How do they do it?
An Attempt at a Model for the Physics of Magic
by Dr. Immo Garrn[*]
When we Muggles consider wizards’ magic, the question “How do
they do it?” aims more honestly at the answer to the question “How
could we do it?” The following thoughts will not enable anyone to do magic in the way J.K. Rowling describes it, but may serve as a basis
for understanding that effects we call magic might be explicable in
terms of mere Muggle natural sciences, especially physics and chemistry.
As a good definition of the facts to be described often
includes a working hypothesis, we shall try to tackle the task of
this essay by definitions. The first question to be asked is, if the
results of magic are impossible or only highly improbable. In the Douglas Adams
novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
the “infinite improbability drive” made things happen that were on the
same improbabilitiy level as the one the drive was currently operating
on, and so the saving of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, improbable as it
was, nevertheless happened. A more down-to-earth approach would be the
generation of a LASER beam. If one had asked a physicist of the end of
the 19th century if it were possible to make matter emit photons in a
synchronised way, so that they add themselves to one strong light beam
with few escaping, this would have been called “extremely
improbable” at best. This is now done on a regular basis in every
CD-player. This leads us to a
The idea that magic may be explicable in Muggle terms may
cause many a reader to protest. But obviously, the magic of J.K.
Rowling’s books works on non-magic matter, as shown repeatedly in the
books: Muggle artifacts can be enchanted, Muggle memories can be modified, Muggles
can be suspended in the air. So, magic actions do work in a way
non-magic matter reacts to. Therefore, one can formulate a
This means that the effects scientifically understood and used
by Muggles are a part of the effects used, though not necessarily
knowingly understood, by wizards, while the abilities of the wizarding
world exceed the possibilities of the Muggle knowledge of today.
Let us have a look at a spell to see what it is doing. Take, for example,
a summoning charm: we see a wizard pointing a wand,
speaking an incantation and the object moving. Moving means that the
object has gained kinetic energy, while not necessarily losing
potential energy or mass. So, where does this energy come from?
It can be either induced by the wizard or be somehow generated within
the object. The latter is impossible in this case, as there seems to be
no change of properties of the material within the summoned object,
although it cannot be ruled out for other spells. Canon tells us a lot
about energy transfer during magic. The Avada Kedavra (AK) curse is accompanied by a green light arc, Stunners by red ones. There
can be sound, if a spell is performed (again, AK may serve as an
example). Also we hear that Muggle electronics do not function in the
presence of magic (GF28). All these phenomena can be explained, by a
For the following discussions, we must assume the wave model
of energy, meaning that each energy quantum is an electromagnetic wave
of a certain frequency, the energy of the quantum being proportional to
the frequency it has. Energy can be transferred to an object if
parts of this object are able to absorb or to resonate with the
frequency of the transferred energy quanta. As an example, consider the
heating of water by a microwave oven. The microwaves resonate with the
hydrogen-oxygen bonds in the water (or other molecules that have O-H
bonds as well), so that the atoms in this bond begin to swing like two
balls connected by a spring. Other frequencies than the resonance
frequency of this spring will not activate the swinging process and
molecules having no chemical bonds able to resonate to the special
frequency of the microwave will remain unaffected by the microwaves
(for example, polyethylene molecules, which have no O-H bonds) and
To achieve the intended effect, the energy transferred has to be very
specific. It has to activate certain atoms/molecules that are the
target and and not interfere with other atoms. As shown with the
example of microwaves above, such processes are possible.
The trait of magic ability seems to be hereditary within mankind. Its
basis seems to be complex and based on recessive genes. This is shown
by the fact that Muggle-born wizards are possible and occurr on a
regular basis, while Squibs are very rare. A possible definition of
magical ability, understood as a physical capacity of humans, is
The ability to perform magic is
the ability to activate purpose-fitting energy spectra within one’s body
and to transfer them to the object via appropriate means.
Let’s now analyze which parts of the wizard’s body and
which objects are involved in performing a spell and which function
they fulfill. The image below may serve as a model. We see a wizard
cast a spell, the wand emits the spell energy, as seen by a light jet
between wand and object, and the object reacts.
So, the following elements are part of performing magic:
The wizard’s brain
defines the intent and releases the information for the energy spectrum
to be transferred. The release of the correct energy is connected with
a special formula either to be spoken in a certain rhythm, melody and
pronounciation (see Wingardium Leviosa in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) or just to
be thought with great concentration (wordless magic in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). This
formula either activates this intent-fitting energy spectrum by itself
or is just a resonating, learned formula that a wizard learns to
connect with the release the appropriate energy. For evidence of the latter
theory, we might note that the incantations known to us are intent-fitting
words in languages understood in the culture of the wizarding society
of Great Britain. Other cultures will surely have their own
incantations, intelligible to them. But that is not written down in
Wizards needing to speak the incantation need to speak the incantation
correctly, otherwise it does not release the right energy and has no
effect, or it results in unintended effects (for example, the Barufio incident in
(PS10), or Neville’s inability to cast effective spells with his
broken nose in (OP35)). More powerful wizards ( = wizards able to focus their minds better?) can release the right
energy without speaking.
