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I am thinking of copying the design of an electric eel to create the horn, however as air is not a good conductor of electricity it cannot discharge any electrical shock unless there is a physical contact.

Can you help me to come up with a believable unicorn that can stun its predator from at least a few meters away, and also how it prevents electrocuting itself or its own kind?

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think you need or should explain it at all? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 11 '18 at 9:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot Because there's no magic tag so it would probably break suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Apr 11 '18 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Evorlor That is correct. Why is it: “A Unicorn” $\endgroup$ – Virusbomb Apr 11 '18 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ So you are creating one of these? Does that look like your idea? In Monster Hunter's wikia you can find a bit about the biology of the kirin. It's not much (not enough for a full answer) but it might help, even if only for inspiration. $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Apr 11 '18 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ The horn is actually a super-soaker attached to a toaster...? $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Apr 11 '18 at 22:34

11 Answers 11

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The unicorns are symbiotic with a jumping spider species, residing on the horn.

The horn is kept at (or can be quickly charged to) a sufficient high potential, and the jumping spiders can be directed to jump on the target while threading a thin wire of cobweb attached to the horn.

As the spider or a group of spiders land on the target the circuit is closed and the target is zapped.

Alternative to the spiders: the unicorn can blow mucus covered particles to the target, with the particles keeping a thin slimy rope of mucus attached to the horn. Zap as above.

Pick the one more suited for your story and stomach.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 17 '18 at 16:12
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The solution is Lasers

Simply, much like a Narwhal* the Unicorn can shoot lasers out of it's horn. From there, it's not too much of a stretch to allow for the possibility of an Electric Unicorn to discharge it's built up charge along the laser-induced plasma channel immediately after firing it's horn-laser, in much the same manner as an Electrolaser.

*Apocryphal

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    $\begingroup$ This is what I came to say. A chemically pumped laser seems like something an electric unicorn would have. Turn the unicorn into something Rhino like and you've got yourself a winner. $\endgroup$ – bob0the0mighty Apr 11 '18 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ A chemically pumped laser seems like something an electric unicorn would have. This is why I love this site. $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 11 '18 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ OMG. This idea is awesome! $\endgroup$ – ElmoVanKielmo Apr 13 '18 at 8:18
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While it is true that air does not conduct electricity as nicely as water, it is also true that there is no (engineering) problem that cannot be solved by judicious application of brute force.

Lightning is a thing after all, so we know a discharge will happen in air if there is sufficient difference in electric potential.

Copy the design of the eel. This is what the wiki says about it:

In the electric eel, some 5,000 to 6,000 stacked electroplaques can make a shock up to 860 volts...

Now notice what the wiki says about its typical dimensions:

The electric eel has an elongated, cylindrical body, typically growing to about 2 m (6 ft 7 in) in length, and 20 kg (44 lb)...

If your unicorn weights as much as a draft horse... let's say one metric ton. It will have enough size and mass to have a lot more electroplaques. A back-of-the-napkin calculation says that, keeping the same volts-to-mass ratio, the unicorn will be able to produce 43,000 volts. You can buff that up - nothing is keeping the unicorn from having even more electroplaques. Let's say the unicorn is able to produce 50,000 volts. That is about as much as a typical low end Tesla coil. Now check the pictures in the link. It also has this to say about the coil:

The high electric field causes the air around the high voltage terminal to ionize and conduct electricity, allowing electricity to leak into the air in colorful corona discharges, brush discharges and streamer arcs.

A pointy part in a body is much more likely to produce a discharge than a round part or a toroid, so the horn is perfect for shooting out lightning. As for how the beast does not fry itself, it may have glass or some other very good electrical insulator material in its hooves.

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    $\begingroup$ Sadly it's not that easy I believe. This article suggests that the eel would have major problems if it wasn't in water scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-electric-eels-gene . Also how do you direct your lightning at the predator? It would just hit wherever the electric field is densest, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Apr 11 '18 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 you stand and wait. This doesn't have to be aimed, just like the electric eel also does not do aimed shots. The horn is going to be giving out sparks until something more conductive than air comes close, and then nature runs its course. As for the problem of being in air, if the unicorn lives in a forest, it will have plenty of things to be dispersing extra charge. Mind you, you will be able to tell where unicorns live by the amount of charred up foliage, but then again you can't make an omelet without some kitchen fires. $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 11 '18 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak the question says "at least a few meters away" since its first version. This method could do for two or three meters. $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 11 '18 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Judicious application of brute force is a great phrase. Sounds very similar to the idea of "percussive maintenance". $\endgroup$ – brichins Apr 12 '18 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ This is no more nor less than a biological Tesla coil. Entirely feasible. $\endgroup$ – Brian Lacy Apr 12 '18 at 21:35
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The horn has a tiny hole in the end. The unicorn can pump a saline solution out through this hole - like a spitting cobra or bombardier beetle - which acts as a conductive stream from horn to target.

