The destruction of Hogwarts and other science goofs in fiction

If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts existed in the real world and Professor Minerva McGonagall turned herself into a cat, it would blow the place to smithereens, according to Charles Adler, professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Adler, author of Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, spoke earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle. He said the school for wizards would be toast because author J.K. Rowling didn’t follow one of the basic laws of science.

“By transforming herself into a cat, she is not conserving mass,” Adler noted, figuring that the cat probably weighs at least 90 pounds less than does McGonagall.

“If you convert that into pure energy, what ever that means, how much energy does she have to get rid of to turn herself into a cat?” he asked. “The math is pretty easy: e=mc2. It turns out that basically you’ve got about 50 H-bombs of energy liberated when you do this. BOOM! There goes Hogwarts.”

Adler cuts Rowling some slack because the Potter books are pure fantasy. He is a big fan of science fiction and fantasy writing and says thinking about the accuracy of the science boosts his enjoyment of the genres. He doesn’t expect it to be completely accurate—it is fiction, after all—but he believes authors and their stories need to need to be reasonably grounded in reality.

“If you’re going to introduce something which is in variance with the laws of science, you have an obligation to explore how that idea is going to affect the world, how that idea is going to affect the story that you’re writing, how to make it consistent with everything else in the story,” Adler contended. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing fair with the reader.”

Chuck Adler

Chuck Adler. Photo: St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Adler agrees with the approach of Poul Anderson, one of his favorite sci-fi writers to whom Wizards, Aliens, and Starships is dedicated. Anderson felt authors should use the laws of science to devise plausible settings for their stories.

“If you try to actually make your story obey the laws of science, at least mostly, you will have a better story, and it will also serve up ideas for how the story can go,” Adler explained.

Science fiction often runs into trouble with economics, according to Adler. In Star Trek, it would be preposterously expensive to produce enough antimatter to run just one starship, much less a fleet of them. There’s a practical problem, too.

“If we build a spacecraft like this anywhere near the Earth, merely turning the starship on will destroy the Earth” because of the gamma radiation it would emit, Adler said.

Even the food service raises questions. Adler said that making a cup of Earl Grey, hot, in the replicator for Captain Picard  would burn up enough energy to brew about two billion cups of tea.

“I’m not sure why they’re doing it this way on the Enterprise,” Adler said. “It looks cool, I will grant you that.”

We asked Alder to talk about authors who he thought got it right, who were almost visionary in coming up with gadgets or story lines that became fact. His top-of-the-head list included Larry Niven, who came up with the notion of the cellular phone in his 1974 story The Mote in God’s Eye; Arthur Clarke, who came up with the idea of the communication satellite; and Olaf Stapledon, who turned out to have a great grasp of the scope of cosmological history.

Adler’s fascinating talk included lots of analysis of space travel and human exploration, the engineering challenges of building space elevators, and a lot of math behind the science and magic of sci-fi and fantasy. The book includes even more analysis of the science in science fiction.

You can purchase Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from the Seattle Astronomy Store.