Book review: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Book 1

OK, I know that I perhaps get a little too expansive with my book reviews. I want to tell you everything I found meaningful, and then provide you will all the quotes that struck me while reading, often paragraphs at a time. Probably not the best way to induce you to read. More like reading the highlights and annotations in my own copy of the book. Honestly, I’m not good at the art of the book review. You have to give your thoughts on the book without spending too much time on the content of the book, give the reader an idea of where the book fits in and what to expect, without simply being a summary or a repeat of the blurb on Goodreads. How do you do this?! You’ve got to start somewhere.

OK, so to help me avoid summary mode, let’s just give you the Goodreads summary up-front so I don’t repeat anything:

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a work of alternate-universe Harry Potter fan-fiction wherein Petunia Evans has married an Oxford biochemistry professor and young genius Harry grows up fascinated by science and science fiction. When he finds out that he is a wizard, he tries to apply scientific principles to his study of magic, with sometimes surprising results.

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I honestly forget how I stumbled upon The Methods of Rationality. It’s been sitting on my to-reads list for quite a while. I wanted to read something fun, so while scrolling through my list, I chose this one. I didn’t know how big the fan fiction genre was– that there were authors out there writing book-length adventures in alternate universes! And Yudkowsky does an amazing job, staying true to the universe of Harry Potter, while probing and expanding the mechanics of magic and its history.

I had to look up Yudkowsky after I was a few chapters in. He dropped so many academia references that he had to be an insider. And he was, but not the traditional route. Yudkowsky is an AI researcher at the self-founded organization Machine Intelligence Research Institute. But he never attended high school or college, and considers himself self-taught in the field.

OK, on to the book itself. How does it fit in to Rowling’s original universe? Well, the breaking point it when Petunia decided that Vernon was a loser, and chose to marry a biochemistry professor instead. That pretty much alters everything in books 1 through 7. Imagine if all the characters had exactly the same dispositions and habits, but Harry had been replaced by a science master-mind. While Harry still enters Hogwarts at 11, he definitely doesn’t seem to act like an 11-year-old. To me, Harry seems to offer Yudkowsky the opportunity to probe the world of magic using the scientific method. Perhaps inserting his own commentary and discussion on Rowling’s world that he had while reading. I’m sure every reader of Harry Potter has had moments wondering, “Wait, how does that work?” or “If that spell exists, why didn’t someone do this already?” Yudkowsky takes those questions and runs with them, merging the world of science and magic.

But how do you merge science and magic? Well, if magic exists, then you kind of break a lot of the accepted laws of physics. And one of my favorite scenes is when Harry first encounter with magic and his mind explodes. I’ll avoid the temptation of quoting it at length here for you haha.

Harry’s altered childhood also changes much of his personality (want to take a guess at which house he gets sorted into?). I sometimes felt that Harry was too cold, that he had lost something in becoming a Baconian. He is the scientific method personified. There were some things I disagreed with Harry on. I don’t treat science as the ultimate authority, but only a useful tool. I have a much more conservative approach, and I believe there are limits to what we can know. I was also surprised that Harry’s induction into the magical world didn’t tone down his scientific hubris; is magic was here all along, defying the conservation of mass and the second law of thermodynamics, shouldn’t you be a bit more skeptical about what you think you know?

The book is an enjoyable read either way. It is nice to re-immerse myself in the world of Harry Potter (nostalgia!!), and it has also gotten me thinking about my own approach to science.

I look forward to reading the next in the series!

P.S.

Just one little quote? When Harry first encounters time turners:

“Really,” Harry said. “Ahahahaha. Of course you wouldn’t give time machines to children if they were dangerous, what was I thinking? So just to be clear, sneezing on this device will not send me into the Middle Ages where I will run over Gutenberg with a horse cart and prevent the Enlightenment? Because, you know, I hate it when that happens to me.”

Image credit: Dinosaurusgede on HP-MOR Wiki.

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