Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From the Magister's Notebook: Magic and Science in Arcane Chicago

"Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic"- Arthur C. Clark

Merriam-Webster defines the word supernatural as:

"1. Of relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God, or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2. a: departing from what is usual or normal especially as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
    b: attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or a spirit)" (1)

In many works of urban fantasy, magic and science tend to be diametrically opposed. In some cases, the mere presence of magical energy can cause technology not only to malfunction, but to burn out entirely. There are also several magical beings, such as the Fae, who have issues using their ability in a world where iron and steel are common building blocks.

However, this does not always have to be the case. In Nick Whitehall's world, the physical laws play an important part in the use of magic, even if it cannot be perceived by current instrumentation, thus appearing to transcend them. Two laws which play a large part in working magic are the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Conservation of Matter.

Magical energy is generated by people. Every emotion, every thought, even the very act of living leaves a tiny amount of residual magic in the surroundings. Further, there are places where all of this energy seems to collect and pool. It is, perhaps, not surprising that mankind is unconsciously drawn to those places, and begin to congregate there. This creates a constant loop: as the magical pools get stronger, more people are drawn there, which only feeds the pool even more. There are many such places in the world, but one of the most powerful resides under the city of Chicago, Illinois. (There are even those that argue that this is why the Cubs never win the World Series. That The Billy Goat Curse laid upon that team in 1945 is fed constantly by the pool!) In olden times, pools like this never grew too powerful, for not only were there fewer people to feed them, but there were more people who could draw upon it, even if only in a minor way. But in the modern world, the number of people who can tap such a pool are few in number, and more people are concentrated in smaller places than ever before. For a place like Chicago, the result is that the city sits on one of the most potent concentrations of magical energy in history, just waiting to be tapped.

So what can you do with all that energy? Well, the easiest thing to do is turn it into other kinds of energy. Just as in the mundane world, turning one form of energy into another is a fairly simple matter, but in the magical world, you have a limitless pool to start from. This makes it appear that a mage can summon, from seemingly out of nowhere, fire, electricity, light, or even magnetic fields. Indeed, this is often the first manifestation of magical energy for a young mage. Many is the time that a young mage set fire to an object (usually involving a hated task) without meaning to! With a little more concentration and skill, the forces can be controlled. In this way, thermal energy can be drained from objects to create intense areas of cold, machines and electronic devices can be powered or overloaded, and perhaps most importantly, kinetic energy can be manipulated. Which brings us to the next step: matter manipulation.

Once you can move an object (or objects) around, the potential to alter them is there as well. Obviously, given everything that has been stated so far, the easiest thing to do is alter the physical state of the matter. Liquids can be quickly evaporated or heated, water frozen instantly, that sort of thing. More difficult is physical manipulation. Beyond just moving things around, materials can be gathered and compressed, or dispersed. Air can be pressurized and then released to form a pressure wave like a gust of wind, the various pieces of a car separated and blown apart, the water sucked out of an object to rapidly dry it. This creates a variety of offensive and defensive options for a wizard, beyond simply blasting things with raw energy. It should be noted that by combining matter and energy manipulation, effects can be created that neither could do on its own. For example, with a great deal of time, effort, and energy, weather manipulation becomes possible on a limited scale. Most practitioners avoid this, however, as tinkering with weather patterns can have far-reaching effects.

For a truly powerful mage with a very large pool of energy, transmutation of matter now becomes possible. The easiest form of this (if such a thing can be called easy at all), is to re-arrange atoms like lego bricks. For example, the carbon atoms in, say, a piece of coal could be separated and re-arranged to form a diamond. This requires an intense amount of focus and concentration, as you are literally building the diamond crystal atom by atom. Obviously, the more closely related the final and initial forms are, the easier this is. Also, the mage performing the transmutation must know exactly what he is taking apart, as well as how he wants to put it back together. This requires at least a basic understanding of chemistry and molecular structures.

Even more difficult still, and a task that has only been accomplished by a handful of mages in known history, is transmutation from one material to another, such as the fabled “lead-to-gold” of alchemical lore. To perform this requires altering material on the sub-atomic level, which requires power far beyond the reach of most mages. One possible way to do it is to slowly add or remove protons from the necessary atoms in the form of hydrogen (which, for those of you who need a reminder, is an atom with 1 proton and 1 electron). Hydrogen is readily available from any source of water, so is plentiful to work with. By adding or subtracting protons, an atom can be transformed from one element into another. Again, it should be stressed that this requires an ENORMOUS amount of magical power, far more than all but the most gifted of mages can handle safely. It is far easier and safer to simply find another source of whatever elemental material you wish to have, and manipulate it as is. It has been theorized that an EXCEPTIONALLY powerful mage with an ENORMOUS pool of energy could create matter from pure energy as per E = mc2, and then back again, but the dangers in doing so would be incredible.

In the end, to paraphrase Morpheus from The Matrix, some laws can be bent, others can be broken. But a mage does so at his own peril. And breaking natural laws can have far ranging effects that are not limited to changes in the natural world. It may be that the mage himself will bear the scars of his actions, so such things are never undertaken lightly.

Works Cited 

1."Supernatural." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2014. <>.

Copyright Art: Richard Price, 2014
Copyright Written Content unless otherwise noted: Penny Horwitz, Joel Ruggaber, Masters of Science, Chemistry, Illinois State University.