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Roger Highfield: The Science of Harry Potter

17 Aug 2008 · No Comments

I read this book in a continual state of bemusement about the audience for which it was written, wondering if, in fact, it exists. Presumably, people in the “buy anything that says Harry Potter” camp are supposed to pick it up. I was mildly intrigued because my biggest gripe with Rowling’s series is that the use of magic is not even internally consistent, let alone scientifically credible. A book that purported to explain Rowling’s fast-and-loose hocus-pocus with physics seemed so patently absurd that I was perversely intrigued. In fact, it’s roughly half wide-ranging popularization of current science and half a history of “magical thinking.” I found both sections fairly interesting on their own terms — I certainly learned some things I didn’t know, although it’s worth mentioning that Highfield discusses some controversial research without mentioning the controversy.

The connections to Potter’s magical universe often seemed awkward and forced to me, if not actually intrusive. Highfield makes a few specific suggestions, for instance, that Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat could have a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID for short) inside it. I suspect these will draw the same reaction from many readers as explaining the physics of rainbows to people who would rather just think they’re pretty. So if I’m correct that people who’d just as soon read a science book will be annoyed by the Potter-isms every few pages, and true Potter fans will be put off by explaining away the magic of the books, I’m really not sure who’s left.

It did, however, feature a rather unfortunate paragraph that raised my eyebrows a bit:

But if you overhear a conversation and hear the words ball, Hermione, and stranger, it could mean that Hermione either is asking a stranger to a ball or is asked by a stranger to come to a ball. Here word order is important. Indeed, the precise meaning of the word “ball” would also be context-dependent. This sort of conversation uses the grammatical structure of language to the full.

I’m a little surprised that some editor didn’t gently point out that there’s are some precise meanings of the word “ball” that might make it worth substituting an example that’s ambiguous, but not that ambiguous.

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Tags: h-author · s-title · science

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