Genetics, neuroscience, and optical camouflauge: The real science of Harry Potter

"Harry Potter: The Exhibition" arrived at the Museum of Science in October, much to the delight of wide-eyed urchins, fantasy fans, and twenty-somethings who never got over their childhood dreams of receiving a Hogwarts letter (not to mention Phoenix art critics). Since then, visitors to the exhibit (on display through February 21) have noted that although the show is sparkling with enchantment and imagination and all that good stuff, it’s kinda lacking on the, well, science.

Flashy fandom-inspired exhibitions are nothing new for the MoS -- look no further than 2004's Lord of the Rings exhibition or 2005's "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination." But the LotR exhibit explained how filmmakers used CGI technology to turn Andy Serkis into the humanoid ex-hobbit Gollum. There are no such shades of science in the Harry Potter exhibit; it’s strictly a gleeful homage to the props and costumes used in the films.

And so we decided to pick up the MoS’s slack. We scoured the Internet to find ways that everybody’s favorite magical boarding school actually connects to the world of science.


Dan Rad discovers the wonders of invisibility; a researcher melts into the background at Tokyo's Tachi Lab.

Even among the jaded spellworkers of the wizarding world, Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak is considered special. By series' end, we learn that the cloak is one of the Deathly Hallows -- powerful magical objects whose existence is doubted by the most learned of sorcerers.

So something that shocked wizards couldn’t exist in the real world, right? Au contraire — this article on “How Stuff Works”  explains that the technology for invisibility is already being developed. Researchers at the University of Tokyo's Tachi Lab are working on achieving invisibility through optical camouflage, which involves filming a backdrop and projecting it onto a person. It’s not magic — it’s augmented-reality technology, which involves adding computer-generated information to someone’s sensory perception. Another invisibility option comes from metamaterials, or tiny structures that can actually guide waves of light around an object. In 2007, researchers at the University of Maryland succeeded in making a 10-micrometer-wide metamaterial. Someday, this technology could be used by the military to hide tanks or buildings.


The Sorting Hat prepares to decide the fates of another crop of Hogwarts students; a patient tries out a SQUID.

The Sorting Hat is a shrewd thousand-year-old cap that terrifies new Hogwarts students by looking inside their heads and sorting them into Houses on their first night at school. In The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works, science journalist Roger Highfield explains that through magnetoencephalography (MEG), or the measurement of magnetic field changes generated by electric cranial activity, scientists can record events that take place in the brain and even engage in rudimentary mind-reading. These magnetic field changes are so tiny that scientists must use superconducting quantum interference devices (or SQUIDs) to measure them. The changes affect the electron pairs in the SQUID, which then converts the magnetic change to a voltage change that scientists can easily interpret.

Although it’s unlikely that today’s technology could distinguish individual thoughts effectively enough to sort students into Houses, it still has practical applications. Highfield references MEG expert Riitta Salmelin at the University of Helsinki, who says that if paraplegics can be trained to produce certain magnetic brain patterns, they might be able to manipulate a cursor on a computer screen or even a prosthetic limb. Salmelin has also used MEG to research dyslexia. And according to Highfield, as researchers continue to delve deeper into the wonders of MEG, it’s possible they'll develop technology advanced enough to read minds. Imagine Harry’s horror at discovering that there’s a scientific basis for the Sorting Hat’s attempt to put him in Slytherin.


A recreation of the Sorcerer's Stone; Nicholas Flamel, pre-modern scientific superstar.

The first installment in the series revolves around Voldemort’s attempts to acquire the famed Sorcerer’s Stone, which turns metals into gold and grants eternal life. As Harry discovers, the stone was created by Nicholas Flamel, a 500-year-old wizard.

