Magical Science

31 May 2013

Screw all the dim memories of the new bicycle, the birthday pizza and the unlimited Fanta: it’s time to admit that your eleventh birthday was a catastrophic disappointment, and it’s all J.K. Rowling’s fault. Was it not she, after all, who suggested that on that day, a Hogwarts owl would arrive bringing the news that would liberate you from the mundane physical world?

Lies. Not a single owl came to shit on your roof, let alone to post a magical letter in your mailbox. You received no letter of acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Your broomsticks would not be enchanted for aviation, but stored for sanitation. And instead of learning the magical arts, you would remain bound for the rest of your days by those cantankerous and restrictive laws of science and physics.

Meanwhile, Harry Potter and his mates gallivanted around a musty old school building, woefully ignorant of the molecular miracles of DNA or Einstein’s notion of four-dimensional spacetime, looking down on our muggle science as but a novelty. But as they sit idly by and let magic do all their thinking for them, scientists down in the real world have been getting work done.

Science may lack the grandeur and ‘black-is-the-new-black’ fashion-sense of Hogwarts’ finest, but it is well on its way to giving so-called ‘magic’ a run for its Galeons. In the years since Pottermania reached its peak, science has already managed to levitate a frog by exploiting the diamagnetic properties of its atoms, while elsewhere researchers in Texas have crafted a real-life ‘ultra-thin’ invisibility cloak, which disrupts and cancels out scattering light, ensuring no image reaches the human eye.

And as for Apparition? Sure, we may not be able to teleport bulky matter like crocodiles, old DVD collections or human beings across the globe just yet. However, smaller-scale particle teleportation has been experimentally achieved so many times already, it’s practically old news. As quantum theory tells us, any two particles can remain ‘entangled’ with each other no matter how many millions f miles separate them. This phenomenon has allowed scientists to effectively teleport photon particles across huge distances, with the current record of 143km having been set last year.

Some may dismiss these scientific developments as uninspiring when compared to ‘real’ magic, since they work within physical laws rather than in opposition to them. “If you can physically explain it, it ain’t magic and it ain’t cool”, they snort. Such individuals may be easily rebuked by the worlds of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Take the humble little magnet, for example. Many hundreds of years ago, cultures were mystified and overawed by the otherworldly ‘lodestones’, which could magically be used to locate true North and which somehow attracted iron without ever touching the metal. The stones were surrounded by superstition – understandable given their unique properties and relative scarcity.

But today, magnetism is part and parcel of any elementary science course. It has since been unified with another phenomenon once thought to be supernatural; electricity, to give us baseload power generation, mobile phones, computers and the many merry technologies that derive thereof (mostly cat videos). Of course, the incredible magnetic powers of the lodestone haven’t changed one iota since the time they were thought to be enchanted; now we just understand them in profound detail and use them to make kick-ass technology. That’s the beauty of science, really.

In the end, J.K. Rowling never really had much to offer you besides empty magical promises and the misapprehension that someday you too would get to snog an 18 year-old Daniel Radcliffe waiting for that fateful owl-post, when it is the realm of science that long before the technology of the Nintendo Wii Remote develops into an honest-to-goodness wand? How long before smartphone GPS gives everyone their own personal Marauder’s Map?

Aspiring wizards: just stick with science. That’s where the real magic is at.

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