Trope-ic Thunder: That’s Not How Things Work (MAGIC EDITION)

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton


I may lose some fans because of this- but I’ve never really finished the Harry Potter series. I read up to the fifth book and have seen the first six movies. And apparently in some circles of people that’s equivalent to a war crime. So, I finally caved and watched the rest of it. Happy? Well not for long.

I know most of you are thinking, “There’s nothing scientific about magic- it inherently breaks the rules of nature.” Well, yes. Usually it throws established laws of nature aside for the sake of plot. But there are some interesting (see: horrifying) implications for a lot of the physics within magic.

Now JK Rowling didn’t invent many of the magic, or plot points, or even terminology (“Muggle” used to be a slang term for a pot-head), but she wrapped most of it into a mishmash of stew that people happily eat up- so I’ll refer to it frequently.

So, one of the most basic principles of chemistry and physics is LOCOME: Law Of Conservation Of Mass/Energy. What it means is that any reaction- be it chemical, physical, or nuclear- is an equation. The mass and energy that goes in to the reaction must equal the mass and energy that comes out. Now mass can be converted into energy- that’s what happens in nuclear reactions: the matter gets annihilated into pure energy- but the general implication is that nothing can ever be created or destroyed. Matter can really only be  transferred, altered, or changed. What does this mean for ya boy HP? Well, whenever Professor McCormick transmogrifies into a cat- that extra mass has to go somewhere.

McGonagallMaybe her mass condenses: in which case, she would be the most dense cat ever. She’d keep the exact same weight as her human form- that’s a roughly 160lb cat. Maybe the mass turns into energy? Well, it’s certainly possible. But I’ll put it this way: Little Boy, the nuclear warhead that was dropped over Hiroshima, was only about 1 gram of matter converted to energy. Professor McGonagall’s transformation would annihilate more than 65,000 times that much mass. In which case, maybe that energy would be used to change her into a cat. But what about her transformation back? Where’s she going to get that mass or energy from? Maybe HUMAN SOULS! No, seriously, in the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime, this is the fuel for their brand of Alchemy.



No, if we’re going to give Rowling the best shot we could, maybe she just stores the extra mass/energy in another dimension. Now, this is different for Werewolves. Obviously, wolves are much larger than cats- in fact, the average adult wolf is about the same as a very scrawny adult male

So what about Fulmetal Alchemist‘s titular magic? Could alchemy ever be real? Well, maybe. I’ve already talked about nuclear fusion and nuclear fission before: the processes by which atoms split into different atoms (fission) or combine together to form one new one (fusion). Fusion and fission is how all the different elements of the periodic table got there. So, in theory, the Alchemy of FMA could just be very, very quick fusion/fission. The problem is the energy required for those kind of reactions- and the energy released. But seeing as how there isn’t really any sort of precedence for the energy contained within a human soul, it’s hard to call it either way- but probably not. You see, you can’t really convert electrons to protons, or neutrons. So in order to convert Lead (which has 82 protons and electrons, and 125 neutrons) to Gold (which has 79 protons and electrons, and 118 neutrons), Alchemists would need to remove those elementary particles. That’s not really the realm of fusion or fission. That’s the realm of magic.

So, the law of conservation of mass/energy is problematic to magic, but there is another law of conservation that would cause some headaches for Dumbledore’s Army: the Law of Conservation of Momentum. I’ve talked about the problems of teleportation before in regards to matter, but this is about movement. Say HP is cruising in Mr. Weasley’s whip at 80 miles per hour, when he spies some fly witches by the side of the road. He apparates out of the car to holler at them- and instantly is turned into a maroon smear on the sidewalk.

The problem is that even though Harry was no longer in the moving car, he was still moving at 80mph when he teleported to the sidewalk. Star Trek‘s transporter has this same problem: Say the Enterprise is in a geosynchronous orbit above the Earth- the ship is staying above the exact same spot on the Earth’s equator.

Note that this doesn’t mean that the people on the ship are traveling at the same speed as the people on the planet. They’re much higher up- further out on a circle- and have much further to travel in the same amount of time. So, they’re going much faster- how much? Well, say the orbit is your typical 42,000 kilometers up. Since the radius of the planet is about 6,400km, the ratio for the two orbits is 42000/6400 = 6.6. Since the surface of the earth is spinning around at just over 1000 miles per hour, that means that anyone on the Enterprise will be traveling at 6,600 mph. And when they transport down to the ground, they’ll be traveling relative to the surface at 5,600 miles per hour. They’d also be packing a whopping 231883874 joules of kinetic energy- equivalent to 20 pounds of TNT. Transporters would make much better weapons then travel mechanisms- you could easily transport a bomb almost anywhere, or you could even just transport a larger weight and let that kinetic energy do all the work for you.

So Harry Potter was right to require training with magic and to prohibit it in public- it’s an astonishingly dangerous force. But you know what the most powerful magic is? Love. Learned that one from HP as well. Anyway, be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays, appropriately titled Mindless Action Mondays

Looking to represent the rooster on your car/notebook/bottle/computer/face? Come check out our stickers and purchase my affection over at Redbubble.

As always, like us on Facebook and follow Rooster Illusion and/or MYSELF on twitter

Have a science-related question? Ask it! Also send me fan/hate mail!



9 thoughts on “Trope-ic Thunder: That’s Not How Things Work (MAGIC EDITION)

    • No, I didn’t hate it. Rowling built a decent world, but shes kind of rubbish at writing dialogue, and action, and characters, and plot, and tone…
      But they’re an integral part of my childhood and I enjoyed them totally unironically.

      • Wow a reply from one of the freshly pressed!!
        I know she was kind of rubbish in those things but at the end the way a child sees those things it makes all sense and is like the most complicated shit they ever read

        • Exactly, I loved it growing up and still think of it fondly. And in the end, I’m kinda just glad kids are reading.

  1. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I absolutely loved this post! I remember thinking the exact same things when I re-read Harry Potter for the umpteenth time when I was a lot older. Like, how does this magic stuff work? Shouldn’t there at least be some sort of principle it follows?

    Lovely writing. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I am a serious, die-hard Harry Potter fan. With that being said, you’re not missing anything by not reading the last book or watching the last two movies. I mean, maybe two things got me to gasp, but for the most part it was just Harry, Ron, and Hermoine hanging out in the woods. Got pretty dull.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s