Although the mystical ruby-red stone seems laughably fanciful today, it’s worth noting that Flamel was an actual French alchemist who lived and experimented in the 14th and 15th centuries. And although alchemy seems ridiculous to us now, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, alchemists were on the cutting edge. According to this Globe article, modern science historians are developing a newfound appreciation for the achievements of the alchemists. They advanced the scientific method and laid the groundwork for modern lab science by refining such chem-lab techniques as distillation, sublimation, and intricate diagram-drawing. And during their doomed attempts to create gold, they discovered a cornucopia of other important substances: phosphorus, porcelain, zinc, metallic arsenic. So by medieval standards, Nicholas Flamel was practically Stephen Hawking. We can safely conclude that if the stone had been exhibited at Ye Olde Museum of Science in 1409 instead of 2009, nobody would have batted an eye.


Harry makes a heroic stand; on the right, yew berries, linked to Voldemort.

Each of the unique wands in the Potterverse chooses the wizard or witch that will wield it. And it turns out that Harry's holly-and-phoenix-feather wand had solid botanical reasons for wanting to go home with him. This biology student’s blog explores how wand woods reflect the traits of characters in the series:

Harry's mom, Lily, has a wand made of willow, which is often used to prevent erosion in landscaping and in biofiltration, or the process of using living materials to trap and degrade pollutants. For example, in this science project from Rosses Community School in Ireland, willows were used to trap liquid sewage. Their roots absorbed the nutrients from the waste and used them as food, while micro-organisms  killed off any harmful bacteria, thus simultaneously nurturing the tree and preserving the environment. Lily’s main action in the series is dying to save her son — so might it be more than a coincidence that her wand's made from a tree recognized for its ability to protect?

And as for her son's wand: holly berries are somewhat poisonous, but holly bushes' spiny leaves make them a safe place for birds to shelter from predators and winter storms. Harry himself does have some poison inside him, in the form of one-eighth of Lord Voldemort's mutilated soul. And the protectionist bit reflects Harry's oh-so-annoying-but-endearing need to play the hero.

On the evil end of the spectrum, Voldemort's wand is made of yew, whose leaves, seeds, and sap are poisonous to many mammals. Druid cults used to honor the yew tree for its longevity -- perhaps a reflection of Voldemort's dreams of immortality.
JK Rowling, who rarely includes anything in her books by accident, even said on her website that the choice of wand wood for Harry and Voldemort was intentional -- holly is traditionally representative of protectionism in European folklore. She also said that she drew upon the Celtic system of using trees to represent different times of year to choose Ron and Hermione's wand types: Ron, whose birthday is in March, has an ash wand; and Hermione, born in September, has a wand made of vine wood.  


Death Eaters terrorize Muggles at the World Cup; a family tree plots a Muggleborn/pure-blood pairing.

JKR’s witches and wizards are obsessed with terms like “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggleborn.” This fixation on genetic make-up indicates that magic is an inherited trait, a theme that has not escaped biology-loving Potter fans. The Harry Potter Lexicon uses Mendelian genetics to analyze how the wizarding gene is passed on from one generation to another. Is it a recessive or a dominant allele?  How can we explain the existence of Squibs and Muggleborns?

If magic is a recessive trait, that would explain the prevalence of Muggleborns, who presumably develop magical traits from genes that were unexpressed in their parents. On the other hand, if magic is a dominant trait, that explains why half-bloods usually turn out as witches or wizards instead of Muggles. The author of this article concludes that magic is probably a dominant trait, given Death Eater paranoia about pure-bloods interbreeding with Muggleborns, believing that if Muggleborns have an unexpressed non-magical gene, then over time, that gene could pollute the magical community and decrease the number of witches and wizards. And so we arrive at the not-so-subtle subtext of the Potter series: Voldemort uses ideas about “purity of blood” to justify discrimination against Muggleborns and Half-Bloods. JKR said in a 2007 interview that although she did not sit down to write a Holocaust allegory, she was "conscious" of the parallels to Nazism and other oppressive regimes, and in another interview, she called Voldemort "a sort of Hitler." This becomes even more apparent in the seventh book, when wizarding eugenics lead to imprisonment and murder. It’s tragic to note that of all the scientific connections in the Potter series, this is the one that’s played the biggest role in Muggle history. Why couldn’t it have been the Invisibility Cloak?
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