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Harry Potter science (part 1, with question)

by Eva Amsen

This week Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens in theatres, and later this month, on July 21st, the final book seven comes out. It’s a hype, but is it really a problem? Millions of kids are anxiously waiting to read a book, why complain? And you can even use the Harry Potter books to teach genetics, as a 2005 Letter to Nature showed. The same idea had previously been mentioned in a British newspaper in 2003.

In brief: Wizarding is a recessive allele. All wizards have the genotype mm (I’m adopting the same notation as the slide show linked above, even though I realize upper and lower case m’s are not the best notation). Muggleness (non-wizardness) is dominant, so Muggles can have either MM or Mm. Pureblood wizards have two wizard parents, so both their parents have mm. Halfblood wizards have one muggle parent, so their muggle parent must have Mm and pass on m. Some wizards, like Hermione or Harry’s mother Lily, are “muggle born”, so both their parents have Mm, and they each pass on m to their wizard child. (As a small aside: Harry’s wizard-hating aunt Petunia (Lily’s sister) is therefore twice as likely to have one copy of the recessive wizard gene than to be a homozygote MM muggle.) Squibs are non-wizard children of wizards. they should have mm, but the theory is that a mutation in one of the m genes would be enough to make them incapable of magic. There are quite a lot of squibs, so it seems the gene is susceptible to mutation.
(See also this post I did for Metafilter two years ago.)

Just recently, another Harry Potter paper came out. This time, Harry has been diagnosed with migraines according to a paper in the journal Headache. The abstract contains the sentence “Regrettably we are not privy to the Wizard system of classifying headache disorders and are therefore limited to the Muggle method, the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II).” which naturally led me to do a PubMed search for “muggle”. Score! Other than the headache paper, two other articles came up! Both are from the same group in Singapore, and concern patient treatment in Hogwarts Infirmary and St Mungo’s Hospital for magical maladies. Here is the full text of one of their “studies” in CMAJ. (Be sure to look at the footnote and references.)

Are there more science (or medical) lessons to be extracted from Harry Potter? I think so! For example, I have a very clear idea of which of the characters would make good scientists and why, and will discuss this later this week. Meanwhile, tell me: which of the HP characters do you think would make the best scientist(s)? And who would be terrible?

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Maxine Clarke July 12, 2007 - 7:48 PM

Well, obviously Dumbledore would make a good scientist as he has an enquiring mind, is wise and non-judgemental, and he has a sense of the “joy of discovery”.
I have to say that Snape is also a good scientist, look at the depth of his potions knowledge.
Hermione, naturally (she’d be good at whatever she decided to do).
In an eccentric way, Fred and George Weasley, as their joke shop depends for its commercial success on innovation and targeted R&D.
Quirrel, well, maybe a bit of a failed scientist but he tries (tried).
I suppose one would have to say Voldemort, that recipe at the end of book 4. Very precise, and his life depended on it.
Minerva McGonnegal would have been one of those solid but uninspired scientists.
Now, terrible scientists. Harry and Ron, obviously. Technically incompetent and not the brightest bulb in the box. Sirus, far to impatient and rebellious. Lupin, too mystical. Moody, too impatient and ready to chase after crazy hypotheses. Luna Lovegood, also, is too ready to believe in cranky theories. Rita Skeeter would make a pretty bad scientist as she makes up her conclusions.
Barty Crouch Sr (too blinkered) and Jr (too erratic) would not have made good scientists.
OK, I’m stopping now before this gets out of hand. As you can see, I am suffering from “waiting for book 7 syndrome”, rather badly.

Li Kim Lee July 17, 2007 - 1:33 PM

Ahh, Eva… I spent the last half hour or so reading your highly entertaining post, relearning genetics through the fun PowerPoint presentation and (trying to) read those journal articles. How curious that Singaporean scientists have a “monopoly” on Muggle research. I agree with Maxine: there are different types of wizards/scientists — kind of like some scientists are more creative and insightful while others are more analytical and systematic. Looking forward to your follow-up post!

Andrew McCormick July 17, 2007 - 1:46 PM

As another scientist suffering from ‘how am i going to get through the next 4 days when i’m this excited already’ syndrome, I know that feeling. However, I can think of a few others in the books who would make good or bad scientists.
Good first:
Neville Longbottom would obviously make an excellent botanist with his skill in magical plants. His survivability might also come in handy during some of the chemistry-based experiments.
Professor McGonnagal might make an exemplary lab assistant – i can’t remember the number of times that i’ve sat with some piece of equipment and wished that it was easier to carry or handle – transmogrification would surely be a huge boon in that.
As for bad, the only other one would be Hagrid. Too big and clumsy, and too easily distracted when something interesting comes along (hard to resist, i know…). However, he’d be another candidate for an excellent lab assistant owing to his remarkable ability with animals.

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