Essay / Jane Adams

Harry Potter and Schrödinger’s Cat


When Harry Potter, the protagonist of J.K. Rowling’s magical fantasy series by the same name, suggests that his friend could be ‘bugged’ with a hidden microphone, she incredulously explains that, “All those substitutes for magic Muggles use — electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things — they all go haywire around Hogwarts; there’s too much magic in the air”. Muggles, of course, are ‘non-magic folk’, shielded from the wizarding world by the Ministry of Magic and its laws. When this notion is seriously considered in a scientific context, however, doubt arises: If electricity didn’t exist, electrons wouldn’t exist, in which case most matter wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, the synapses that connect nerve cells operate using electricity, so the human brain would cease to function even if all matter somehow continued to exist. And yet, there is a possible explanation in the context of suspension of disbelief: If Hogwarts was engulfed by a strong electromagnetic force field, most electronic devices would fail to work within a certain radius. In this way, reasoning about the impossible or unexplainable (“magic”) can further scientific inquiry and knowledge.

Consider the thought experiment that is Schrödinger’s cat. A cat is placed in a box with a flask of poison, a radioactive source, and an internal monitor to detect radioactive decay. If the monitor detects decay, for which there is probability but not certainty, it triggers the release of poison and kills the cat. If there is no decay detected, Puss in Boots lives another day. The interesting proposal, however, is that until the box is opened, while there are still two distinct possibilities for the fate of the cat, the cat is in fact simultaneously alive and dead. This notion was first brought to light under the name “quantum entanglement” by Einstein and two colleagues, who proposed that multiple realities coexist until measurement is applied, thus collapsing the realities into one single definite state. And so, the “quantum multiverse” theory is born: that every point in time at which there is a diversion in events, or many possible outcomes to one cause, a new universe is created parallel to this one.


In many ways, wizarding world is a parallel universe, though it more closely follows the string theory “cyclic multiverse” proposal, in which parallel universes contract as a result of “dark matter” to collide in the fourth dimension, then expand (or ‘bounce’) away from one another. This theory explains the “Big Bang” as a collision of parallel universes, from which our universe is now expanding away. From the 2003 Steinhardt-Turok cyclic model, based on Einstein’s expanding universe hypothesis,

“However, the interbrane attractive force ensures that the acceleration only lasts a finite time. Inexorably, the branes are drawn together and the potential energy decreases from positive to negative values. The acceleration stops and…the total energy density is zero and the Hubble expansion rate becomes zero. The universe switches from expansion to contraction,” so said Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok in The Cyclic Model Simplified.

This theory explains how our universe will one day cease to expand and begin to contract again, swinging back towards a collision with another multiverse. With this model, one could draw parallels between cyclical cosmological contraction and the return of Lord Voldemort, the antagonist who rises from nothing but dark energy to bring suffering to both the magical and non-magical worlds, uniting wizards and muggles in a single universe for a short time. While the language in theoretical physics can be very dense and highly technical, fictional models of multiverses, such as the Harry Potter muggle and wizarding worlds, can provide more concrete and terrestrial hypotheticals.

This is only one example of a way in which magic, though considered ‘unscientific’ and ‘impossible’, is actually an excellent tool for explaining scientific theories and exploring the natural world, much in the way that folk tales are a means of teaching and discussing social mores and moral principles. The important thing to remember is that magic represents the unknown, and we cannot fear the unknown, as with the Salem witch trials, but rather embrace it and accept the challenge of explaining it.