Additionally, this liquid contains a paralytic agent, causing "tingles" that aren't actually caused by the initial, brief, jolt of electricity.

A unicorn has tall, non-conductive hooves, which prevent them from 'grounding', and protects them from accidental shocks. Young unicorns, who have not yet learned to completely control their bioelectric-capacitors yet, are thus prone to accidentally shocking themselves while eating.

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    $\begingroup$ @marcelm I do not believe that is how a circuit works. If that was the case, then how would a cloud manage to discharge to ground? As in the answer provided by L.Dutch, the other animal will be the ground connection. The reason the unicorn itself doesn't get hurt might be because the current doesn't pass through any vital organs to get to their target. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Vestøl Apr 11 '18 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @marcelm A circuit needs to be complete so that the closed system stays balanced. It's push/pull like a pulley system - when an electron leaves at one end of a component, another enters at the other end. What you get here - and what electric eels / torpedo rays use - is more of an electrostatic discharge - since the system is already unbalanced, you get an entirely one-way flow to level them out (the shocker & the shocked) - like an overflowing bucket. There're already too many/few electrons in one component, so they just leave. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Apr 11 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Static discharges are totally different than "circuits" with a (dynamic) current flowing through them. All that is required is two bodies at different potentials - you don't need a common ground or a "complete" circuit for current to return, since the potentials of the bodies are different before vs after the discharge. The difference in potential builds up indirectly, and separately (before) from the actual discharge (ie rubbing your feet on a carpet transfers electrons between you and the ground, then later on you touch a doorknob and get shocked). $\endgroup$ – dwizum Apr 11 '18 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal That is not how electric eels work. Their shocks are not electrostatic in nature, and their electric organs are much akin to battery cells. According to this picture (from this paper) they have a positive and a negative end, with current flowing between the two, completing the circuit. $\endgroup$ – marcelm Apr 11 '18 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ A unicorn peeing through its horn. Cringe. $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Apr 12 '18 at 4:09
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In order to avoid electrocuting itself it could simply have tissues that are highly conductive (potentially metal) as skin.

It will act as a Faraday cage leaving all other tissue mostly unharmed.

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    $\begingroup$ Also means that the unicorn will leave charred hoof prints, nice. $\endgroup$ – Clumsy cat Apr 11 '18 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ See comments on @Chronocidal's answer. During a static discharge, there is no "return path" for current. The electrons jump from the horn to the other object. They don't "flow back" to the horn - there are no electrons moving otherwise. There is no need for a Faraday cage, and there will be no burned hoof prints. There would, however, need to be a mechanism for the unicorn to "recharge" the horn, which would (presumably) be much slower and safer than the discharge - as is the case with electric eels, giving a balloon a static charge by rubbing on your hair, etc. $\endgroup$ – dwizum Apr 11 '18 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @dwizum consider this response focused on this part of the OP: "also how it prevents electrocuting itself or its own kind?" this way it will be largely immune to shocking itself and other unicorns $\endgroup$ – Bomaz Apr 11 '18 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yes - but if we assume the shock mechanism is static discharge, then it literally can't shock itself, because it is the thing that is charged, it is the thing that needs to shed/gain electrons. Other unicorns are also safe by default, since they're all (presumably) charged the same - it would be like forcing the north poles of two magnets together. Electrons would never jump from one charged body to another body with the same charge. $\endgroup$ – dwizum Apr 11 '18 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ This does raise an interesting story potential: if you were an enemy of the unicorn and wanted to "defeat" the mechanism, you could charge a decoy oppositely to the unicorns and use it as a sort of lightning rod. $\endgroup$ – dwizum Apr 11 '18 at 15:28
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The sparks just travel through the air.

Why would this be a problem? No, air isn't as conductive as water. But electricity can travel through the air for several miles at sufficient voltages. Machines can generate sparks multiple meters long. Even the tiny static spark that you get from rubbing your sock on the carpet and touching a grounded object can be three or four centimeters.