A problem to be solved is why the magic energy flowing through the wizard does not affect sensitive molecules within the wizard (self-absorption problem). This may be explained by assuming that the energy
pattern itself is formed in the fingertips or the eyes of the
spell-caster. (Wandless spells needing eye contact seem to indicate that
this is a possible means of magical energy transportation, too.)
The wand resonates with the
energies released from the wizard´s body and amplifies them like
an antenna. This may explain why certain wands operate better with
certain wizards, if one assumes some sort of modulation of spell
frequencies on a carrier, like sound frequencies modulated on a radio
wave for transmission. Similarly, special aptitudes for certain
branches of magic, as indicated by Ollivander in (PS5), might be
explained by assuming that certain branches of magic use special
frequency bands, and that certain wands resonate better at those frequencies than others.
The object resonates in total or in parts with the energy coming in and reacts accordingly. The resulting effect is: magic.
It is difficult to assess from canon whether sound and light
effects occurring with the execution of a spell have any function. We know such effects occur (for example, a green jet and
a sharp, swooshing sound for AK (PS2, GF1), a red jet for Stunners (OP31)).
Light and sound effects connected with certain spells indicate the
energy transfer, but need not be functional parts of the effect.
Possibly, they are harmonic or subharmonic waves of the effective
frequencies. Or one may assume that these effects are by-products of the necessary
energies for these spells without a function of their own (like
harmonic waves). But this is in no way sure.
To illustrate the theory sketched above, let’s consider the mechanism of two spells.
This charm has to solve two functions. It has to make an object
rise from the ground and it has to give it kinetic energy and a
This applies for Accio as well as for Banishing charms,
broomstick flying or—without the neccessity of giving the object
speed and direction—levitation.
An object lays on the ground and has weight because
graviation pulls it
towards the centre of the earth. The nature of gravitation is not yet
clear to physicists, but it can be visualised as being an exchange of
energy that is proportional to the mass of the bodies. The energy
quanta exchanged are called gravitons and may, as may other subatomic
particles, be seen as an
electromagnetic wave as well as a particle. Since with every particle
associated an anti-particle, to make an object fly, to levitate
it (cause the object to act in an manner that is anti-gravity), may be
possible by creating anti-gravitons. (Roger Highfield has given some
examples of how Muggles tried to do so).
The motion may be explained by synchronized Brownian Motion, emission of particles or similar mechanisms.
The result of this curse is instant death leaving no traces
visible in a normal post-mortem. It seems to be a command to “Stop
living.” The theory that this is accomplished by draining so much
energy from the victim that this unfortunate dies from instant
undercooling is implausible, because undercooling leaves traces,
characteristic internal bleedings. Another theory assumes vasovagal
shock, a sudden drop of blood pressure leading to heart stoppage,
as a mechanism for this curse. A person suffering vasovagal shock loses consciousness
instantly, but the brain functions die slower. So the victim suffers
instantaneous heart death, but could be revived if treated with heart
massage. However, spiders, who have no vasovagal system, are affected (GF14). So, this rules out this mechanism, too.
Another possible mechanism is altering all
substances, leading to an end of all bodily activities, including brain
activities. This death would be instantaneous and traceless, if any
autopsy performed included no attempt to determine the concentration of
neurotransmitters in the cells of an AK victim. In order to effect this, just very specific chemical bonds would have
to be altered, which could be done with one specific energy, that
resonates with these specific chemical bonds. This works on beings
without a vasovagal system as well, so this seems to be the best
explanation at this time.
Taking up the thread from the beginning of this essay, the question originally posed: if
we Muggles could learn magic by looking at it from the physical point
of view, would it be possible for Muggles to create machines that could perform spells?
The main problem is finding a cooperative wizard for one’s research. Muggles
have created receivers and analysers for nearly every frequency
range, from far infrasound over sound, radio waves, and microwaves, to
X-rays or gamma rays. So once a willing wizard or witch was found, analysing the energy spectrum of any spells cast
should pose only a few challenging but manageable technical problems. Like a parrot, one could then repeat
a particular spell once its
mechanism had been identified in this fashion, but it is doubtful that
even if a manner of reproducing a particular instance of a spell could
be developed, that any method could be developed by which Muggles could
apply the spell generally in other situations.
Finally, the question is: Can the wizarding
world benefit by using Muggle approaches to magic? We know that there are a lot
of unsolved problems in the wizarding
world—from curing werewolf
bites to blocking Avada Kedavra. Understanding the nature of
these magical effects in terms of Muggle physics and chemistry might make it easier to create countermeasures.
So—Hogwarts needs a science teacher!
[*] The author would like to acknowledge all the contibutors to threads on
the Harry Potter Lexicon Forum discussing magical theory, especially
those known under the following screen names: Mattew Bates, Ari, Nine,
Istari Jones, Hermione Potter, Denise S.,
Kathy Lynch, Buckbeat, Cliff Hamaker, Saralinda, Meg L., Pinky, Olivia
Wood, Derby Nastyface, Maré, Elanor, Caius Marcius, Amy Z.,
Paul. Dionne, and Lisa Inman.
 Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to
the Galaxy, German translation, Ullstein 22491, Frankfurt / Berlin 1995.
 Roger Highfield, The Science of Harry Potter, Viking, Harmondworth 2002.
© 2007 Dr. Immo Garrn
edited by Paula Hall