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Wizard Science

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 world?

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.

Levitating Sumo Wrestler

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 Health Sciences

D. radiodurans 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 Stone

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 molten metal!)

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 one!

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 mythical feat.

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.

Parallel Universe

Wormhole Travel

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.

Time Travel

Gateway to the Future? A Black Hole

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.

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 Universe.

Related Links:


http://www-hfml.sci.kun.nl/levitate.html - Showing real levitation using diamagnetism for the Sumo Wrestler as well as the 'hovering frog'.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute - This link will take you to the homepage.
The 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

http://www.nilgiri.org/Html/Quarterly_Journal/Words_of_Hope/Immortality.html - A rather more philosophical look at telemerase.
http://www.firstscience.com/site/articles/surviving.asp - 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 Stone

http://hypertextbook.com/facts/IleneWeintraub.shtml - Site showing the pressure needed to create artificial diamonds.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/08/990817092046.htm - Article on Science Daily about how the Russians have made Gem Quality diamonds.
Berkeley Lab - Homepage
Brookhaven Lab - Link to a page about the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider which transmutes gold atoms into ectoplasm (Ghostbusters beware!)


Roslin Institute - Homepage
Dolly Fun - Light hearted look at Dolly the Sheep cloning before your very eyes!
Serious Dolly - Article on Scientific American looking at the issue of cloning in the light of Dolly..


Invisible Fish - Go here for an interesting article about how scientists in Japan have bred a 'See Through' fish.
Invisible 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

Brane-Universe - Article on Space.com which explores the question of a brane universe.
Guide to Wormhole Travel
Time Travel Theory
Black Holes Made Simple - No maths!
Anti-Gravity - This is a great page of links on About.com dedicated to the subject of anti-gravity.

The Inspiration

Lord of the Rings - Homepage
Harry Potter - Homepage

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