Where Magic Meets Science

The two aren’t so far apart, says a new book. And many old magical beliefs held a kernel of truth.

The science journalist Matt Kaplan starts and ends his book The Science of the Magical with quotes from the royal elf Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings.

The one in the beginning:

And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost. History became legend and legend became myth.

Galadriel says this in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring about the evil One Ring, which had been forgotten by many beings at the beginning of the story. Similarly, Kaplan says, many truths found in old magical stories have been relegated to myths.

The book itself is a hodgepodge compendium of different magical beliefs throughout history, separated into chapters by topic, like prophecies, enchantments, and magical healing. With each, Kaplan investigates what was actually happening and finds that many magical practices actually had a basis in science. For example, the magical healing power of hot springs like the one at Bath makes a lot more sense when he points out that cold suppresses the immune system, and before central heating people were cold a lot (those far from the equator, at least). A warm spring probably did our frequently-freezing ancestors a world of good.

For other myths, the science is more speculative. Kaplan considers how things that were once the stuff of legends could one day become reality. Turtles and tortoises live an incredibly long time, and while eating them does not lead to immortality as some once believed, some scientists suspect that turtles have high levels of antioxidants in their bodies, helping to prevent DNA damage and allowing them to live longer. Similarly, Kaplan reports, a drug that increases production of an antioxidant enzyme in humans and helps protect cancer patients from radiation could possibly help protect against the chemicals that make us age, too. So the turtles held a clue after all.

The book is wide-ranging, skittering from topic to topic, filled with cool cocktail-party tidbits. Taken as a whole, it shows the falseness of a dichotomy between science and magic and interweaves the two forces so often thought to be at odds.

I spoke with Kaplan about the science of magic, the magic of science, and why the way we talk about magic is sometimes too basic. As Galadriel says, both in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book and at the end of Kaplan’s:

For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean.

A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Julie Beck: I really appreciated that you framed the whole book with two Galadriel quotes. This is really funny to me because it seems like scientists really love Tolkien—they just name species after Lord of the Rings characters all the time. But anyway, would you want to explain for the viewers at home who are maybe not familiar with The Lord of the Rings, what was the idea behind these quotes and how did you see the relation to the magic you were investigating?

Matt Kaplan: So, the first quote comes from the first movie as opposed to the book. Because you get the same sentiment in the book, but it's not actually said as beautifully, which is a rare thing when you have a film that actually captures something better than the book.

The thing I found really interesting when I was researching this book was that we so frequently look at the stories and the beliefs of our ancestors and take this incredibly arrogant view that we must know better because we now have airplanes and cellphones and laser surgery and therefore we’re somehow doing it better and understanding things more clearly than our ancestors did. And I just found myself staggered by how often that’s just not the case.

A really good example was when I was researching the stuff associated with Circe and The Odyssey. So Circe, we think, very likely used poison to turn Odysseus’s men into animals. They didn't actually turn into animals, but she made them behave like beasts. Whether that event actually happened or not, I think there’s a strong enough argument that she drugs them. Odysseus goes to fight her and Hermes the messenger god gives him an herb which is going to stave off the poison that she gives him so that he will not fall prey to it. That's all fiction.

We assumed for hundreds and hundreds of years that there was nothing to that. That flower, the moly, which is what it's called in The Odyssey, is described very specifically. It’s got a milk-white flower, a black root. In 1951 there was a researcher, Mikhail Mashkovsky, in the Ural Mountains, who discovered that locals in the area were massaging a milk-white flower with a black root into the legs of children who were suffering from polio to help prevent the paralysis from spreading. And he came to the conclusion that this might be useful.

Eventually the drug came to be known as galantamine and was used to treat polio, along with other disorders that disrupted neurotransmitters in the body. And today, if you know anyone who's suffering from Alzheimer’s, they’re taking this very drug.  It comes from snowdrop, which is the milk-white flower, which at the 12th World Congress of Neurology in 1981 was proposed by a bunch of researchers to very likely be Homer's moly.

We had this stuff described in The Odyssey in 800 B.C., and like the Ring of Power, history became legend and legend became myth, and the flower that could cure you fell out of all knowledge. Almost out of all knowledge, until Mashkovsky was hiking in these mountains and he found the flower.

Beck: The book is very wide-ranging, but it seems like you kind of landed on two types of magic. There's the explanatory, where people were making up these magical explanations for phenomena that they didn't have an answer for, and then there's illusions.

