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August 15-21, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Muggles, Arise!

By Peter Byrne


In mid-July, I had the honor of attending a three-day conference in Oxford, England, about multiple universes. Called "Everett at Fifty," it was sponsored by the Foundational Questions Institute and hosted by the philosophy faculty of the University of Oxford. It was quite magical.

The late Hugh Everett was a doctoral student in physics at Princeton when he formulated the controversial "many worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics which envisages a huge number of separate universes. Everett died in 1982, a few years before his theory gained scientific credence.

The Oxford conference celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of Everett's now-famous interpretation. It was attended by 30-some physicists and philosophers debating the question of whether or not trillions of copies of every individual exist trapped inside "multiverses" that range from slightly different to greatly different. A half-century ago, such a debate would have landed these folks in an insane asylum, but today many scientists and philosophers believe that a nearly uncountable number of universes exist, some with copies of people in them, most without.

I went to Oxford because Scientific American had assigned me to write a profile of Everett. I made a biographical presentation on Everett at the conference, but mostly I listened to the heated debate between the "Everettians," who believe that everything that is physically possible occurs over a huge number of largely noncommunicating universes, and the "Bohmians," who surmise the existence of but a single universe. Both camps eschew the orthodox theory, known as the "Copenhagen interpretation," which implies that reality exists only when it is observed.

So, you may be wondering: What does quantum mechanics have to do with Harry Potter?

The University of Oxford is the cultural template for Hogwarts. The traditional dining hall scenes in the Potter films were shot at an Oxford college, and the hoary institution's dark tunnels and serpentine staircases reeking of ancient smells have been a playground for generations of students coddled with mental and economic privileges. The thickened stone fortifications surrounding each college seem designed to protect the means of knowledge for aristocrats and to keep out ignorant rabble. By the 19th century, the university was beholden to the fortune of Cecil Rhodes, the mining magnate who seized Africa's minerals while legitimizing the enslavement of millions of Africans to foreign economies. Oxford is regularly endowed by such corporations as Ford, Standard Oil, Glaxo, IBM, Nissan, Monsanto and Rupert Murdoch's News International as they finance the education of successive generations of intellectuals serving the Anglo-American empire.

I absolutely loved keeping company with the deep thinkers at Oxford, but my social conscience intruded unpleasantly. One night, I went to see the new Harry Potter film. Halfway through, I walked out, bored with the antics of overprivileged white people working 24-7-365 to keep the underprivileged Muggles from learning a bit of magic.

And what, pray tell, will the Muggles do when and if they are allowed to learn wizardry? End the starvation of billions? Cure AIDS? Harness the quantum for something other than bombs? I hope so, because the wizard society has no higher collective goal than perpetuating its middle-class lifestyle in the face of terrorist attacks by a neoconservative bureaucrat equipped with spells of mass destruction.

Reflecting our universe, the self-absorbed wizards see nothing wrong with allowing the "natural" ignorance of the Muggles to perpetuate while the poor things are systematically denied the right of education by their intellectual and economic superiors. The secret of the success of the Potter books is that J. K. Rowling's world is a reification of capitalist consumerism and a moral void.

The Potter ethical universe contains no socially redeeming value beyond fighting a psychopathic wizard. Personifying Voldemort as an inchoate "evil" conveniently allows Rowling's middle-class readers to sidestep their duty to specify the true source of human oppression and end it. Once the wizard-humans snuff Voldemort they will get back to business monopolizing the fruits of magic and living off the labor of the Muggle-humans. Consumerism for the few is saved.

Back home in Northern California, I went camping in the redwoods only to find many of my outdoor companions lost to nature in the new Potter volume. Meanwhile, our high-tech magic continues to murder hundred of thousands of Muggles in Iraq and Afghanistan and Africa, and we, as complacent Death Eaters, avert our faces from the carnage we cause by falsely claiming that we are powerless to stop it. Certainly this is not the best of all possible worlds. But if we are to make it work for Muggle and wizard alike, we'd best stop pretending that it is Voldemort that is the problem.


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