The world is not magic

By Sean Carroll | October 10, 2005 4:40 pm

Here is a true story. Saturday, after the symposium at Fermilab, I was driving back into the city. To be honest, I was completely exhausted; it had been a long day of talks, and I had been up quite late the previous night throwing mine together, resulting in very little sleep. So I was pretty much ready to crash, certainly uninterested in any sort of activity involving serious brain function.

And then I remembered that the big football game was about to start — my beloved Penn State Nittany Lions vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes in a titanic battle for Big Ten supremacy. Sadly, however, I don’t have cable TV at my place (long story). But I knew how to circumvent this obstacle: a visit to ESPN SportsZone, the modern sports-bar/video arcade that features comfy leather recliners in which you can grab a bite while you watch the game on their huge-screen TV. A perfect brain-free activity to cap off the evening. Very un-physics-professor-like behavior, but I’ve done worse. And if all went well, Penn State would even win, preserving their unbeaten record and vaulting them into the national-championship picture.

(Aside: they did win, outlasting 6th-ranked OSU for a rain-soaked 17-10 victory in front of 100,000 screaming Penn State partisans. An incredibly important victory for the program and for legendary coach Joe Paterno, who had inexplicably suffered through four losing seasons in the last five years. Paterno has been head coach for 40 years, including 20 bowl victories (best ever), 349 total victories (second-best), five undefeated seasons, and two national championships. He’s also donated millions of dollars to the university — to build a library. When Penn State joined the Big Ten a dozen years ago, Paterno was 66 and widely expected to soon retire. When Barry Alvarez steps down from the head job at Wisconsin at the end of this year, every school in the conference will have experienced a head-coaching change — except Penn State. Due to the travesty by which college football chooses its national champion, it will be difficult for PSU to get a legitimate shot at the title this year even if they win all their games. But if things break just right, the Lions could be headed to the Rose Bowl on January 4th to duke it out with USC for the big enchilada. Watch out, Clifford, we’re coming for you!)

So there I am, enjoying my buffalo wings and Guinness and cringing as Ohio State scores the first field goal. At the table next to me was a group of women who were visiting the big city for the weekend, celebrating the birthday of Caroline, one of their number. They were also Ohio State fans — no accounting for taste. It’s perfectly clear within the restaurant who is rooting for which team, just from the timing of shouts of delight or groans of dismay, so we were soon trading good-natured barbs about the relative merits of our respective squads.

By halftime Penn State was up 14-10, so I was feeling especially magnanimous. We chatted about what we all did for a living and so forth, and I ended up explaining something about dark energy and particle physics and the big bang. Caroline, after making a good-faith effort to understand the distinction between quarks and leptons, pleasantly but firmly demanded to know “What is the practical use of all this? What can we actually do with it? Why is it worth spending time on it?”

My line on these questions is that there isn’t necessarily any practical application (although there may be spinoffs); we do it as part of a quest to understand how the world works. I was trying to explain this, with less than complete success. But then Caroline’s younger sister (whose name I unfortunately forget, as I would love to give her credit), who was a secondary-school science teacher before she had kids of her own, leaned across the table and said “Because the world is not magic. This is what I always taught my kids, and it’s what everyone should understand.”

The world is not magic. The world follows patterns, obeys unbreakable rules. We never reach a point, in exploring our universe, where we reach an ineffable mystery and must give up on rational explanation; our world is comprehensible, it makes sense. I can’t imagine saying it better. There is no way of proving once and for all that the world is not magic; all we can do is point to an extraordinarily long and impressive list of formerly-mysterious things that we were ultimately able to make sense of. There’s every reason to believe that this streak of successes will continue, and no reason to believe it will end. If everyone understood this, the world would be a better place.

Of course, there are different connotations to the word “magical.” One refers to inscrutable mystery, but another refers simply to a feeling of wonder or delight. And our world is full of that kind of magic. I get to listen to some fascinating talks on neutrinos and particle accelerators during the day, enjoy a statement-making victory over our conference rivals in the evening, and be handed a nugget of marvelously distilled wisdom from a woman in a sports bar who I had never met and will unlikely ever see again (a Buckeye fan, no less) — these are all magical. We shouldn’t feel disappointed that the march of understanding removes an element of mystery from the world; we should be appreciative of how much there is to know and the endless variety of ways in which our sensible universe continues to surprise us. The very fact that our world is comprehensible should fill us with wonder and delight. The world is not magic — and that’s the most magical thing about it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Personal, Science
  • LBBP

    Nice story. If only this were taught in every school we might avoid another couple thousand years of abuses from religious paranoia, persecution, and superstition.

