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SCIENCE VS SORCERY
 

Potter-mania is reaching fever pitch. With the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, opening in many countries, speculation about the fate of the characters in J.K. Rowling’s final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has gone into overdrive before it appears on July 21.

Will Harry die' Will Ron and Hermione finally get together' Is Snape as evil as he seems' Will Dumbledore return'

But, for me, there is only one question: can the magic of Potter ever be reconciled with the rational laws of science'

Some years ago, I started looking at the links between science and sorcery. Today, I can happily say that Muggle (non-wizard) science is rapidly catching up with the stranger phenomena of spells, sorcery and enchantment. Indeed, Harry’s magical world casts a fascinating light on some of the most interesting issues now engaging researchers.

Memory Eraser

When Harry and his chums shout “Obliviate!” they are casting a spell that can wipe out memories.

Over the years, this memory charm has helped the “Ministry of Magic” keep the wizarding world secret from the Muggles should they stumble across a stray dragon or anything else they really should not know about.

As reported recently, Karim Nader at McGill University in Canada and his team have shown how some drugs can dampen traumatic memories. Now it seems more specific memory erasers may one day be possible.

A study by Andre Fenton and colleagues at the State University of New York shows that erasing memories is scientific fact. The team discovered a crucial part of the complex mechanism that maintains recollections in the brain and has shown that by inhibiting a single molecule they can wipe out long-term memories.

The molecule is “protein kinase M zeta”, which maintains long-term memories by strengthening selective points in the web of connections between brain cells. By using drugs to boost the activity of the enzyme, memory can be improved. Conversely, by inhibiting the enzyme in tests on rats, Dr Fenton and his fellow “obliviators” were able to erase a memory that had been stored for up to a month. But Dr Fenton agrees that wizards may understand the mechanism better than we do. “I’m going to have to start paying attention to the wizards,” he said.

Invisibility

When it comes to vanishing spells and invisibility cloaks, there has been major progress. Mathematicians have put forward four different theories in peer-reviewed journals to achieve invisibility.

This year, one team actually realised Rowling’s vision by showing — at least by means of a computer — how an invisibility cloak would work at close quarters.

Research by Sir John Pendry at Imperial College London and colleagues in America has shown how a cloaking device could work by making light waves flow around an object — just as a river flows undisturbed around a smooth rock.

In principle, their invisibility cloak could be realised using “metamaterials”, materials that can be manipulated to alter the way they interact with light.

Sir John, who is the Muggle answer to Prof Albus Dumbledore, believes it is possible to warp light so it passes around a cloak made of metamaterials producing neither a reflection nor a shadow.

Working with Sir John, Liverpool University mathematician Dr Sébastien Guenneau and colleagues from the University of Marseille reported in the journal Optic Letters that they used a computer to show how metamaterials can make objects appear invisible from a short distance away, bringing us a step closer to an experimental test of invisibility cloaking. However, Sir John adds: “It is one thing to have an overarching theory that says cloaks are possible, but another to manufacture and market one.”

Limb regeneration

When Gilderoy Lockhart removed all the bones from Harry’s arm, Madam Pomfrey gave Harry a potion called Skele-Gro to restore them.

Researchers are desperately trying to find ways to regrow fingers and even limbs, and now the discovery of a strain of mouse, the Murphy Roth’s Large (MRL), suggests that one day it may be possible.

Prof Ellen Heber-Katz, from the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, stumbled across the mouse’s remarkable abilities while studying its immune system. She had identified the mice that received a drug in a trial by punching a small hole in their ears. One month or so later, she discovered that the holes had disappeared.

“So we punched the holes again, this time without giving the mice the drug, and we watched them [over time], and there it was — the holes closed up again.”

Further research by Prof Heber-Katz found that heart tissue and the spinal cord in the MRL mouse also regenerated after injury and left no scarring. Other organs and the optic nerve did the same.

Further work suggests that three genes — mmp2, mmp3 and mmp9 – producing matrix metalloproteinase enzymes, may be behind this remarkable feat.

“If Harry can delay his encounter with Voldemort, we might one day be able to provide him with “Regenisalve” to repair any injuries,” said Prof Heber-Katz.

Anti-gravity

Researchers from Nasa would sell their souls to obtain Harry’s broomstick. That also goes for Hover Charms, Mr Weasley’s enchanted turquoise Ford Anglia, the flying motorbike that Hagrid borrowed from Sirius Black or the candles that hover in the Great Hall of Hogwarts.

But there have been many false dawns in the search for anti-gravity, a quest that has been pursued with vigour for decades.

In 1992, a Russian, Evgeny Podkletnov announced in the journal Physica C that he had partially shielded an area of space from gravity. His apparatus consisted of a cooled and magnetically suspended ring of superconducting ceramic material 145 millimetres in diameter and six millimetres thick.

Podkletnov applied an alternating electric current to coils surrounding the disc to make it rotate and found that this set-up reduced the weight of any object placed over it by up to two per cent. The faster the rotations, the more gravity’s tug weakened. Inspired by Podkletnov’s work, several scientific institutions, including Nasa, have taken a closer look at his claims.

Martin Tajmar, head of space propulsion & advanced concepts at the Austrian Research Centres in Seibersdorf, said that, so far, they have not been replicated. “Nevertheless, there is still room to look for gravitational effects around superconductors.”

Another uplifting insight could come from the giant Large Hadron Collider (LHC) atom smasher, which goes into operation next spring in Cern, Geneva. Dr Brian Cox of Manchester University, one of the army of physicists who will work on the LHC, commented: “We don’t have a complete theory of gravity... and it’s just possible that the LHC will discover phenomena that could point us towards a deeper understanding. So it’s an exciting time, but I don’t anticipate floating from Manchester to Cern any time soon.”

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