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Harry Potter Physics: Electrons

  1. Jul 27, 2016 #1
    So, I just had a thought about something I heard from Harry Potter a long time ago (not sure if it was from the films or the books-or both). One of the characters--I think it was Hermione--said something like: "Electronics don't work in Hogwarts." Or something to that effect--that electronic devices notoriously fail when they encounter whatever magic "field" the school is encompassed within.

    Supposing Hogwarts was a real place--and that you with a reasonably deep understanding of modern physics were able to go there--how might you figure out why electronic devices don't operate under the "magic" umbrella of the school? We know that electronics consist of tiny electric currents (and, in theory, single electrons) that are carefully directed around complex circuits to process signals (such as those that carry radio and television programs) or store and process information. Might we put forth the hypothesis then that this "magic field" surrounding the school is interfering with the controlled direction of electrons in given electronic devices? Or maybe that some component(s) within the electronics (resistors, diodes, capacitors, transistors, etc.) are engineered in such a way that it inevitably interacts with the "magic field" such that the electronics stop working?

    More pertinently, how might we attempt to observe and reason about physical phenomenon in a place like Hogwarts, given that electronic devices don't work there? (assuming this applies to electronic equipment working on information in both analog or digital format).

    It's ridiculous, I know, but I've always remembered enjoying HP when I watched or read it when I was younger and just wanted to see if anyone had anything interesting to add. It's fun to think about the physics of a place like the HP universe--how their physics might be described and how a mysterious force/energy they call "magic" might work in a true physical sense (I know it's inherently contradictory since "magic" by definition is traditionally something "beyond" quantification or understanding--but since we here in the real world know that literally everything is a product of complex physical motion and interaction at varying scales within our universe, that always seemed nonsensically lazy to me, and that a good story could be written where characters attempt to understand "magic" utilizing the tools of science; particularly physics and rigorous mathematical reasoning/analysis).

    (..though of course the general public would never jibe with a fantasy book that went into any depth about the mathematical properties of their "magic" system. Probably only mathematicians would read that story, and probably only to poke holes in it :DD still, it would be a creative (albeit essentially otherwise useless) project regardless).

    P.S. any other comments on the physics of Harry Potter are welcome :partytime:
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2016 #2

    Fervent Freyja

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    I suggest that you read The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works by Roger Highfield. He goes into the science and physics behind it without too much speculation. I bought it in my teens and enjoyed it so much that I still have it. I need to read it again! With chapter titles like "The Sorting Hat, Invisibility Cloak and other Spellbinding Apparel" and "Stars, Mystic Chickens and Superstitions" - it makes for a fun read! :wink:
  4. Jul 27, 2016 #3
    I'll definitely look into getting that! It may be applying logic to the illogical, but HP has always been an interesting and fun story to me (maybe I'd think differently if I went back and re-read/re-watched as the young adult I am now, but I doubt it). Any book that attempts to provide some kind of framework for the magic system in HP should be interesting.
  5. Jul 28, 2016 #4

    Fervent Freyja

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    Uh, it doesn't actually introduce framework for magic in the Potterverse, but more so, it places the laws of our physical reality as the frame and attempts to make some aspects of the Potterverse more valid by using comparisions and loopholes... You will have to read it to understand what I'm talking about.
  6. Jul 28, 2016 #5
    Ah, I see. My interest is mainly in how one might attempt to scientifically observe physical phenomenon in an environment like Hogwarts (a place where electronics don't work). Basically, the question abstracts to: 'if we couldn't construct the appropriate (reliable) electronic devices through which to study quantum phenomenon, how would we then study quantum phenomenon?' (don't know too much about quantum mechanics myself quite yet--I'm sure all the early pioneers of quantum theory considered ways to study electrons and other forms of elementary matter that didn't necessarily rely on electronic tools for observation, or is that wrong?) Maybe one could determine a plausible mechanism through indirect observations via direct experimentation specifically with electricity within the Hogwarts "magic field", for example (however that might work).

    But yeah, I'll definitely give the book a read when I get the chance. Thanks for the rec.
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2016
  7. Jul 28, 2016 #6
    It would be entertaining (probably only to me) to see another HP story written wherein some time in the future a Newton-esque wizard is born who quantifies and mathematically defines magical phenomenon with other physical forces in the HP universe--I don't know how that would translate to select humans being able to wield magic; maybe something like the X-gene from X-men? Maybe go with the genetic explanation, but apply it to the development of a special gland in the brain that only "magical" people possess based on some complex genetic expression (this special gland would give them access to magic, as opposed to muggles)?

    In any case, that would definitely ruin the story for everyone that doesn't love physics and explanations, so of course it would never happen, but it's fun to think about when bored.
  8. Jul 28, 2016 #7


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    A far more simple explanation is that the defensive spells in place are designed to recognise muggle electronics and neutralise them. That allows the school to defend against discovery/attack without having to go so far as to rewrite physics in the local area (the side effect of which would likely shut down their nervous systems).
  9. Jul 28, 2016 #8
    I suppose that does seem like the simpler explanation, but somehow less satisfying. Still, I think the canonical explanation is that Hogwarts is some special, ancient magic-saturated place and that's what is adversely affecting muggle technology (though I am willing to accept I am wrong about this if someone else is willing to provide the correct canonical alternative if I am mistaken (am I just assuming that's the basic reason for the tech jumble?)--it's been awhile since I last read/watched HP books & movies).
  10. Aug 6, 2016 #9
    Hi Aaronk,

    Harry Potter is at the edge of science fiction and at the beginning of fantasy. At some points it seems to be Sci-fi, but at the end it's just Fantasy, because all the stuff is about magic. Is not worthly to try to figure out the science of Fantasy. Rather worthly on Sci-fi.

    Hope I helped
  11. Aug 6, 2016 #10
    I know HP is more towards the fantasy side of things, this was just an idea I had regarding observation of quantum phenomena without the aid of electronics, and how some of the rules of quantum mechanics might be inferred or hypothesized through alternate means. HP sort of just gave me the idea which led to that thought. Just a curiosity.
  12. Aug 6, 2016 #11
    Oh I know, that was a very interesting thought. I just thought we were mixing Sci-fi with Fantasy, but as a thought is quite curious :)
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