Kaplan: I like to think of it as folks looked at things that they couldn’t possibly understand and explained them using magic. The other type of magic is thinking about things you wish could have happened and making them look as if they are happening when they’re not. We see it often in cinema today, because we wish we could say “Expelliarmus” and disarm somebody with a Harry Potter wand. At least I did when I was a kid. But you can't do that, so you see it on the big screen and it's a form of wish fulfillment, just like watching Teller [of the magician duo Penn & Teller] turning water into gold coins on the stage. We know that's not real, but we like seeing it. It’s the same thing as telling stories way-back-when of people flying. The stories of Daedalus and Icarus creating these magical wings, I think was very much based on people wishing they could fly. And then writing about it. But yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head that there are those two types.

Beck: How does each type relate to science?

Kaplan:  With regards to stuff like Daedalus and Icarus, a lot of that comes from our deepest, darkest desires. We wish we could do something and that drives us to keep pushing.

I'm here at MIT right now, and there's a student named Brandon Sorbom, who, I’m not kidding, he’s Tony Stark [Iron Man]. He wants to build a miniaturized Tokamak reactor. A Tokamak reactor is a form of fusion reactor. It uses fusion power to generate more energy than you put in, and it does not create radioactive byproduct. It would be an amazing thing. We know fusion can be done, but making it profitable and commercial is very hard. And making it small is like crazy impossible. And this kid here at MIT has demonstrated a mechanism by which you can shrink it to crazy-small sizes. Now, he hasn’t shrunk it to the size where you can put it into a suit, but he's very close.

If you look at the imagery in the Iron Man film, and if you look at the artwork that's in the comics, it’s the same kind of reactor. It looks the same. They're using the same kind of idea. They're even calling it what Tony Stark called it, which is an ARC reactor. You see it all over the MIT campus, students wearing Stark Industries t-shirts to demonstrate their devotion to this concept. And I asked him when I was interviewing him, “How much did Iron Man play a role in driving you to invent this?” And he said, “It was everything.” So you get amazing inventions based upon our dreams.

Beck: That’s how the wanting-something-cool-to-happen relates to science; what about the explanatory kind of magic?

Kaplan: This is the side that I find more exciting, just because I’m more of a historian than I am a futurist. I find it so interesting to look at the way in which science and mythology are completely divorced from each other in modern society. They’re viewed as completely opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet they are sisters. Science seeks to explain the world by using the scientific method, to run experiments, to tease out how things work. Mythology works by using magic and gods and monsters to explain things that our ancestors could never understand.

I'll give you a really great example, and I don't include this in the book because I just thought of it over the summer. My wife and I have been living in northern Finland for the past three months. [One night], my wife came in and said, “You’ve got to come outside right now.” We've got a nine-month-old so the days are long and hard and I was exhausted. I said, “Really? Do I have to?” She said, “Yes. You must.” I walk outside. It’s almost midnight, it was freezing, and it was only September. The sky was ignited with purples and blues and greens. It was insane. They were like clouds of color shooting across the sky. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I’d seen pictures of the Northern Lights. Pictures do no justice to it.

And immediately upon seeing this I understood a piece of Norse mythology, that I've never understood before. There is this story in Norse mythology, which is incidentally featured quite prominently in the Thor films so people will know all about it. Because no one reads Norse mythology for fun, they go to see comic-book movies for fun. But the gods, Thor and others, have a mechanism for transferring from Asgard, the world of the gods, to Midgard, the world of man, and it’s called Bifröst, which is the magic bridge. Bifröst in the movies is depicted with these flickering greens and purples and pinks. They have to walk out onto it to transfer to the mortal realm. In all the translations of Bifröst that are made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they say it’s a rainbow, and I kind of just always accepted that. Now, after seeing this, I can’t imagine anyone saying that Bifröst was inspired by a rainbow. I imagine that the Norse, who lived at these latitudes, saw this stuff happening in the sky and went “Oh my god, the gods are coming!” And it would seem a totally acceptable, rational explanation. And I think it’s the same thing as using science in that you’re explaining the unexplainable, you're just using mythology to do it instead of a method.

Beck: A number of the different things that you talk about in the book I kind of thought about as “close but no cigar,” where people kind of got the effects of something right, but got the causes wrong. Like with the Egyptians’ eyeliner, which they thought had healing powers bestowed by the god Horus, and it turned out it was helping activate their immune system, but they didn't know why. In that way, can magic kind of be a step towards scientific understanding?

Kaplan: That's an interesting question. Allow me to think about it for a second. I think that's a really important question.

Beck: Another example of what I was thinking about from the book is how in the 13th century, people knew that breathing in the breath of a sick person would make you sick, and so then there were the old men who were like, “Let me just breathe the breath of young girls and it’ll make me young again.” It's a step, but just the wrong step.

