Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law” states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At first glance, this comes across as merely a pithy quip that brings to mind (for me, at least) a clash between two vastly disparate civilizations — one that has only just developed stone tools, and one that has radio, television, and laser-guided missiles, for instance.

Whenever I ponder such an encounter, I think that of course the advanced technology will look like magic to the primitives. That much is obvious. And what’s also obvious is that there’s no “real” magic in this picture. We, the omniscient observers of the scenario, somehow know that whatever phenomena the troglodytes hold in awe are in fact occurring well within the bounds of natural science. We’re just using the concept of magic in a simile. (Cell phones are like magic.) So, ultimately, this “law,” as I have just interpreted it, is merely a statement of the obvious coupled with the implicit assumption that there is no such thing as magic. Right?

Maybe. But what if Clarke was using the word “indistinguishable” in the quantum physics sense of the word? Let me explain: When physicists say that two electrons, for example, are indistinguishable, they’re not just saying that the two electrons have all the same properties and that we can’t tell them apart. They are actually saying, in a very real and deep sense, that the two electrons have no separate identity. This is a disturbing concept that all physics students wrestle with when they first study quantum mechanics. There are situations in which the concept of separate identity for particles of the same type must be abandoned in order for the equations of quantum mechanics and statistical physics to describe reality accurately. It’s spooky. What I’m getting at here is that maybe Arthur C. Clarke isn’t just making a simile by saying that advanced technology is like magic. Maybe he’s saying that in a very deep sense, advanced technology is magic.

Does that sound silly? Well, perhaps I can convince you that it’s not at all silly by taking a look at … Harry Potter. Yes, I’m serious. Stay with me here.

What goes on at Hogwarts? Kids study magic. They go to class and learn incantations that must be uttered with perfect inflection, wand movements that must be executed with delicate precision, and potions that must be concocted with just the right ratios of ingredients. Think about this for a minute. Why do the words for a given spell never change? Why must they be pronounced correctly? Why must one’s wand move just so? And why do those ingredients have to be mixed just right? I’ll tell you why: because there’s a science to it.

Even in the wildest forms of magic that we can imagine, there are rules. That’s because magic that doesn’t follow a set of rules wouldn’t be magic; it would be chaos. Real magic requires order. Specific words yield specific results. Certain ingredients mixed together in certain ways give a potion well-defined powers. There are rules and there are patterns to the magic that we imagine because even in our imagination, every phenomenon has some underlying mechanism. It’s just that sometimes we don’t have a clue what that mechanism is. And the more mysterious it is, the more magical the phenomenon in question is. But the truth is that the magic of our wildest fantasies is still, at its heart, a science.

Hogwarts is, to me, a symbol of humanity’s determination to unravel the mysteries of the universe. It portrays in a very real way how we humans react to things that we don’t understand. Take magnetism, for example. If you don’t know the science behind magnets (and you haven’t simply grown accustomed to them), they seem quite magical. Indeed, there was a time in history when they were thought to be magical. And what happened? Well, someone came along and studied them. They performed experiments and developed an understanding of all the rules that magnets follow. And once that understanding became common knowledge, magnets didn’t seem magical anymore. But the only thing that really changed was our understanding of magnets.

The same thing would happen if someone in today’s society were to discover some genuinely magical phenomenon. Curious scholars would flock to the phenomenon and study it until they understood the rules that it followed. That understanding would eventually trickle down into high schools all over the world to become common knowledge. And then it would no longer be thought of as magic — though in truth it would remain as magical as it was before it was studied.

What we do in our schools is exactly what the kids do in Hogwarts: We study how things work. We learn the formulas, the chemistry, the mathematical descriptions for how various masses and charges interact. And when we understand how these previously mysterious things work, we end up sending people to the moon and beaming their voices and images back to the Earth across empty space. It really is magic, but it doesn’t seem like it because we’ve studied it and we understand it just as thoroughly as Albus Dumbledore understood transfiguration.

So now, thanks to Harry Potter, I actually do believe in magic. We’re surrounded by it every day; but we tend to take most of it for granted, either because we understand it or because we’ve grown used to it. We shouldn’t, though. We need to open our eyes and see the magic around us, not just in technology and the laws of physics, but in the mundane things as well. Because even if our universe is nothing but a big kaleidoscope of matter and energy that strictly follow the laws of physics, it’s still true that life and consciousness and art and beauty are — not just in a metaphorical sense — magical.

Join Henry Rambow on Twitter: @HenryRambow

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