Teaching the scientific method, with magic
March 21, 2011 1 Comment
(Written for 3 Quarks Daily)
If you wanted to teach people about science, you probably wouldn’t set out to write a fantasy novel. But the exceptional Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – an ongoing series of online “fan fiction” by Eliezer Yudkowsky – borrows J.K. Rowling’s world and uses it as a vessel for a sophisticated guide to scientific thinking, while simultaneously crafting a far cleverer and more imaginative story than the original.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality isn’t primarily interested in teaching readers the “what” of science, even though it is liberally sprinkled with interesting facts about genetics, game theory, quantum mechanics, and psychology, among other things. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s about the “how” of science, conceived of not in the narrow sense of research in a laboratory, but in the broader sense of the process of figuring out how anything in the world works.
Like his counterpart in the original series, this Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary British boy who is thrust into the magic world at the age of eleven. But unlike the mistreated waif of the original series, this Harry has grown up with caring, intellectual parents who bought him all the books he wanted and encouraged his analytic instincts. So when he finds himself plunged into a new, magical world, he immediately starts using that training to find the answers to a host of new questions that confront him: Who can I trust? Why are some people able to do magic and others not? Is there an afterlife? What are ghosts? And how does magic actually work?
Magic may not operate by the logic we’re used to in our world, Harry reasons, but it must operate by some logic. His attempts to methodically figure out what that is are some of the most intellectually enjoyable parts of the series. For example, it appears that you can cause a target to levitate by uttering the magic phrase “Wingardium Leviosa.” But what’s doing the actual work: the sounds made by the spellcaster’s mouth, or the concept in the spellcaster’s head?
Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.