On the movie screen, Harry Potter and Gandalf
can take us to worlds where children compete on flying broomsticks
and sorcerers can slip on a cloak of invisibility and disappear
from sight. But are such feats of wizardry possible in the real
by Nigel Henbest
The answer, amazingly, is "yes".
Scientists are hot on the trail of the wizards. Anything a sorcerer
can do, a scientist can do - either now, or in the very near future.
Scientists can already transmute lead into gold (the power of the
Philosopher's Stone) and are close to achieving the immortality
promised by the Elixir of Life. Levitation, time travel and invisibility
are already being checked out in the lab.
Levitation is at the centre of a wizard's bag of tricks, whether it's
on a broomstick or a flying carpet. And science can do it as well.
In a lab in Japan, a 300-pound Sumo wrestler rides his scientific
flying carpet - a metal disk suspended several inches above the floor.
How does it work? It's all done with
superconducting magnets. Magnets pull strongly on certain metals,
such as iron, but they repel other metals such as aluminium. In
everyday life it's a small effect, but with powerful enough magnets
can levitate an aluminium disk with a Sumo wrestler on top.
But real-life wizards can also fly
through the air without anything to ride on. Again, science has
the answer. In a lab in the Netherlands, we find a frog that is
floating freely in mid-air. The researchers replace the frog with
a mouse; it too hovers without support.
Here, at the University of Nijmegen,
the mega-magnets are so powerful that they are repelling the water
molecules in the frog and the mouse. In theory, a powerful enough
magnet would levitate a human freely into the air.
But how about travelling through
the air? Scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have
devised the equivalent of the flying saucer. It lifts and flies
- on a beam of light. The prototype has soared 100 feet in the air:
the follow-up, now being built, will fly a 2-pound satellite all
the way up to Earth-orbit. A future design from the Institute involves
beaming radiation downwards from a giant satellite. It will be powerful
enough to lift a human, riding a flying-saucer shaped "broomstick",
and let him or her fly freely through the atmosphere.
Elixir of Life
For the sorcerer, a major
task is to concoct a wonderful brew: the Elixir of Life. This magic
potion will banish old age, and keep you young forever.
M. Daly, Uniformed Services University of the
growing on a nutrient agar plate.
At the University of Texas Southwestern
Medical Center in Dallas, microbiologists have found the closest
approach yet to the Elixir of Life. It's called telemerase. In ordinary
cells, the intertwined strands of DNA are capped by telemeres. These
segments wear away each time a cell divides; and once the telemeres
have gone, the DNA can fray and the cell dies. In the lab, the researchers
have added their Elixir to cultured human cells, and watched them
divide over and over, without ever dying.
If human cells don't die out as individuals,
then our bodies as a whole will not age. There's accidental damage
to cells, too, of course. Radiation or free radicals in the body
can disrupt the DNA. But new research at the Ames Research Center
in Silicon Valley offers a second ingredient for the Elixir.
The researchers are studying a microbe
that can withstand huge doses of radiation. Blast deinococcus radiodurans
with radiation and its DNA will break up. Switch off the radiation,
and enzymes in the cells stitch the DNA together again. Genetically
modifying our cells could provide with a toolkit for repairing DNA
damage throughout an immortal lifetime.
Transmutation and the Philosopher's
Apart from the Elixir of
Life, our wizard has a second wonderful potion: the Philosopher's
Stone. This powerful substance could transmute everyday substances
into the precious.
Today, scientists routinely turn coal
into diamonds. It involves a giant press, where carbon dust is dissolved
in liquid iron. Here they can make diamonds up to a quarter of an
inch across. (The process was pioneered in the mid-1950s, though
it's recently emerged that the very first and much trumpeted 'artificial
diamond' was in fact a natural diamond that had fallen into the
The main dream of the alchemists was
to transmute the 'base metal' lead into gold. At the Lawrence Berkeley
Lab in California, this is old hat. Every day, they turn lead not
just into gold, but into elements that the alchemists never dreamed
of. Gold is element number 79; the heaviest element found naturally
is uranium, clocking in at 92; but the Berkeley alchemists have
now made 18 new elements, right up to number 118.
Across the continent, on Long Island,
scientists have moved on one step from the alchemists. They are
transmuting gold atoms into ectoplasm - the raw material from which
the Universe was born. In the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, they
smash two gold atoms together to make a concentrated ball of energy,
at a temperature of a trillion degrees. This glue-ball resembles
the early Universe ten millionths of a second after the Big Bang.
Dolly and her
first born lamb Bonnie
And what about transmuting people into
animals, or vice versa? Scientists can now create any animal they
want - just by inserting DNA. And they can create new animals, as
fantastic as those from the realms of sorcery.
