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Scientists discuss the science behind Harry Potter's magical world

Eric Spana will speak at the upcoming Harry Potter genetics discussion at Back Bar. Photo by Rose Wang .

Wanderlust wizarding fans, geneticists and enthusiasts of the obscure will be in attendance at the “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding” discussion, held in the back bar of Top of the Hill on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Eric Spana, associate professor of the practice of biology at Duke University, will be visiting Chapel Hill to speak as part of the Carolina Science Cafe monthly speaker series through the North Carolina Science Festival. 

Spana gave a similar talk to a teenage group in December, but popular demand prompted him to address an adult audience.

“The Harry Potter series works as a shadow universe,” Spana said. “It isn’t someplace you make up anything you want. The science is the same as here. Organisms still undergo evolution and it’s interesting to explain.” 

Spana said he used a Harry Potter reference to perk students' interest during a class about five years ago and people showed immediate interest. 

“Spending eight hours working out how Hermione comes to be a witch, well that is basically a waste of time because it is fiction and doesn’t exist, but reading research is learning for me,” Spana said. “I try to explain how things work, not that they can’t." 

Spana said that science and English majors, intense fans or not, can all learn from the new insight he extracts from this popular series. Furthermore, Spana hopes that others will be inspired to pursue their own interests.

“I encourage people to go think of a question, research it then share it," Spana said. "If you can do that the world is a better place, even if your question is silly. There are other people out there who like silly questions.”

UNC junior Janie Oberhauser’s mathematics of life class delved into the magical inheritance of Harry Potter. She is interested in hearing what Spana has to add to the scientific spin on J. K. Rowling’s mystical books. 

“The event itself is cool because I think it makes science accessible and appealing to a wider range of people,” Oberhauser said. 

Harry Potter is a particularly potent platform to disseminate scientific theories and findings, Oberhauser said, because it kindles nostalgia.

“I think that’s part of why (Harry Potter) is so timeless: because it brings back so many memories and means so many things to so many people,” Oberhauser said. 

The Carolina Science Cafe series, as part of the NC Science Festival, hosts a speaker on the first Wednesday of each month to initiate open discussion between experts and community members. 

“It is really beneficial for scientists to meet the public face to face,” Jonathan Frederick, director of the NC Science Festival, said. “We create a space for audience and scientists to discuss together, and for people to ask tough questions.”

Speakers of many backgrounds, including current UNC interim chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, have spoken since the initiative started in 2007. More than 100 professors and experts have shared their knowledge with the Chapel Hill community. 

“We are exploring things that impact the future and our everyday lives,” Frederick said. “We work on real world problems and learn how experts are doing that here on campus.”


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