Harry Potter and the Resurrection of Alchemy

by Jordan Pennells

Some of us may never feel the urge to step outside the magical embrace that Harry Potter offers its readers. But for those that do, take a second to ponder the scientific principles that may be underpinning some of the supernatural themes presented throughout the series. Do Portkeys bend the fabric of spacetime to create wormholes? Are we getting closer to uncovering the invisibility cloak after the development of a gold-covered metamaterial (engineered material with properties not found in nature) that effectively refracts approaching light and hides the subject beneath?

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Thin material covered in gold block nanoantennae with varying sizes as to counteract the distortion of light after it hits the cloak

While Rowling inadvertently uses futuristic concepts to fabricate her magical world, many contrived features throughout the series draw upon beliefs held before one of the biggest paradigm shifts in scientific understanding.

Large steps towards modern chemistry came in the 17th Century through the work of Robert Boyle (ie. Boyle’s Law), one of the fathers of modern chemistry. Boyle’s dogged repetition of his experiments was an early exposition of the scientific method in practice, which culminated in the publication of ‘The Sceptical Chymist’. This treatise presented a pioneering distinction between Chemistry and Alchemy, irrevocably dismissing Aristotle’s four-element theory that stated that all matter was made up of  a combination of earth, air, fire and water. Boyle identified fundamental substances that could not be broken down further, formulating the initial theoretical basis for the study of elements, molecules and chemical reactions, as well as being the foundation for Mendeleev’s Periodic Table created some 200 years later. But before Chemistry, ‘the central science’, there was the rudimentary form of Alchemy.

This archaic discipline crossed science with spirituality, with the goals of alchemy being:

  1. To create the ‘elixir of life’, bringing immortality, health and wealth to its imbiber
  2. To make or discover the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, the substance that would turn non-precious base metals into gold (considered the highest form or matter at the time)
  3. To uncover the relationship between the human spirit and the cosmos

JK Rowling broached the goals of Alchemy in the namesake book and first in the series, the Philosopher’s Stone. Legend has is, as in Harry Potter, that Nicholas Flamel achieved two of these goals in creating the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. It is long-established that Flamel really did live in 14th Century Paris, with his age and dates within the book equating to his birth.

1992: The year that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is set
660: Age of Nicholas Flamel in book

1992-660≈1332:  Historical birth of Flamel (circa)

However, the tales of his alchemic prowess seem equally as fictional as the Harry Potter series itself. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that he was posthumously attributed the title of master alchemist, the legend embellished with such magnificence that it will forever live on in popular culture as a relic of a time before the Age of Enlightenment.

The 3rd goal of alchemy is presented later in the series with the introduction of the Deathly Hallows symbol, which clearly can be seen as an adaptation of the alchemic symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone itself. In alchemic lore, the circle represents one’s spirituality, the square as one’s physical self and the triangle as the incarnation of mind, body and soul. Similarly with the Deathly Hallows, it could be construed that the Elder Wand represents the mind, the Invisibility Cloak the body and the Resurrection Stone the soul.

Philosopher's Stone

Resemblance between the alchemic symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows

The inclusion of these archaic concepts is a testament to excellently crafted world that Rowling creates, adding extra layers of depth to the series through drawing upon a mystical era where chemistry was as much magic as it was science.

While the biggest paradigm shift in the timeline of Chemistry resided in the 17th Century, the world of Physics was shattered early in the 20th Century, attributed to potentially the smartest man to live in the last 100 years, Albert Einstein. Not taking anything away from the incredible contributions that Isaac Newton made to many scientific fields (see also Newton’s three laws of motion, cooling, the colour spectrum and calculus – goddamn he was smart), Einstein proposed a corollary to Newton’s universal law of gravitation. Unlike Newton, who described gravity but provided no such explanation for its existence, he theorised that an object’s mass would warp the fabric of spacetime around it. It is much like a bowling bowl sitting in the middle of a trampoline, with gravity being a natural consequence of this distortion. Enter, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

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Spacetime warped around the Earth and Moon

In a moment not at all reminiscent of the chaotic universe that is governed by Einstein’s theory of relativity, a practical confirmation of it was miraculously achieved on the 100th anniversary of the publication of his theory. Gravitational waves, theorised by Einstein in 1915, are the result of a handful of astronomical events, such as the orbiting dance of high energy celestial bodies (ie. white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes), or a supernovae event. The motion of large mass objects causes rippling in the fabric of spacetime, propagating outwards from the point of origin.

ns_gw_art

NASA’s artistic depiction of gravitational waves

However, while the mathematics that infer the existence of gravitational waves is already astoundingly complex, the technical ability to measuring a compression in the fabric of spacetime 100th the diameter of an atom is virtually impossible. So much so that Einstein wrote off any future capability of directly measuring this phenomenon. I won’t attempt to do justice to the intricate device entitled LIGO, but a replica was set up and tested on Stephen Colbert’s late show, check it out!

Another division of Einstein’s work is a concept that could just have easily been born in the mind of science fiction screenwriters. Wormholes, connected tunnels of warped spacetime, are mathematically valid solutions to Einstein’s confirmed General Theory of Relativity. However, for now they remain purely theoretical and downright absurd outside of the silver screen. It looks like we still have some time to wait for a Physics-approved explanation behind the Portkey’s magical mechanisms within Harry Potter.

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