In mythology, a chimera was creature
with a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail. Genetic
scientists could now make such a monster - if anyone should want
Already, scientists at the Roslin Institute
in Edinburgh have brought to life a genuine chimera, the shoat -
half-sheep, half-goat. And Dolly the sheep has been the first in
a long line of clones. Magicians have long had the power to create
copies of themselves: genetic scientists can now duplicate this
On the small scale, researchers have
created flies with eyes on their wings, and flies with feet growing
on their heads. We could - if we wanted - do the same with birds
and mammals: a pig with wings is certainly possible, even if it
was an effort to make it fly!
Having conjured up some scary monster, a magician might
look quickly for his Cloak of Invisibility. The theme of disappearing
from sight has been the backbone of many a science fiction tale,
too, from The Invisible Man onwards. Scientists are now on the track
of invisible bodies.
Researchers at California's Ames Research
Center have found that the open oceans are not empty of life - they
teem with animals unspotted till now because they are transparent.
Only a ghostly outline can be seen - and their stomach contents
after they've eaten a meal.
The clue to invisibility is the structure
of the proteins making up your skin and tissues. The transparent
cornea of the eye is made of exactly the same proteins as the white
of the eye: it's just evolved to be transparent so we can see. With
some serious genetic manipulation, there's a chance that tissues
could be made as transparent as those deep-sea denizens.
And, talking of disappearing from view,
all competent magicians can slip from our world into a parallel
Universe that only they can see - like the Platform 9 ¾ in
the station of the Harry Potter books. Now scientists believe that
there are real parallel Universes, only a fraction of an inch from
our Universe. So near, yet so far
we can't see them, because
these Universes are in a different dimension. But we can feel them.
According to the 'brane-Universe' theory,
gravity is different from electrical forces because it 'leaks' away
into the space between the parallel Universes (each a separate membrane
in different dimensions). On the other hand, gravity from these
other Universes may be the force that controls speeding galaxies
in our Universe.
Until now, astronomers have put the
restraining force on galaxies down to 'dark matter' in our Universe.
But - despite searches with the Hubble Space Telescope - no-one
has tracked down this dark matter. Gravity leaking from an unseeable
parallel Universe could be the unseen power controlling our fate.
Controlling dimensions could give
us the magicians' power to travel instantaneously across space.
A wormhole is a tunnel through other dimensions that bypasses space:
you could step into a wormhole on Earth, and step out immediately
onto a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy.
Wormholes are cousins of
the deadly black holes - and black holes definitely exist. To tame
a black hole into a safe wormhole, you need to counter its lethal
gravity with some kind of anti-gravity device. Defying gravity outright
sounds like sorcery gone overboard - yet sane engineers at NASA's
Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama believe they are on the way
to building an anti-gravity device.
the Future? A Black Hole
And this may crack the final power
that resides in the magician's darkest spells: the control of time.
With wormholes, scientists believe they can construct a time machine.
Now controlling life, space and time,
scientists are indeed taking over from sorcerers as Masters of the
- Showing real levitation using diamagnetism for the Sumo Wrestler
as well as the 'hovering frog'.
Institute - This link will take you to the homepage.
Lightcraft Project - This is the homepage for the Lightcraft
Project at RPI which is part of course MEAE-4850 Transatmospheric
Vehicle Design dealing with what we might term 'flying saucers'.
Elixir of Life
- A rather more philosophical look at telemerase.
- An article on FirstScience that takes a look at deinococcus radiodurans
through the idea of how we might survive life on mars.
NASA Ames Research
Centre - Homepage
Transmutation and the Philosophers
- Site showing the pressure needed to create artificial diamonds.
- Article on Science Daily about how the Russians have made Gem
Berkeley Lab -
- Link to a page about the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider which
transmutes gold atoms into ectoplasm (Ghostbusters beware!)
Roslin Institute - Homepage
Fun - Light hearted look at Dolly the Sheep cloning before your
Dolly - Article on Scientific American looking at the issue
of cloning in the light of Dolly..
Fish - Go here for an interesting article about how scientists
in Japan have bred a 'See Through' fish.
Man - This page looks at a 1934 edition of 'Popular Mechanics'
magazine which claimed to be able to show you pictures of a man
becoming invisible. Click on the pdf link about halfway down, to
see the scan of the original article to make up your own mind!
Parallel Universe and Time Travel
- Article on Space.com which explores the question of a brane universe.
to Wormhole Travel
Holes Made Simple - No maths!
- This is a great page of links on About.com dedicated to the subject
of the Rings - Homepage