Saturday, August 8, 2015

Essay: Magic is Science. Period.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke.

There are numerous works of fiction these days that whip this quote out in order to justify how magic works. But I think there’s an important corollary to this point that is usually left unsaid. If magic exists, then by definition, it’s not magic. “Science” is just the word we give to our understanding of how the universe operates. If the universe uses “magic” to operate, then “magic” is simply science.

Magic, in any fictional universe, has a set of rules. In the Harry Potter universe, you need magical aptitude, a wand, proper focus, and magic words. In the DC universe, magic is a bit finicky, but any sufficiently well-versed person can scrounge up a magical trinket or two and get it to work. And in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “magic” is just a deeper understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe put to practical use.

Jury's out on Doctor Strange as of yet.
But just like science, magic in fiction is always governed by a set of rules, whether very vague or incredibly precise. Well, I say “always governed.” And I say that because if there were no rules to magic, then wizards would never be able to get the same result twice with the same spell. And really, that's the important part. Repeatability. Science is repeatable.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to be generalizing a bit to make things easier to explain.

If you drop an apple off a building, it will fall to Earth at a rate of 9.81 meters per second per second, meaning that it will accelerate by that speed every second. It’s testable. It’s repeatable. It’s fact. It’s science.

So now let us assume that I am a great and powerful wizard.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Let us also assume that by merely holding a silver coin into my palm, I can summon a lightning bolt to strike a target of my choosing.

Is this testable? Yes. Is this repeatable? Yes. Then it’s fact. It’s science.

Do we understand how it works? Perhaps not. But we have a working theory.

Now, let’s add even more magical-sounding malarkey. Let’s say now that the spell only works under a full moon within 24 hours of my drinking the blood of a cow.

Is this still testable? Yes. Is this still repeatable? Yes. Then it's still science.

And you can even set up variables in the tests, like the phase of the moon, the person holding the coin, the amount of silver in the coin, and the freshness of the blood.

Now, you can also apply this same methodology to fictional universes. The Harry Potter universe, for example. In the Harry Potter universe, for any wizard with a functioning wand, the same magic words give you the same result. "Lumos" makes light appear. Do we know exactly why this happens? No. We just know that whipping out your wand and saying "Lumos" will light up the darkness. With a functioning wand (looking at you, Ron) "Lumos" will never shoot out water, create molasses, turn your hand into a shrub, or do anything but create light.

Is this testable? Yes. Is this repeatable? Yes. It's science.

Magic, if it exists, is science. By definition. It's that simple. And now that I've given my two cents on the matter I don't have to keep repeating myself every time somebody whips out that quote.


  1. wow, that's a surprisingly simple explanation for a pretty complex topic. Good work!

    1. Thanks!

      This train of thought actually started when I was recapping the Ultimate Spider-Man episode "Strange Days." When Danny was talking about how chi and life force were as much a part of the universe as gravity and magnetism, it sort of flipped a switch in my brain.