But natural creatures don't generate voltages that high

You are talking about a literal unicorn. Some creative license is allowed. Electrocuting itself isn't a problem for the same reason it isn't a problem in real-world electricity-generating animals: their bodies are adapted to it as a natural function.

If you really must include some vague science, say that there are at least two separate organs, or parts to the single organ, that generates the electricity: a low-voltage power supply and a transformer. Stun guns ramp up quite low voltages (household batteries, maybe 20 volts at most) to tens of thousands of volts to make their sparks. The unicorn has a structure that, in addition to simply generating a current, transforms that current into a higher voltage, accumulates a charge over short amounts of time and releases it in bursts. (Note that most of what we see as sparks, lightning included, are bursts of accumulated charges and not continuous streams).

Hope this helps!

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  • $\begingroup$ You seem to proposing magic as a response for an question not tagged with "magic". $\endgroup$ – March Ho Apr 11 '18 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ You are talking about a literal unicorn. Some creative license is allowed. Thank you! +1 $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 11 '18 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Stun guns often use nothing more than a cheap 9v battery. Also, although high-voltage electricity can travel a very long distance through air, all it cares about is finding ground. When the source is up in the sky, it'll travel as far as it can until it hits some nice positive dirt, but if it's coming from a unicorn's horn, assuming the unicorn is about as tall as a boring old equine, the electricity would go straight down and hit the ground in front of the creature's feet. $\endgroup$ – forest Apr 11 '18 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo When we talk about unicorns, magic is implied isn't it? $\endgroup$ – ElmoVanKielmo Apr 13 '18 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ Holy crap, I only just thought of this now but I actually love this answer. Why? Because we don't actually know how lightning moves through air, right? Even lightning rods, while helpful, are not exact. Lightning can actually bypass a rod and strike someone nearby. Or the rest of your building. That's why buildings typically have dozens of rods. We don't know how lightning travels but guess what does? Unicorns. I can't find it right now but there's a video of seals hunting blindfolded - they use their whiskers to sense prey in the water. Unicorns use their horn to "see" their strike path. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Apr 13 '18 at 14:29
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By projecting water droplets in an arc towards it's target allowing the electricity to conduct through the air between the unicorn and it's aggressor.

It goes without saying that these droplets would create an arch of different colours caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun's light. I imagine these colours would be red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that you actually have to have a laminar stream to have full electric conductivity, which is really hard to do. That being said, there's no reason that the electricity can't arc from drop to drop. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Apr 13 '18 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @WayneWerner I'm not going to lie, I just wanted to work a rainbow in there somehow :) $\endgroup$ – Dark Hippo Apr 13 '18 at 14:52
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The unicorn will still be electrocuted but to a lesser degree. Thinking of it like a circuit, the current will follow the path of least resistance more readily than the higher one. (Assuming that there is a path between the unicorn and the intended target. )

Adding resistance to the unicorn`s biology would be in the form of insulation. An example is keratin which is less electrically conductive. Insulation could be placed strategically to protect vital organs from the "recoil".

Body size may also play a role here. If the unicorn is much bigger than the target, the charge may be sufficient to stun the smaller organism but not enough to harm the unicorn itself.

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The unicorn has a coat of gold (or some other metal, but probably only in the silver, platinum, etc. variety because unicorns). Each hair, particularly in its mane and tail, are basically long, sharp needles. The unicorn can somehow embed these needles into other creatures or objects, maybe by rubbing on it or flinging the needle-hairs with majestic head shakes or glorious tail flicks.

Any object that has a long, sharp, conductive antenna (like golden hair-needle-spikes) will attract the high voltage discharge from the unicorn. All the unicorn needs to do is get one of its hairs embedded into its target, then release its electrical fury.

Additionally the metallic coat can do other things like ground the unicorn and protect itself like a Faraday cage. Not only that, but its valuable pelt would be sought after by evil unicorn-hunting villains.

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Air is a fantastic conductor as a plasma.

Simply turn the air in a column between the horn and the target into a plasma. Boom, instant lightning gun.

Granted... you'd have to explain why the unicorn doesn't just cook the target with the plasma canon.

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The spirals of the horn form a resonant cavity with the atmosphere. The unicorn's horn is literally linked to the air and charges up. You know how lightning works.

See tesla coil on youtube.

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protected by Renan May 30 '18 at 18:55

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