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The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works
Roger Highfield
New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
$14.00, 322 pages, ISBN 0-14-200355-7.

Donna Spalding Andréolle
Université Stendhal – Grenoble III


Although the title of the book may fool the reader into assuming that The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works is actually an analysis of the Harry Potter series, the introduction entitled “The Science of Magic” clears up any confusion by announcing the aims of the book: “the first half,” proclaims the author, “can be read as a secret scientific study of everything that goes on at Hogwarts and the wizarding world” whereas “the second half of the book focuses more on the origins of magical thinking, whether expressed by myth, legend, witchcraft or monsters” [p. xxi]. In fact, the reader comes to understand that the book is a science primer for general audiences, written by the science editor of The Daily Telegraph who is also the author of another book with the intriguing title The Physics of Christmas.

In Part I, Highfield therefore goes about explaining in a systematic manner the possible “scientific” dimensions behind such objects as the sorting hat (an analysis of the amazing powers of the human brain), flying broomsticks (examples of gravity defiance as demonstrated, for instance, by the Levitron), the origins of Quidditch (traced to Nahualtlachtli, which means “magic ball game,” played in Mexico around 1500 B.C. according to the author [p. 33]) or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean (a study of the quirks of human taste). All of these subjects are, of course, fascinating, and are written in an agreeable, easy-to-read style; on the downside, however, it becomes rapidly frustrating to see that the elements of the Harry Potter stories cited by Highfield only serve as transitions from one scientific field to the next. Perhaps if Highfield had been clearer in his praise of J.K. Rowling’s extensive knowledge of the scientific domains behind the various magical paraphernalia in her novels, one would be more tolerant of his “hijacking” of her imaginary world to serve his pragmatic purposes?

Part II follows much the same pattern, with the author providing scientific and/or historical explanations for wizardry (how the “magic” of weather forecasting became science through experimentation), dragons (correlations drawn between the mythic griffin and the dinosaur Protoceratops), witchcraft (our brains playing tricks on us), the Philosopher’s stone (or the history of alchemy), and the thin line between certain forms of science (quantum theory in particular) and superstition, which leads him to conclude that “because common sense is flawed, the wildest magical beliefs really do not seem so different from those cherished by scientists” [p. 265].

In the concluding chapter, entitled “The Magic of Science,” Highfield makes a final comparison between magic and science, calling them two forms of human endeavor. Nonetheless, what makes science different, even superior to “other belief systems [is that] those of science are universal and culture-free because they are endlessly shifted by experiment” [p. 288].

The book ends with an impressive bibliography as well as a “Glossary of Muggle Science, Potter Magic, Oddments and Tweaks” [pp. 297-313]. All in all an entertaining book, but not at all concerned with the Harry Potter books in their own right.



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