Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Arthur C. Clarke
A few days ago, I watched the Harry Potter finale with my kids in the cinema. After the film, one of my children asked me if I believed in magic; being a sceptical sort of person I admitted I didn’t. Magic is a relatively loosely defined term, but my bottom line is that “supernatural” phenomena have never been conclusively demonstrated or proven. Unless a compelling argument can be made, it appears that all objects in this universe act in accordance with natural laws.
The wizards and witches in Harry Potter have powers that certainly seem magical to us. They can “apparate” instantaneously from one place to another. They perceive memories from far-off times. They are armed with a variety of spells to disable opponents. Everything seems to have some sort of sentience. The magic in JK Rowling’s world is particularly appealing to us 21st Century folks. It is device based, utilitarian, networked. It mixes the physical universe with the virtual world of the Internet and gaming; strong reasons, in my mind, for the astonishing success of the books and movies.
Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in not believing in magic, because to a medieval person, or a person who lived in Roman times, we live in truly extraordinary times. To them, we would all be wizards and witches. We can watch events and interact with people in other parts of the world. We move in metal carriages that require no oxen or horses. The greatest of these carriages fly above us and can even sail at incredible speeds above the sky itself. We have at our disposal wonderful materials – plastics, composites, semiconductors – that would be unimaginable by the medieval mind. Simple pills can be taken to cure what would have once been common ailments. We have created weapons of unimaginable strength and brutality. I could go on.
We don’t call this magic. We call it science. We call it engineering. We call it technology. It’s not magic because it is simply the laws of physics, chemistry and (increasingly) biology, applied in interesting ways to different challenges. The tools of the trade are not incantations but experimentation, imagination, analysis, criticism and frequent failure. The magical language is mathematics. Chemistry is our Potions class, Biology replaces Herbology and Computer Science supplants Divination.
Perhaps, in 500 years time, Harry Potter will be more akin to a documentary than to a fictional work. It may be possible to render oneself invisible, to flit in an instant through time and space or to backup one’s consciousness into safer, more robust objects; thereby achieving a kind of immortality. The people of that era would seem breathtakingly magical to us. That’s the wonder of science. The hard work of scientists today will pave the way to the magic of tomorrow.
Oh, and WordPress informs me that this is my 300th post since I began blogging in 2007. How did I ever manage that?
Art credit – Don Solo (Flickr, CC Licensed)