The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works

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9780755311507: The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works

Magic and science may seem like strange bedfellows, but in this captivating and far-ranging book, respected science journalist Roger Highfield nimbly illustrates how the two disciplines are actually deeply intertwined in the Harry Potter books. Like Highfield's The Physics of Christmas, The Science of Harry Potter teases out the scientific explanations and surprising factual foundation of marvels and mysteries-only this time instead of reindeer and Santa, Highfield trains his eye on dragons, broomsticks, and all the wonderful oddities of J. K. Rowling's enchanted world. Highfield uses the amazing elements of the Harry Potter books as a springboard into discussions of fascinating scientific issues. He delves into the archaeology of witchcraft, tracing the origin and uses of wands and cauldrons as revealed at ancient European dig sites. He speculates on the astounding connection between hallucinogens and flying broomsticks and the bizarre drug-taking practices of medieval witches. The potions and charms that Harry has so much trouble replicating in Snape's class are in fact grounded in the science of ethnobotany. Here too is a plausible account of the cutting-edge physics that explains the invisibility cloak and the genetic engineering behind the creation of Fluffy the three-headed dog.

As Highfield reminds us, "wizard" actually means wise man-and wizardry and science were closely related fields before Newton. As enlightening as it is delightful, The Science of Harry Potter sheds light not only on Harry Potter's magical realm, but also on the magic that is taking place in labs and science classrooms in our own "muggle" world.

This book is not authorized, prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any other individual or entity associated with the Harry Potter books or movie. Harry Potter is the registered trademark of Time Warner Entertainment Company, L.P.

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About the Author:

Dr. Roger Highfield is science editor of The Daily Telegraph, which has published several thousand of his articles since 1986. A regular broadcaster on the BBC and the winner of several journalism awards, Highfield is the author of The Physics of Christmas and coauthor of such highly acclaimed books as The Arrow of Time and The Private Lives of Albert Einstein.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Broomsticks, Time Travel
and Splinching

"The Bludgers are up!" yells the commentator. In the airborne stadium with golden goalposts, two teams of seven players zoom around on broomsticks, swooping and weaving as they dodge their opponents' missiles-Bludgers-while trying to score with the red Quaffle. The game of Quidditch enthralls the broomstick-riding Harry, who tries to catch the Golden Snitch and win the game for Gryffindor House.

The wizarding world's favorite form of transport, the broomstick, is one of its worst-kept secrets, for every Muggle knows that witches and wizards use them to get about. Even now, scientists and engineers are trying to figure out how they do so. The most prized of racing broomsticks, the Nimbus 2000 and the Firebolt, probably use extremely advanced technology to defy the tug of Earth's gravity, a technology that has massive commercial and scientific implications. Researchers from NASA would sell their grandmothers to obtain Harry's broomstick, not to mention Hover Charms, Mr. Weasley's enchanted turquoise Ford Anglia, the flying motorbike that Hagrid borrowed from Sirius Black, or the candles that hover in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, all of which suggest that witches and wizards must know how to turn gravity on and off at will.

Exotic materials that can produce antigravity could also pave the way to wormholes, hypothetical shortcuts between two widely separated points in space-time. You could, for example, step into one end of a wormhole and emerge from the other a million miles away, 10,000 years in the past. There are several episodes in the Harry Potter books where wizards travel through a shortcut to Platform Nine and 3/4, or to visit the Diagon Alley wizard shopping arcade. Maybe they made these quick trips by wriggling through wormholes.

Enchanted travel opportunities do not end there. Harry used Floo powder to flit about. Other objects and people can appear out of thin air, whether the Knight bus, the food that fills plates at mealtimes, or a wizard clutching an old boot. Such remarkable materializations could be due to exotic technology, perhaps similar to that used in Star Trek to beam members of the Enterprise down to the surface of alien planets. Today, the possibility of such extraordinary feats taking place can be glimpsed when properties of atoms have been shuffled around the laboratory by practitioners of a leading-edge field called quantum teleportation.

The Quest to Fly with Broomsticks

It is a dream that is as old as humanity: to step out into thin air and fly like a bird, to cast off the bonds of gravity, to soar free, zooming through the clouds with the wind rustling past our outstretched and rapidly flapping arms.

Why, then, can't we fly? The short answer is that we are not birds. The longer one is that the human body is unable to deliver the right combination of thrust and lift. The longest answer I intend to give is that we lack feathers to help generate lift and propulsion, efficient lung design, large enough hearts, hollow bones to reduce our weight, and adequate muscle power to generate a sufficient flap.

