This article is part of the Fantasy Science & Coffee column on Film Inquiry
Transfiguration in Harry Potter
One of the coolest fields of magic in Harry Potter is that of transfiguration: turning one thing into another. Professor McGonagall quite epically demonstrates transfiguration magic in her class at Hogwarts by turning a bird into a goblet.
To be honest, I’ve always felt bad about animals being involved in transfiguration spells. If they are transformed into an inanimate object, do they essentially die?
I believe the answer is ‘no’. Take a look at the Vanishing Spell, a powerful and difficult transfiguration spell that can vanish both inanimate and animate objects by sending them into non-being. Non-being is essentially described in the books as ‘everything’, which implies that the molecules that make up an object are no longer held together and are basically released into the universe.
A similar thing probably happens during a transformation of one thing into another, but rather than sending something into non-being, its initial state is likely held in suspension. Nothing about it is lost or destroyed.
Conservation of Mass-Energy and Transfiguration
I believe that all transfiguration spells must follow the laws of conservation of mass-energy: the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant, that is, mass or energy cannot be created or destroyed, just converted to another form. This law is why humans are essentially made up of stardust. You weren’t conjured out of nothing; the atoms in our bodies came from exploding stars. Actually, everything around us is literally stardust!
At the beginning of the universe — after the stages of particle soup when elements were forming — only hydrogen and helium existed. Stars began to form when the atoms started clumping together under the influence of gravity, which triggered the nuclear fusion reactions that we have since learned lie at the heart of each star.
Those reactions gave rise to a number of elements, and eventually when a star died and exploded into a supernova (if it was heavy enough) more elements were released into the universe, ready to fly off and become a part of planets, lifeforms, and the gadget you’re using to read this!
It is, therefore, easy to believe that the transfiguration family of spells doesn’t destroy anything, it only changes the state of an object. For an animate object, life can be suspended, but not eliminated, because the original state can be recovered:
Say ‘Reparifarge!’ and the object or creature should return to its natural state. – Emeric Switch, A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration
Since the fictional author, Emeric Switch, uses the word ‘natural’ in his book A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration, one can presume that a transfigured state is unnatural. I imagine that a transfigured object would decay over time, or it wouldn’t have as much integrity as an object naturally in that state. A good example is when Ron uses a broken wand to turn his rat, Scabbers, into a goblet. The spell doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to, and he ends up with a furry drinking utensil with a tail. That Scabbers is alive and well in his original form later on in the story is proof enough that the natural state is suspended and not lost.
Note: The more complex the animal, the more difficult and dangerous it is, with human transfiguration being the most complex of them all:
Larger creatures are difficult to Transfigure except by skilled and powerful wizards. Know your limits. – Emeric Switch, A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration
Thus, the laws governing the magic of transfiguration are, in my opinion, a direct consequence of the law of conservation of mass-energy. There are, interestingly, five exceptions to what is referred to as Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration, but I’ve only found a reference to one:
Hermione: “Your mother can’t produce food out of thin air, no one can. Food is the first of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfigura—”
Ron: “Oh, speak English, can’t you?”
Hermione: “It’s impossible to make good food out of nothing! You can Summon it if you know where it is, you can transform it, you can increase the quantity if you’ve already got some…“
That food is an exception is likely due to a) how complex a process it involves, requiring precise ingredients, temperatures, etc., and b) how any food created through transfiguration isn’t in its ‘natural state’ as we talked about earlier. I suspect it wouldn’t be as nutritious — it might even have odd effects, depending on what you use for the transformation. Note that this exception doesn’t appear to cover water, because of the existence of the Aguamenti spell. There’s enough water around us in our atmosphere to pull through a wand. To be fair, collecting water molecules is vastly different from transforming something into water.
Rather than making use of transfiguration, food can easily be summoned if you know where it is. This is what happens for feasts in the Great Hall. Beneath the Great Hall are four tables to match the four tables in the Great Hall. The house elves who work in the kitchens set the tables in the lower level, and when a feast begins, the food appears on the tables in the Great Hall.
Sidenote: It is unclear what the four other exceptions to Gamp’s Law are, but people have speculated things like money. I’d agree with money, otherwise you’d never see any poor wizards like the Weasleys. I’m sure the wizarding world has ways to spot counterfeit money.
The Anatomy of a Chemical Reaction
Now that we’ve chatted about the believable limitations of transfiguration and the connection to the conservation of mass-energy, let’s take a look at how it works. I believe transfiguration spells use wands as catalysts for chemical reactions. Granted, these types of reactions are much more complex and are not possible in our real world, but transfiguration spells can be `believable’ if you think of them as chemical reactions.
To understand what I mean, we need to take a look at what a chemical reaction does. A chemical reaction essentially turns one thing into another thing, a sort of real-life transfiguration. Molecules can combine to form something new, or they can be broken down into their constituents.
The basic anatomy of a chemical reaction is:
- a reactant – the substance you start with
- a product – the substance you obtain at the end
- activation energy – energy required to break the chemical bonds in the reactants
- a catalyst – something that triggers or accelerates the reaction without being affected itself
Note: there are a lot more terms involved, and I refrain from getting into the details of chemical reactions, but I encourage a curious reader to check out the links at the end.
In a typical chemical reaction, chemical bonds in the reactants are broken and new ones are formed if enough activation energy is provided. A catalyst is often used to trigger this change, remaining unaffected at the end. The resulting substances of the reaction are called products. Note that chemical reactions don’t change one fundamental chemical element to another — that type of change requires a nuclear reaction. However, chemical reactions involve chemical substances made up of molecules. The typical ways to detect whether a chemical reaction has taken place are 1) a visible change, 2) production of a gas, and 3) some sort of heat exchange.
Interestingly, if you notice closely in the film scenes involving transfiguration, there seems to be a slight gas that is produced, which is one of the reasons I think of the transformation as a chemical reaction. McGonagall repeatedly warns her students that transfiguration is a dangerous subject and that spells can go drastically wrong if not done properly. This is also the case for chemical reactions; a slight change in the catalyst or temperature or other factors can easily spiral into something drastically different from what you wanted to achieve.
Do you agree with me that transfiguration in Harry Potter is a magical twist on real-life chemistry? What do you think the other exceptions to Gamp’s Law are?
More to Explore
National Geographic: How 40,000 Tons of Cosmic Dust Falling to Earth Affects You and Me (2015)
Phys.Org: Are we really all made of stardust?
Hyperphysics: Proton-Proton Fusion
Philschatz.Com Chemical Reactions – Anatomy & Physiology
Khan Academy: Chemical Reactions