Physics and Harry Potter's magical world

July 17, 2007|by SHOVAL RESNICK

Living completely in reality is all well and good, but occasionally you need an escape. Fantasy allows you to enter a world that defies the laws of physics you're used to. This makes an escapist story awe-inspiring and exciting.

The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are set in a modern Great Britain in which magic is real, at least for those with the ability. Magic completely circumvents physics, as well as many other aspects of reality, making the Harry Potter books very popular among children and adults alike.

It's interesting to see how physics and magic fit, or don't fit, in the movie. Discrepancies appear between magical forces being applied and the natural effect of those forces.

Take the port key. A port key is an ordinary-looking object that, when touched, transports a person or a group of people to another place in mere seconds. This could only be possible if that object could cause humans to move at or very close to the speed of light.


To get a person moving at that speed, a massive amount of energy would be transferred to the person. Could a person survive the initial force - particularly if the force is applied directly to the body rather than a vehicle of some sort - let alone the actual travel?

This logic also applies to the spell of apparation - transporting oneself virtually instantly minus a port key. The energy being applied directly to the human body makes this more dangerous.

Quidditch and physics are particularly fierce enemies. Quidditch is a soccer-like game played with four balls, in which two teams fly in a stadium and score points by making goals with one ball, called the quaffle, or catching a tiny flying ball, called the golden snitch. Two other balls also fly, though without wings. These balls, called bludgers, are knocked into players of the opposing team.

Flying is intrinsic to quidditch. Quidditch players fly on brooms, as do many other characters in Harry Potter books. In the real world, for a person to fly, they must be on or in something that, on its own, can fly. Brooms, alas, are not going to cut it without some serious modifications. Given a certain amount of force, a broom could be thrown through the air but there would be no way to alter its course. Once you add a rider to the broom, the force to generate "flight" would be much greater.

Also, floating candles in the Great Hall regularly show up in the books and movies.

In order for anything to float, it would have to be less dense than air, which candles are certainly not, or be in a vacuum. If the Great Hall was a vacuum everything would float including the people and without the presence of oxygen the candle flames would be nonexistent, not to mention that the people would have no air to breathe.

The fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," possesses law-defying modes of transportation of the Beauxbaton and Durmstrang students. The flying horse-drawn carriage of the Beauxbaton students is impossible for many reasons. In order for a horse to fly, even with wings, the wings would have to be several times the size of the horse to be able to lift the mass of the animal alone. This logic would apply to several other horse-like creatures used in Harry Potter books three and five.

The size of the wings in the horses of book four would make it very difficult to harness several of them together and still have them fly because if the massive wings were to be disturbed in their motion then the animal would be unable to get the correct amount of force pushing downward to force it upward. Also, assuming the carriage was not propelled by anything other than the horses, the horses could not, given their great volume, fly forward fast enough to prevent the tethers from slackening and allowing gravity to take hold. Once gravity pulls down on the carriage, the carriage would become a greater downward force than the forward force given by the horses. The carriage would quickly pull the horses to the ground.

As for the Durmstrang ship, it is almost plausible, except for the fact that it is made of wood. Wood could prevent water from coming into the boat, though the boards would not be able to stand the pressure of the water pushing in attempting to equalize pressure. Other than the wood, the idea would be that of a submarine.

Despite all of the fantasy, "Harry Potter" really does intersect with the real world. The books refer to mythology, and Rowling uses familiar languages for the source of some terminology. Most obvious of the connections is that of words and names taken from real languages. Accio, the summoning spell, for example, means "I summon" in Latin. Crucio, the torture curse, is Latin for "I torture." Dolores comes from Latin, meaning "lady of sorrows or pain." Draco is a dragon constellation as well as the Latin word for "dragon"; drac in Romanian means "devil."

Apart from these there is less notable resemblance to reality. Nicolas Flamel, the maker of the Philosopher's Stone in book one of the Harry Potter series, was a real person who really did search for a way to prolong life.

Rowling also makes use of literary allusion. For instance, according to, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, the residential school at which Harry and his friends study magic, alludes to the myth of the Isle of Avalon, to which children were sent away to be taught magic. The four houses within Hogwarts point to the four elements - earth, air, fire and water. Students in their respective houses have traits that astrology and pagan philosophy attribute to the respective elements.

Science, unfortunately, will always toss cold water on the cool ideas devised by authors and moviemakers. But fiction and fact each have their place. Science and fantasy need not do battle. Both can be appreciated equally.

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