Kaplan: That’s the problem with magic, because when you use mythology and magic to explain the inexplicable, you end up in situations where you do things like that. By the way, I find it very funny that you never have any cases of old women breathing the breath of young boys. It's only old men going to breathe the breath of young women.

Beck: Right, that surprises me zero percent.

Kaplan: And to some extent you do have these things giving birth to science. I think a lot of the fascination with the philosopher’s stone, this stone of immortality, and seeking to find it and distilling it from different compounds, in many ways gave birth to what eventually became chemistry.

Along a similar line, Plutarch, the last high-priest of the oracle of Delphi, was really close to presenting evidence that the oracle of Delphi was smoking fumes that were coming up through a vent [when she made her predictions, putting her into a hypnotic state] because he noticed that after a big earthquake, the oracle's predictions started changing and her behavior shifted. And he suspected in his writings that something underground had changed that was blocking her from being able to enter the same hypnotic state that she used to. So you've got people who were beginning to say, “Huh.” They were starting to think about it, but they didn't quite have the invention of the scientific method so they couldn't quite get there.

Beck: We still have plenty of things that we don't really understand. Like sleep—why do we need it? We're not really sure. What actually is Alzheimer's? We have ideas but we don't really know. So are those things magic? Or are people just more willing to accept that there are things we don’t know, but probably if we just wait, science will explain them in due course?

Kaplan: I think it really depends who you talk to. And I think different people have different thresholds for whether they’re willing to accept the divine. I have a family friend who nearly succumbed to breast cancer almost 20 years ago, and the doctors all told her, “You’re done.” And then rather miraculously, she managed to survive it and is still alive with us to this day. She’s become, in the wake of that, deeply, deeply religious. We don't talk about it, but my speculation is that she certainly views it as there was a divine intervention that gave her those days.

Similarly, I was on the ambulance rig for a long while. I was in emergency rooms doing my hours as an emergency medical-technician, and the number of people who are getting wheeled into the emergency room or the surgery who were prayed to by their family as they were leaving, makes you take a moment to realize that faith plays a serious role in people’s lives and particularly to intervene in medical results. And as I point out in the healing chapter, that may not be as crazy as it sounds. Personally I’m a nonbeliever. But we already have studies that show that if you have faith, you live longer. And now Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is publishing really good papers which show that if you experience eudaimonic happiness, [happiness stemming from meaning] on a regular basis, you have different gene expression than someone who experiences hedonic happiness. Hedonic happiness is basically Vegas happiness. To me, the discovery that being happy in a certain way can shape my immune expression, and help me to survive a disease, is magical.

That experience where Jesus Christ in the scriptures is saying, “Your faith has healed you”—the concept, to a certain extent, holds true. It's not going to heal you if you get hit by a car, but if you're suffering from a chronic illness, it could really make a difference. I find that mindblowing.

Beck: How, after doing all these investigations, would you define magic?

Kaplan: Talk about putting me on the spot. I think magic is very much within the eye of the beholder, and it depends who you are and where you live. To our ancestors, the world was crackling with magic. Everywhere they looked, magic was there. And if they saw things they didn’t understand, it was magic. To most people today, magic is on the screen with Harry Potter or on the stage with Penn and Teller. And it is that feeling they get of giddiness and astonishment when they watch Teller turn water into gold coins.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to define magic in this article as a one-liner. I think that will fail. If I could have done it in the book I would have. And as you notice, I don't, because it's so hard to do. And to underestimate magic is to really miss the point. It really depends upon your worldview. If magic exists in your world and you truly believe then magic is used to explain the thing you can't understand. But once you become secular and you live in a world where the scientific method exists, you can't accept that magic is involved anymore, and you have to explain it in other ways. Magic can still be there but you always know it’s not quite real.

Beck: Right.

Kaplan: We only talked about the initial Galadriel quote, you didn't ask me about the second one.

Beck: Yeah, go for it.

Kaplan: I read that way back when and I didn’t really understand why Galadriel would say that to Frodo and Sam—why would she say that she was confused by [them calling her practices “magic,” as well as Sauron’s.]

They say the two are the same, and she says, “I don't understand why you refer to them as the same because they're not.” And of course what the Dark Lord does and what Galadriel does to them look the same, and to us the readers they also look the same. But in the Tolkien-esque world, somehow whatever Sauron does is fundamentally different from what Galadriel does. And she understands that, apparently Sauron understands that, but the hobbits don’t and we don’t.

I wonder to what extent Tolkien was kind of giving us a little wink and saying “Actually we talk about magic with this blanket phrasing, we call it magic.” But when we talk about magic, it's such a diversity of things. Do we really understand what we're talking about? And I think we don’t.