While we cannot fly unaided, a broomstick is not as preposterous a form of transport as it sounds. Even NASA has pronounced on broomstick propulsion: A considered overview of the various technologies on offer has been put together by Mark Millis, who has the impressive title of project manager for the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project at the NASA Glen Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Millis began with the oldest technology, a balloon-assisted broomstick. This does not seem like a particularly promising contender for Harry's wooden steed. First, a blimplike construction would seem unlikely to achieve the Firebolt's quoted performance of zero to 150 mph in ten seconds. (That's fast, although a fraction of the performance of a 6,000-horsepower dragster, which can cover a quarter-mile from a standing start in less than five seconds to reach 320-plus mph.) Millis also points out that balloon-based vehicles would make easy targets for Bludgers.

How about an airplane-style broom? Intriguingly, this suggestion is more magical than it may at first seem. A century after the Wright brothers made their first flight, Jef Raskin, a former professor at the University of California at San Diego and the inventor of the Macintosh computer, says that the usual popular textbook explanations for what keeps aircraft aloft are wrong.

Aircraft fly because air travels faster over the top surface of each wing than underneath. A theory by Dutch-born Daniel Bernoulli established that this speed difference produces a drop in air pressure over the top of the wing, which generates lift. (You can demonstrate this effect at home by blowing between two dollar bills.) But there is a problem, says Raskin. "The naive explanation attributes the lift to the difference in length between the curved top of a wing and the flat bottom of the wing. If this were true, planes could not fly upside down, for then the curve would be on the bottom and the flat on the top." But planes can fly upside down, and not only do some wings have the same curve on top and bottom, but even flat-winged paper airplanes can take to the skies.

The key question remains: How do wings generate lift? Robert Bowles of University College London, a mathematician with expertise in aerodynamics, agrees with Raskin that lift occurs when the flow of air around a wing is turned downward. When flow is deflected in one direction, lift is generated in the opposite direction, according to Newton's third law of motion. However, for a wing, it is crucial to understand that the downward flow depends on air being both deflected by the underside of the wing and bent by the topside.

The latter is trickier to visualize. Because air is slightly viscous it tends to stick to the top of the wing and can generate whirling masses of air called vortices. You can see this effect by adding a dash of milk to black coffee and moving a spoon through it, revealing how movement through such a "sticky" fluid generates a coffee vortex. As vortices are shed by the top surface of a wing, the flow turns downward to generate an upward force on the wing.

With the right equipment, you could detect a force on your spoon as you move it through the coffee, says Bowles. This force-the same as the one that keeps a wing aloft-depends on the angle of attack and the shape of the spoon. Mathematical models show that even flat wings can fly if they have an angle of attack to deflect air downward. As for planes flying upside down, the lift can remain positive even if the angle of attack is negative, because of the shape-a stretched teardrop-of the wing.

Although this "airfoil theory" is now standard in books on mathematical fluid mechanics, some mysteries of flight remain. How to capture the essence of turbulence (when air flow is disorderly), in a computer or clever mathematical formula has in no way been mastered by even the best Muggle scientists. Turbulence is generated to some degree by all forms of flight through air. Next time you board an aircraft, just remember that a little magic helps to keep you aloft.

Wings mark a conventional solution to the broomstick problem, and one that would be a good way to build up frequent-flyer miles, though it may be easy to lose your luggage, remarked Millis, a not entirely serious answer. Save a mention of the Slytherin team whizzing through the air like jump jets, however the many references to swooping and soaring on brooms contain no suggestion of wings, engines, or any such equipment. Harry must sit on exotic technology.

How about a rocket-assisted broom? This is an entirely feasible solution, but a stick thus outfitted could be tricky to steer and, given the long robes that wizards wear, something of a fire hazard. Which brings us to the antigravity and warp-drive brooms, a more promising approach, and a technology in which NASA seems to be very interested. Although it does not use the terms "antigravity" or "warp drive," Millis acknowledges that NASA is investigating related research at the frontier of physics.

The Quest for Antigravity

Conventional attempts to fly have relied on generating another force to counter its tug and, so far, no one has ever found any way of "shielding" matter from its effects. That, of course, has not stopped people from trying to turn off the most familiar force in the Muggles' universe. One can imagine the excitement caused in 1992 when the Russian researcher Evgeny Podkletnov announced to the world in an paper in the obscure journal Physica C that he had shielded an area of space from gravity. The apparatus that accomplished this consisted of a cooled and magnetically suspended ring of superconducting ceramic material disk 145 millimeters in diameter and 6 millimeters thick. Podkletnov applied an alternating electric current to coils surrounding the disk to make it rotate and found that this setup reduced the weight of any object placed over it by up to 2 percent. He observed the antigravity effect with a wide range of materials, ranging from ceramics to wood. The faster the rotations, the greater the reduction in gravity's force.

