancient religions are based on “magical thinking”. Common forms include: (1) “the law of similarity”, in which “an effect resembles its cause”, found in wizard Herbology, where, for example, a mandrake root is thought to be powerful for healing because of its man-like shape; (2) the “law of contagion”, in which a magical connection can be established between separated things, as in the Floo Network; and (3) the belief that certain words can influence the world, as in incantations. An interesting effect of that last belief is the fear of speaking certain names—“speak of the devil and he’ll appear”—such as, for example, “Voldemort” (Wikipedia, s.v. “Magical Thinking”).

21. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 475.

22. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 46.

23. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 863.

24. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 117, and thanks to SeverineSnape for this good observation.

25. Ibid., 217.

26. Ibid., 191.

27. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 179.

28. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 58.

29. Many thanks to SeverineSnape for this excellent observation.

30. Well, at least one Muggle has reported these side-effects—me.

31. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 774.

32. Ibid., 539.

33. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 395.

34. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 213.

35. Ibid, 214.

36. Ibid., 213.

37. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 844.

38. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 268.

39. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 843-44.

40. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 292.


Bibliography

Coon, Dennis. Introduction to Psychology, Exploration and Application. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1989.

Dictionary.com, s.v. “science,” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/science (accessed 24 October 2006).

Piaget, Jean. The Essential Piaget. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1977.

“Piaget's Cognitive Stages,” Notes from Dennis Coon, Introduction to Psychology, Exploration, and Application. http://www.noteaccess.com/APPROACHES/ArtEd/ChildDev/PiagetCogS.htm.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.

———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.

———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.

Rowling, J.K. “Scholastic Online Chat Transcript.” Scholastic, February 3, 2000. http://www.Mugglenet.com/books/scholchat1.shtml.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Magical Thinking.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_thinking (accessed 24 October 2006).

———, s.v. “Thermodynamics.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermodynamics (accessed 24 October 2006).


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