Durham County

Kittens and Quidditch: A Duke professor explains Harry Potter’s magical genes

Eric Spana, a Duke biology professor, has been a Harry Potter fan since the first books came out 20 years ago. His love for the fantastical universe inspired him to explain Harry’s magic with real science.

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter series: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published June 26, 1997. Since the first book, author J.K. Rowling published six more books in the series as well as a number of companion books, such as “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

Spana said the books have resonated with people because they tell a simple “underdog takes on the villain and wins” story. He said what sets the Harry Potter universe apart from other science fiction is that it takes place in the “shadow of where we’re living.”

“It’s not a galaxy far, far away,” he said. “It’s literally King’s Cross Station.”

Spana spoke this month on “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding” at Future Con, a three-day science, technology, and entertainment celebration in Washington, D.C. He spoke with us Thursday from his home in Durham.

Q: How did this all start?

A: One year when I had a particularly small class, I had been droning on for quite a bit, and I made a Harry Potter joke. Their eyes perked up, and they started paying attention again, instead of zoning out. And it went on from there. We had a lively discussion in class that we ended up following up a few times. And that morphed into a talk I gave at a science fiction fan convention. Man, now it’s like three years later, and I’m still doing it.

Q: Could you give a brief explanation of your talks?

A: The basic premise is that the use of magic in the Harry Potter world is a genetic trait that if you have it, you pass it on to your children. In some cases you don’t pass it onto your children and in some cases it appears from parents who don’t have it, and all those things are things that actually happen in genetics. Some traits you pass them onto your kids, some traits you don’t. It presented itself as a really nice way to teach the first day or two of an introduction to genetics class using the materials that most 10- to 25-year-olds know like the back of their hand.

Q: How do people usually respond to you?

A: It’s kind of a scary talk to give at certain fan conventions because you’re standing in front of four or five hundred people who, this is their life, you know, you might as well be talking about their kitten. They love this stuff so much. So if you say something that’s really not how they like thinking about it, they’re going to fight.

I gave this talk at a Harry Potter convention called LeakyCon last year and one of my slides has ‘what is magic’ and stuff for people who aren’t really into it. And then at the end it says ‘this is fantasy; this isn’t actually real.” And they booed me. They were like “don’t tell us this isn’t real; this is real for us; we love this.”

And I kind of like that, and it raises the stakes for how I have to be able to present things and the level of details required because usually if you’re in science, you get to talk on your research, you know your subject better than anyone because it’s what you do for a living. In this case, they probably know it better than I do.

Q: Why do you think you got such a positive response?

A: I think – especially right now – there’s kind of a ‘wow, science is cool’ sort of aspect. Although it seems bizarre to actually say that, but people watch Big Bang Theory and you know that ‘I effing love science’ site on Facebook gets huge numbers, and so I think they like that. They like thinking about the fantastic thing and if you can make the fantastic thing more real, that’s even more fun.

Q: What’s your goal with this?

A: The original premise was trying to explain this fictional universe in real science and teach people along the way. But to do that I had to go and read a ton of stuff. It got me into clinical diagnoses for certain genetic traits and frequency of traits and all kinds of other human-related genetics questions that I don’t do because I do fruit fly research.

And so I try to end with now, a slide that says go off and find some question that needs solving and Scooby-Do it and solve a mystery and then tell somebody else about it. And in doing that you’ll learn something and teach somebody else and that’s good. So I hope at the end I can get students, kids – whatever – to go out and read, learn, explore because it’s a fun universe. And these are fun questions to solve and not completely a waste of time – a partial waste of time – but not a complete waste of time.

Q: Last question, what house are you in?

A: Oh Slytherin – absolutely. It’s not even close.

Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553