With Petri Vuorinen of Tampere University, Finland, Podkletnov submitted a second paper in 1996 to Journal of Physics-D. This time, however, the paper's description of additional experiments was picked up by the media and he seems to have been accused of sorcery by his peers. Tampere University-whose Institute of Material Science was at the center of the controversy generated by the announcement-declared that it no longer had links with Podkletnov, and refused to comment on whether the antigravity device functioned or not. Vuorinen denied being involved in the project, the paper was not published, and the work was dismissed as fantasy.

One of the hallmarks of real science is the way that, even if great scientists like Newton and Einstein had never lived, others would have eventually made their discoveries. In the case of antigravity, another scientist, Ning Li, had been independently researching gravity modification at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and had studied the possibility that superconductors might generate bizarre gravitational effects, as predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity (general relativity). In the mid 1990s she, too, seemed to be getting somewhere-fast-spinning charged atoms in her superconductor were producing a gravitational field-but then she dropped out of sight.

Inspired by Podkletnov's paper in Physica C, a number of scientific institutions decided to take a closer look. Ron Koczor and his colleagues at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, had taken an earlier interest in Li's work but could not determine how best to test her ideas with experiments. Podkletnov's approach seemed to be a simpler way to do the same thing. But their first attempts to reproduce his gravity-defying experiments proved futile according to a 1997 paper by Koczor's team.

At the time of writing, Koczor was awaiting delivery of a replica of Podkletnov's apparatus, which NASA had commissioned with $600,000 from the company Superconductive Components of Columbus, Ohio. Aware of the skeptics, of which there are very many, Koczor stresses that it is important to keep an open mind until he has a chance to test the device. (He adds: "Please don't call it an antigravity machine. You don't know the level of heartburn and pain that would cause me.")

Other commercial organizations have stated that, though they doubt the effect is real, the implications of this research are too huge to ignore. If a souped-up version of this apparatus could be fitted on a spacecraft, rocket propulsion would be history: a nudge is all that would be required for lift-off. The same, of course, would go for a broomstick: one prod, and your toes would soon be skimming the ground.


One striking example of gravity defiance is found in an enchanting toy called the Levitron, which consists of a magnet, in the form of a spinning top, that can hover an inch or three above a repelling magnetic base. At first sight, the Levitron seems truly magical. We have known that such a device should not function since 1842, when Samuel Earnshaw of St. John's College, Cambridge, published a paper that showed that levitation should be impossible using stationary magnets. The American inventor Roy Harrigan was assured as much by Muggle wizards, who warned him that he was wasting his time by trying to defy Earnshaw's theorem. Fortunately he ignored them and, like a true magician, pulled the Levitron out of his hat two decades ago, and the toy was then developed by Bill Hones of the company Fascination Inc. As if to underline its magical ability, the toy's patents referred to how its stability depended on the way it spins like a top but missed one important scientific point. Although this explanation actually violates Earnshaw's theorem, the Levitron's ability to hover patently does not.

A convincing scientific account of how it works had to wait until a 1996 study by Sir Michael Berry. Working at the University of Bristol, Berry is one of the wizards of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary scientific theory of the past century, which was developed by European physicists who realized that the previous theories of physics did not hold true for subatomic particles, such as electrons.

The "antigravity" force that repels the top from the base of the Levitron is magnetism. Think of the base magnet with its north pole pointing up, and the top as a magnet with its north pole pointing down. As anyone who has played around with magnets knows, there is repulsion between two north poles, which balances the downward tug of gravity and makes the Levitron float.

However, in order for the toy to function, the top has to spin; otherwise, the magnetic force would flip it over. Then its south pole would point downward, and the force from the base would be attractive-that is, in the same direction as gravity-and the top would fall. The tricky part for Berry was explaining how a slight horizontal or vertical movement of the Levitron produces a force pushing the top back toward the point about which it gently bobs and weaves. It is precisely because it wobbles (technically speaking, the top "precesses") that it does not violate Earnshaw's theorem. In recent decades, one of the building blocks of atoms, the neutrons, has been trapped using a similar effect, so the theory has implications far beyond magnetic toys. However, there are no references in Harry Potter to spinning broomsticks, so there must be another way to overcome Earnshaw.

Enter the curious case of the levitating frogs, which, once again, blurs the distinctions between science and magic. The feat was carried out by Andrey Geim while at the Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory in Holland, working with Peter Main and Humberto Carmona. The team suspended a frog in midair without use of mirrors, strings, sleight of hand or any other trickery. They defeated the force of gravity with a balancing force of magnetism rather than attempting to turn gravity off at its source. "This is, in fact, as close ...

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