  • Phil

    Being a Michigan alum, and somewhat of a PSU fan, I was also ecstatic to watch Penn State topple OSU. Also, as a physics grad student I must say that “the world is not magic” line is very well put, I’m happy to here that type of reasoning coming from a highschool teacher.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    My morning got off to a poor due to a silly pro-ID letter in my local paper. I wrote a reply using the Washington Post article that you pointed out in Science reporting as it should be as a model. So thank you, Sean, for pointing me to that.

    Thanks again for topping off my day with this magical story. “The world is not magic” may be my new manta.


  • tom fish

    Sean, regarding the penultimate paragraph:

    //There’s every reason to believe that this streak of successes will continue, and no reason to believe it will end. //

    Isn’t this subject to Hume’s problem of induction? I mean, I agree with you, but I’m not sure this reasoning is sound, or that I have any better line of reasoning than “come on, look how many times it works!”.

  • ruadhan

    Hi Sean,

    In some circumstances at least, we can prove that it’s not possible to predict the results of certain measurements with accuracy greater than that provided by quantum mechanics. The classic example is in EPR-type secnarios with spin-anticorrelated particles. If one could consistently predict what the result of a spin measurement on one of the particles was going to be, then one could signal faster than light to the recipient of the partner particle.

    That is, our ability to find patterns within nature and use them to predict its future behaviour has come to an end here. It doesn’t mean that nature is magical, of course, but it means that in certain circumstances there are simply no patterns for us to find, no unbreakable laws specifying what nature must do.

  • Arun

    To continue the streak of experimental successes in High Energy Physics, probably some billions of dollars are needed. To surpass the Hubble telescope, some more billions of dollars are needed, and so on. That economic support to research will continue indefinitely, is a hope.

    To me, it is not at all obvious, as a practical (rather than philosophical) matter that our success will continue. If we have technological breakthroughs so that the world economy can grow sustainably into the indefinite future, then I say scientific success will continue. If we reach limits of growth, and nations begin warring over resources, trying to avoid the universal poverty that equal opportunity in a stagnant world economy will bring, it may put an end to the age of science, in my opinion.

  • erc

    ruadhan & Arun – surely the point being made is that if we continue to strive for understanding, and have the necessary resources, the mysteries can be unravelled. The example ruadhan makes is, I think, an irrelevance. The fact that we cannot make this measurement is *explained* (superluminal signals are not allowed), and so there is no mystery – there is no magic involved here. So Sean’s (and Caroline’s sister’s) point still stands.

    BTW, I really liked this post. I was expecting it to be a an anti-ID rant, and was very pleasantly surprised. I seem to spend a lot of time at bus-stops trying to justify my life, and “the world is not magic” is just the phrase I have been needing. Thank you Sean.

  • Chris W.

    From Ruadhan: “That is, our ability to find patterns within nature and use them to predict its future behaviour has come to an end here.”

    The irony in this statement is that quantum theory is an outcome and manifestation of our “ability to find patterns within nature”. For a long time it has struck me as odd to talk about quantum theory as limiting what we can know, when quantum theory is itself something we discovered, and is full of surprises and hints of future discoveries.

  • ljs

    So Sean, I like the part where you write “Watch out, Clifford, we’re coming for you!” I’m not sure he has realized that USC is the #1 ranked college football team yet but I am working on him!! Right, Clifford????

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    HEP and Astrophysics are not all of science, and not even all of physics, and it could be argued that discoveries made by Hubble or HEP over the past 50 years have contributed very little to economy, compared to fields such as electronics, computers science, biology, chemistry, or condensed matter physics.

  • Alison

    Thank-you for this engaging, literate essay. That the “world is not magic” reflects my views quite succinctly.

  • citrine

    The phrase makes a nice bumper sticker motto!

  • agm

    Penn State and USC? I need to check in with my brother to see how the Longhorns did this weekend…

  • Mark

    Hands down best one-liner about the meaning of science.

  • Plato

    world is not magic

    everything is neat and tidy is it?:)

    well it would seem their are still mysteries at the point at which we did not understand things, so Like spooky-action at a distance, what value would entanglement serve?

    It would only be afterward that we say, hey, there was some order to all this?

    So do we assign anomalies to some mystery, or call it things we just do not know? Or, are there things that drive insightfulness to develope “many roads” for a valued measure in our distinction and views of that early cosmos? Where Quantum gravity exists?

    So you see where “calorimeteric design” is really quite useful, when at one time, is was bit of a mystery?

    Maybe someone should start a blog on one liners?:)

  • raytrace

    Do you guys get people sporting “Magic Happens” bumper stickers? Here’s a link to an alternative bumper sticker on the theme! I couldn’t help but smile (and want one!)!

