Can the curriculum at Hogwarts be called science?

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.

I have somehow completed another full year of blogging. Over the year I have made about 250 posts, written over three hundred thousand words, and had a total of about 750,000 hits. In the process of researching for the posts, I have learned a lot.

I would like to thank all the people who visited, read, and commented. It has been a real pleasure and I wish all of you the very best for 2007.)

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 experienced 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. They don’t even seem to be interested in understanding how their magic works. 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. 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.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would be classified 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 consistently achieve certain results) and ‘know why’ (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is only 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, without any explanation, that electric devices don’t work inside Hogwarts. By artfully 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, and the tools of modern scientific investigation were unavailable, 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 technology that drives the stories forward.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards declares his candidacy

I tend to be a bit cynical about politicians from mainstream parties because both parties are pro-war and pro-business but John Edwards, who announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2008, seems like a cut above the rest. In his announcement he said some encouraging things.

He pledged to “reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, combat poverty and global warming” and “he favored rolling back some of the tax cuts provided to wealthy Americans under President Bush as well as enacting new taxes on the profits of oil companies.” He also wants to guarantee universal health care for everyone.

He said that his 2002 vote to endorse the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that “We need to reject this McCain doctrine of surging troops and escalating the war in Iraq. . .We need to make clear we’re going to leave and we need to start leaving Iraq.”

The issues he highlighted include “restoring the nation’s moral leadership around the globe, beginning in Iraq with a drawdown of troops; strengthening the middle class and “ending the shame of poverty”; guaranteeing health care for every American; fighting global warming; and ending what he called America’s addiction to oil.”

That’s not a bad platform on which to run. Here is his campaign website and below is a preview of his announcement.

If he gets the nomination and persuades Russ Feingold to be his running mate, that would be a ticket with real promise.


  1. says

    I think Edwards was right back then that our addiction to oil is killing both the lower and middle classes today. But his desires to “restoring the nation’s moral leadership” have been destroyed by his personal moral lapses.

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