Harry Potter’s magical world can help illuminate science: Roger Highfield

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Updated: Feb 09, 2020 3:02 AM

The help from science wasn't exactly scientific—it was rather a bit of advice on staying healthy outside your country from a winner of Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Harry Potter, Roger Highfield, Gene Machine, JK Rowling, Science of Harry Potter, Arthur C ClarkeAuthor Roger Highfield at the 13th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival 

Roger Highfield needed a curious mix of magic and science to make his first-ever visit to India. The magic came from Harry Potter. The help from science wasn’t exactly scientific—it was rather a bit of advice on staying healthy outside your country from a winner of Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“Venki Ramakrishnan encouraged me to go to the Jaipur Literature Festival,” says Highfield, the author of The Science of Harry Potter, about receiving advice from the famous scientist. The advice for JLF came after Highfield interviewed Ramakrishnan on the Nobel winner’s new book, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, at the London edition of JLF last year.

Ramakrishnan even gave Highfield advice on vegetables and what to avoid at the meal table. “He was worried about my well-being,” says the British author of eight popular science books and science director at the Science Museum Group in the United Kingdom. At the 13th edition of the JLF held during January 23-27, Highfield’s session on the science of Harry Potter drew a huge audience to the Diggi Palace heritage venue of the festival.

“The kids asked the best questions,” says Highfield, who took the JLF audience, most of them children and young adults, on a journey through the magical world created by JK Rowling. Written in 2002 when Rowling’s series was halfway, The Science of Harry Potter explores if the book’s wizardry and magic match up to real-world muggle technology.

“Scientific method is the most powerful way to understand the world,” says Highfield, who wrote about the incredible feats of Santa Claus and his flying reindeers in his 1999 work, The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey. “Harry’s magical world can help illuminate rather than undermine science,” he adds.

The Science of Harry Potter begins with a quote from celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Highfield, who believes Potter magic casts a fascinating light on some of the most interesting issues that researchers struggle with today, writes: “Enchantment, spell, curse and other sorcery throw down a challenge to modern science.”

Highfield interviewed nearly 100 scientists to investigate broomsticks, sorting hats, the Marauder’s Map and magical creatures. “So many scientists were ready to put up with this deranged writer to bring Harry Potter to life scientifically,” he says. Hermione’s Time Turner relates to quantum mechanics and general relativity that allows teleportation of properties of one atom to another. The brain scanning technology with magnetic resonance imaging could explain the Sorting Hat. The Marauder’s Map has a lot to do with GPS and Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Notes Quill is certainly voice-recognition technology.

Much has changed since the publication of The Science of Harry Potter. Many more explanations are available for the magic of Harry Potter today than at the beginning of the millennium. Rowling didn’t even mention horcruxes in her series before the sixth and penultimate book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

“One of my frustrations is that after the book came out, there were several mathematically closer schemes for invisibility,” says Highfield. British scientist John Pendry published papers on metamaterials in 2006 and Duke University computer engineering teacher David Smith produced the first invisibility cloak using them. “There is great interest today in so-called metamaterials and that was a much more elegant way to make the invisible cloak,” says Highfield. “I would also have loved to talk about artificial intelligence.”

If Highfield were to write another book on the science of Harry Potter, climate change would find itself on the top of the list of key topics. “Climate change is really the issue of the day,” he says. “It would be interesting to ask how much energy is required to power the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

“I am interested in Harry Potter’s carbon footprint. I am also intrigued to know Voldemort’s carbon footprint. I am assuming that because he is the bad guy he must have a bigger carbon footprint,” he says. Maybe even know about Harry’s green magic. “That would be an interesting angle to investigate,” says Highfield, who gets fan mail everyday, saying he should update The Science of Harry Potter. “Every single field has moved on a bit. I will have to rewrite the entire book,” he says.

The author is a freelancer

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