  • http://deleted ruadhan

    Chris W. and erc,

    You’re right – quantum mechanics counts as something that we know, rather than as something that we don’t know, and it’s quite an achievement for science to have reached it. I don’t want to spoil the patting-ourselves-on-the-back party here, I just want to point out that there are at least some features of nature that we’ll never find a pattern in.

    That is, Sean’s statement: “We never reach a point, in exploring our universe, where we reach an ineffable mystery and must give up on rational explanation,” is strictly speaking incorrect. When a particle lands here rather than there on a detecting screen, or when a spin-entangled particle is found to be spin up, the question of why it turned out that way is precisely and provably an ineffable mystery, and we must indeed give up on rational explanation. The fact that we can prove this does not make it false.

    Of course, I understand and agree with Sean’s more general point. The comprehensibility of the universe is indeed remarkable.

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  • JoAnne

    Excellent, absolutely excellent. Now I know what to say to those people sitting next to me on the airplane….(which is my only random sampling of the population.)

  • Urijah

    I think Jerry Pournelle made a similar point at the end of Lucifer’s Hammer–advanced civilization means being able to raise your children to not have to believe in magic.

  • Christopher

    Urijah, I also thought about that, in particuarlly Niven, Pournelle, and Flynn’s Fallen Angles. That book, despite a bit of bum neutrino physics gives a lot of great raison d’etre for us science and s.f. types. I’m working from memory hear, but the quote that struck me the most is something like:
    “That’s what always drew me to science fiction. The sense of hope. Even in the darkest dystopia there was the sense that the future is a place we make rather than something that just happens to us.”

  • Joe

    Do you guys ever read any sociology?

    Back in 1919 Max Weber famously had this to say about the impact of science in the modern world:

    “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the “disenchantment of the world.” Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.” (see e.g.

    Sociologists have been debating why the scientific “disenchantment of the world” hasn’t led to a terminal decline in religion ever since.

  • Arun


    Thanks! The full lecture from which the Max Weber quote was taken is worth reading, it is here:

    Another excerpt:

    Under these internal presuppositions, what is the meaning of science as a vocation, now after all these former illusions, the ‘way to true being,’ the ‘way to true art,’ the ‘way to true nature,’ the ‘way to true God,’ the ‘way to true happiness,’ have been dispelled? Tolstoi has given the simplest answer, with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” ‘ That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. The only question that remains is the sense in which science gives ‘no’ answer, and whether or not science might yet be of some use to the one who puts the question correctly.

  • Risa


  • Bill

    “The world follows patterns, obeys unbreakable rules. We never reach a point, in exploring our universe, where we reach an ineffable mystery and must give up on rational explanation”

    Then pray let me know why anything exists at all?

  • erc

    Physics does not try to answer “why” but “how”, I would say. “How does matter appear?” is an interesting question, you are quite correct. I’ll leave it to an expert to provide an answer though…

  • Bill

    Physics does not try to answer “why” but “how”

    I’ve never really understood why people say that. Perhaps
    they mean something special by “why question”. But on
    the face of it physics did a good job with, just to take one
    of zillions of examples, “why are planetary orbits elliptical?”,
    and in biology, how about, “why does sickle cell anemia
    persist in human populations?”…

  • Lil

    No, the world is not magic. However, I would offer that the truth (reality) is more fantastic, amazing and wonderful than anything that we could make up.

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  • Arun


    “Why are planetary orbits elliptical” is answered by “how bodies move with a inverse square law force”, “why does sickle cell anemia persist in human populations” is answered by “how natural selection works with a recessive trait”.

    Our “why” questions are answered by a description, sometimes mathematical, concise and precise; and sometimes somewhat wordy; and the description is about how something happens. Why is gravity an inverse square law force? We can answer that if it reduces to a “how” question in a quantum field theory or string theory.

    “Why anything exists at all?” needs to be recast in the “how” mold. E.g, given the Big Bang, how various structures form is available, but “why the Big Bang?” will need something more (maybe a “how” description from branes in string theory?)

    Of course, the ultimate theory will have to describe itself in this “how” fashion, otherwise, the “why” question will remain – why this particular theory? The ultimate theory, of course, has a loophole, the answer to the why could be that the ultimate theory is unique. Still, the “why the ultimate theory?” is likely to remain the one unanswerable question.

  • Tom Renbarger

    Little sister’s answer is freaking brilliant. I wish I had thought of it.

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  • willowstream

    So, the world is not magic, and you know the truth. You use “I” a lot in your piece. How is this I you refer to? How did it come to be? If you know so much you must know the answer to such a basic question.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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