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Wizardry That Would Amaze Harry Potter

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These scientists would fit right in at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - except that their astounding conjurings were not works of fiction

The Harry Potter books and films, with all their wizardry, magic and bizarre scientific experimentation, put us in mind of some real-life science experiments that in their weirdness, fantastic ambitions and astonishing implications rival anything conducted at Hogwart's. Mad or not, these scientists managed to conjure incredible manifestations, human invisibility and even attempted to build a Messiah!

JOHN TYNDALL AND THE TEST TUBE OF BEASTIES

John Tyndall was a respected Irish physicist of the 19th century. Making his career primarily in Great Britain, Tyndall made important contributions to the study of atmospherics and radiant heat, and may be best known for his discovery of "the Tyndall effect" - the diffusion of light by large molecules and dust in the air.

One of his experiments, however, conducted in the late 1800s, sounds like something out of a computer-effects movie. Tyndall had combined a variety of vapors from nitrates, iodides and acids in a test tube to record the effects of beams of light upon them. What he saw forming in the glass tube astonished him. At first the vapors formed clouds of remarkable colors. But then they started to take on distinct and familiar shapes. The vapor clouds began to arrange themselves in the form of vases, bottles, shells and various flowers. "In one case," he said, "the cloud-bud grew rapidly into a serpent's head; a mouth was formed, and from the cloud, a cord of cloud resembling a tongue was discharged."

More incredibly, the vapor then formed itself into a perfectly symmetrical fish. "It positively assumed the form of a fish, with eyes, gills and feelers. The twoness of the animal form was displayed throughout, and no disk, coil, or speck existed on one side that did not exist on the other."

What happened here? Had Tyndall inadvertently inhaled some strange vapors and hallucinated the scene? Or were his thoughts - images from his mind - somehow made manifest in the stimulated vapors? We may never know exactly what happened in Tyndall's laboratory that day.

SIR THOMAS BROWN AND THE SPECTRAL PLANT

You have no doubt seen the famous Kirlian photographs in which the outline of a severed piece of a leaf still appears in Kirlian energy. A phenomenon similar but much more remarkable is said to have taken place in the laboratory of Sir Thomas Brown, a 17th century physician and author, when he saw the "spectre" of a plant rise from its burned remains.

In this experiment, Sir Brown took a plant and reduced it to ashes through calcination - a process in which an object is turned to powder through high temperature, then by drying, decomposing or oxidizing it. After fermenting the powder, he poured it into a vial. When heat was applied again, something unexplained occurred.

A witness wrote: "This dust thus excited by heat, shoots upward into its primitive forms; by sympathy the parts unite, and while each is returning to its destined place, we see distinctly the stalk, the leaves, and the flower arise; it is the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its ashes. The heat passes away, the magical scene declines, till the whole matter again precipitates itself into the chaos at the bottom. This vegetable phoenix thus lies concealed in its cold ashes."

In other words, when the vial was heated - even from the heat of a person's hand - a ghostly form of the original plant rose from the ashes out of the vial. All parts of the plant could distinctly be seen, according to this account, then faded away. It sounds like a conjurer's trick, but that is the story that has been passed down.

Next page: The God Machine and Invisibility

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