Is the curriculum at Hogwarts science?

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced “technology”, operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that “if you do this, then that will happen” without actually learning the underlying principles. The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would count as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ‘ know how’ (the ability to achieve certain results) and ‘know why’ (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The ‘know how’ knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the ‘know how’) without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the ‘know why’).

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don’t use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying that electric devices don’t work inside Hogwarts. By artfully effectively placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely ‘know how’ world. This enables her to let magic be the driving technology that moves the story forward.

Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court do it well.


A survey indicates that more Britons believe in ghosts than they do in god. I am not sure what to make of this, so am just passing it along.


  1. says

    When I took ENGR 145 (Chemistry of Materials) my freshman year, the professor expressed dismay that Harry seemed destined to go through seven years’ schooling without a single chemistry course.

    “Of course, there is a Potions class,” he observed. “But that’s more like cooking.”

  2. Gregory Sutton says

    It seems to me that the mages at Hogwarts are really scientists because they’re not concerned about answering questions. They’re more concerned in using principles to change the world around them. This would classify them more as Engineers, concerned about the applications of principles to achieve an end than about investigation into the source of the principles.

  3. Tom Trelvik says

    Though still not scientific, I actually really appreciated Ursula K. Le Guin’s attempt to explain how magic works in her Wizard of Earthsea books, even though the books themselves didn’t really draw me in as much as some other books. The young adult author, Christopher Paolini, also built on her ideas heavily to explain magic in the fantasy world he built for his books, and I at first preferred his variation, but then recognized some strengths hers had over his.

    In both cases, magic is all about names. Everything has a “true” name, and knowing that name gives you power over it. This is true of people, as well. Also in both cases, the tough part is learning true names. In Le Guin’s Earthsea, there are dragons that know all the names, but getting them to speak to you at all (as opposed to eating you) is remarkably difficult, so many wizzards dedicate their entire lives to (re)learning the names of things. Le Guin also acknowledged the difficulty in distinguishing “things” to be named, for example one can know the true name of the ocean, but may not know the name of certain characteristics of it such as a given current, and as such a wizard’s power tends to be weaker the further they are from places they know well. Both Le Guin and Paolini also make clear that a wizard’s power is drawn from within and is not infinite, such that if the wizard attempts to summon more magical power than they have within them, they cannot “unsummon” that power, it will consume and kill them. Paolini takes that a step further, and explains that it takes as much power to do something magically as it would to do it manually, and so it often does not make sense to do it magically.

    Anyway, that’s my (a little more than) two cents on the scientific side of magical explanations in fiction.

    (And, though I enjoyed Paolini more, he’s definitely the lesser author. He just drew me in to his story better, but has received a fair amount of (just) criticism for drawing far too heavily on Tolkien, Le Guin, and even Star Wars. As with your analysis of parallel worlds in Potter, this didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book, just something I figured I’d disclose in case you considered reading it as well. It’s not original or good enough to win any awards, by any stretch, but I still found it a very fun read, and look forward to the movie of the first book, Eragon, next December.)

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