Monday, 27 November 2006

The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works, Roger Highfield, 2003

The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic really Works, by Roger Highfield, Headline, 2003, Hardback, 374 pages, ISBN 0-7553-1150-7, $29.99.

Wizard Wheeze

If Marie Curie had not lived, we still would have discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. But if J.K. Rowling had not been born, we would never have known about Harry Potter.”
You might not expect an Oxford D. Phil, who wrote a best-selling life of Einstein, to pen that amazing thought, but Dr Highfield is also the first person to bounce a neutron of a soap bubble and the author of a book examining the scientific background of Santa’s flying reindeer.

Best of all this immensely readable account of the science behind Harry Potter has the ultimate accolade on its cover: “Not approved or endorsed by J.K. Rowling or Warner Bros.” No better guarantee of integrity could be made.

Dr Highfield invited more than a hundred fellow scientists around the world to comment on aspects of the Potter magic, which as all science fiction readers know brings us to Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum quoted here as “Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic”.

The scientific wizards suggested all sorts of connections between magic and muggledom. The Sorting Hat leads to the reading of brain waves by magnetoencephalography, while Madam Pomfrey’s Skele-Gro is linked to osteoblasts and bone morphogenic protein. The Whomping Willow involves the hydraulic technology of trees. We learn about current research in everything from the IQ of owls to the role of taste receptors in judging Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. It’s the ear-wax ones that frighten me but Highfield offers some terrifying alternatives.

The levitating frogs are the best bit; it seems you can levitate frogs in an electromagnet without harm. (Highfield also notes that “no mythical beasts were harmed” in the writing of this book.) There is even a shrewd attempt at locating Hogwarts. The giant squid suggests a Scottish loch with former sea access, but discoveries by our own NIWA scientists may indicate a location nearer to the Chathams Rise (with the aid of a little magic, of course).

Poisons, game theory, everlasting clothes, John Dee, monsters, alchemy, the mathematics of Evil, genetics, Nicholas Flamel, the Big Bang, astrology, time travel and ethnobotany are all introduced with the same verve. The analysis of superstition (and why we cling to it) is a good example of logical prose at its best. “With the urge to link cause and effect in everyday life remaining as strong as ever, the result is superstition – lots of it, mad, glorious, daft and everywhere.” His examples include a baseball player who ate lemon chicken before every game for twenty years!

This is all clear, lively science-for-the-layman writing and we need all we can get of that. Dr Highfield writes well and thinks clearly. He communicates his joy in science but he knows his Wordsworth and his J.K. Rowling as well. The Science of Harry Potter is a pleasure to read.
It is even touching, as when the author concludes, “Science may be special but Harry, as a work of art, is more so. Harry Potter is unique.”

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on April 19th 2003

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