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“Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts.  Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back.  You have been warned”

                -- Minerva McGonagall, first lecture to first-years (PS8)

In the Potterverse, there are many different branches of magic, each with its own subset of rules, and particular methodology. The study of Transfiguration is no exception to this, however from a scientific point of view it presents unique challenges since its basis is the transformation of one thing into another. Doing so on such a grand scale, is a chemical quandary of impressive proportions.

Before we delve into the subject, it’s important to remember that JK Rowling herself described Transfiguration as the molecular rearrangement of matter through magic. As such, we shall approach the topic accordingly.

Chemistry Primer

For those of you for whom knowledge of chemistry is limited (or rusty), let us review a few basics. All matter is composed of atoms. These atoms can be combined to form molecules, which are groups of atoms linked together in a specific arrangement/pattern.  There is a finite number of different types of atoms, or elements (of which there are over 100 and which can all be found in the periodic table of elements).

A chemical reaction is defined as the rearrangement of the atoms within the reactants (the molecules found prior to the reaction), in order to create new molecules or products. The following image illustrates this process. We can clearly see that we have the same types of atoms (each element is represented by a different coloured sphere), before and after the reaction. The atoms are merely organized differently.

Furthermore, almost all chemical reactions are theoretically possible, if given sufficient energy and the right conditions (temperature, pressure, solvent, presence of a catalyst). With these concepts in mind, we are ready to explore the scientific basis of Transfiguration.

Changing Matter

As mentioned earlier, the premise of Transfiguration is the transformation of one substance into another. The easiest form of this would be a switching spell. In its simplest form, it is the transformation of one inanimate object into another. If we think of this as a chemical reaction, the atoms of the first matter would simply be rearranged in order to produce the molecules of the intended matter. For example, the atoms which form the molecules of a matchstick, would reorganize themselves in order to produce new molecules with the chemical makeup of the intended needle. In theory, this even sounds rather simplistic, however there is much more to it!

First of all, such a simple reaction would require the two objects to be composed of the same elements. In this case, the matchstick is an organic compound containing large quantities of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, while the needle is a metallic alloy containing aluminum and carbon. This poses our first obstacle since in a basic chemical reaction, we simply reorganize atoms without creating or destroying them. THIS is where magical energy would come into play! As discussed last month, magic is a form of energy. All around us we can find various elements in different quantities. Since atoms are minuscule, we cannot see them and as such are often oblivious to their relative presence. As such, small quantities of aluminum atoms can be found on the tip of the matchstick, as well as minute quantities within the wood of the match itself. It is these atoms, combined with the carbon atoms, which will be amplified via magical energy and reorganized in order to produce a metallic needle.

The second obstacle is the production of the intended end product. How can we specifically produce a sewing needle from our match? As mentioned previously, most chemical reactions are possible if given the right conditions and sufficient energy. This suggests that magical energy is what enables the reaction to occur. Emitting a specific quantum of energy towards the match, guides the pattern in which the atoms are reorganised. If too much, or too little, energy is emitted, the required reorganization will not correctly occur, and will result in an incomplete Transfiguration.

How exactly this energy precipitates a change in the chemical make-up of matter is due to thermodynamics. All matter possesses a certain quantity of entropy (which can roughly be described as the level of disorder in matter). Since according to scientific principle all matter tends towards disorder, thus increasing entropy, magical energy would be required to allow the atoms to vibrate in a certain way in order to allow them to achieve a new pattern and a new level of order. Without this magical energy, no amount of willpower would suffice to transform one matter into another. This is why the study of Transfiguration is so complex; a very precise amount of energy must be emitted, which isn’t an easy feat.

Animate Objects

The Transfiguration of animate objects brings its own difficulties; how can one create a sentient organism? If one is transfiguring one animate object into another, it really isn’t much different from a basic switching spell of inanimate objects. Since both organisms possess the capacity to feel, we are merely changing the outward appearance, and maintaining the neurological patterns that are already present in the organism. Where it becomes more complicated, is the transfiguration of an inanimate object into an animate organism.

Scientists have succeeded in creating elementary life forms, such as bacteria, and are constantly improving their grasp on the creation of artificial intelligence. Basic artificial intelligence is the ability of a machine (or other inanimate object) to perceive its environment and to react to it accordingly. While general knowledge and intelligence is not something that has yet been achieved in inanimate objects, only a minimal amount of AI would be required for an effective transfiguration. The transfigured object only needs enough AI to allow it to temporarily mimic the behaviour of the organism, which could be achieved using very large quantities of energy. Furthermore, such objects would tend to be transient in nature and not last very long, due to the tremendous quantity of energy required to create the illusion of AI.

Conjuring and Vanishing Spells

While such spells are rather impressive to witness, in essence they are rather simple to explain. Most matter is organic in nature, meaning it contains large quantities of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. To conjure a quill for example, one would simply require a source or these atoms, and then emit the proper amount of energy necessary to organize them in the desired pattern. Conjuring is described as creating something out of thin air, which in terms of Transfiguration, is exactly what happens. The air we breathe is largely composed of these same elements, in the form of N2, CO2, and O2. We can thus use the atoms from the air, and reorganise them into matter of the desired shape.

Vanishing spells will simply be the reverse reaction. Taking molecules and returning them to the form they would take in air.

Limits of Transfiguration

As with anything else, there are certain limits to keep in mind when addressing the subject of Transfiguration. We are all familiar with ‘Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration’, which describe the basis of transfiguration. This law also describes the limits of the field, or objects that simply cannot be created using magic. These things are love, money, food, information, and life. None of these can be created from nothing.

Why they can’t be created from the atoms of our surroundings is because such an action would disrupt the fragile equilibrium of the world. If the laws of nature that govern equilibrium are not observed, the system (in this case the world), would seek to revert to its original form, thus causing a collapse of the Magical world.

Equilibrium is defined as a condition of a system where competing influences are balanced. Le Chatelier’s principle explains that when a system that is at equilibrium is subjected to an external force (like a variation in pressure or temperature), the system will seek to restore the equilibrium. As such, if one were to bring someone back from the dead (giving life), this action would disrupt the equilibrium or balance in the world. In an effort to return to its original form, the system would seek to destroy or eliminate the magic that caused the disruption in the first place. Einstein’s theory of mass-energy equivalence (e=mc2) where matter is converted into energy, could also apply itself to magical energy but in the reverse.  When transfigurations are reversed to restore equilibrium, magical energy would be converted into matter.  This means that every time a transfiguration is reversed due to an equilibrium shift, a little bit of the magical energy of the world would be consumed and could never be recreated – thus diminishing the potential energy of the Wizarding world. This is why we simply cannot use Transfiguration in order to conjure money or food, nor can it be used to bring back a loved one from death or to create love between individuals. Such actions would simply be too disruptive to the fabric of the Magical world.