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There is a TLDR section below for those who don't want to read the dialogue

„So, what is magic?“, young Fineos asked. „Well“, said Rhabea, trying to buy herself some time. „Magic is a lot of things.“ – „Yes, I know, but how does it work?“ – „It works in a lot of very different ways. There is not just one kind of magic.“ She knew what the other adult mages think of her and about her qualification as a mentor. „There are, at least, three different forms of magic I will tell you about, whilst we are together trying to make a mage out of you who will not kill himself out of stupidity.“ Sometimes, she thought they were right. „There is the Elwin’s Living Magic that can grow by itself. Then, there is the summoning magic sorcerers use, which needs quite some physical commitment to do its things.“ Rhabea was not sure if she understood the following part as much as she should, considering that she is about to teach someone to use difficult and dangerous things. „And then, there is the magic we can use. But even our magic doesn’t just work in one way. Nonetheless, we will focus on one way for today. Everything in our world is composed of tiny pieces we call atoms. They are composed of even smaller things, but you will understand this better when you actually learn how to cast magic.

Also, there are two kinds of magical energy in our world. One is everywhere around us. It seems like it's just flowing around and through everything. The other one is in us mages. That is what makes us different from peasants and kings alike.“ This took really long for her to get when she heard it first. „While the energy around us never seems to deplete, whenever you use your magical abilities your own energy will leave your body. To renew your magical energy you need to meditate or sleep. I will show that to you later on.“ It will take hours until she sees the essentials she forgot to tell the boy. „Now listen, this is really important. I will tell you how you can alter the world.“ For her it was always something she feels more than knowing or understanding it. „You can guide your magic out of your body. It will flow like a small river, always connected to you. Intuitively, you can let it out through your fingertips, but really every part of your body works equally. If, in the future, you will be more experienced,“ she never was, „you can guide it with your mind. But, also, using your fingers will help you a lot to get the hang of it. Now comes the hard part: With your magic, you can influence the magical energies of the world I talked about before. You can convince these energies to alter the atoms of objects and thus altering the objects themselves. You could make air more flammable or water to wine or even gold out of iron.“ – Fineos got quite an interested look on his face. „So why aren’t all mages rich and have castles out of gold?“ – She knew this question would come. It was one of her first questions, as well. „Because nature knows better what nature should be.“ Also, castles made of gold are typically not that stable and are prone to attract unwanted attention. „As soon as you stop fueling your spell with your energy, something known as natural balance will start to set it, reversing what you did as good as possible.“ Which killed or crippled more than one stupid mage who forgot about this rule. „Think about it like cooking soup. The soup is the object you want to alter, the fire is the magic of the world and the logs are your own energy. Without some wood the fire would instantly go out. But even then it would take a while until your soup is cold again.“

Fineos seemed lost in his thoughts for a few moments before he asked: „What about altering people? ... I mean, for healing purposes for example.“ That wasn’t his first thought and she knew it. But there was no need for lying to him. „In short: you can’t. We don’t really know why, but the human body seems to have a natural defense against intruding magical energies. But there is a way. If the recipient actively wants to let your magic flow into his body, you can do whatever ‚healing purposes‘ you have in mind. Though, at the moment he loses his trust in you, or his consciousness, your spell will got cut off and start to fade.“ The boy nodded absentminded trying to figure out the possibilities of his power.


Now, before I let you empathize with Fineos, consider a few things regarding the setting:

  • It’s an earth-like medieval-tech fantasy world (because creatively has really small borders for me)
  • My physics and chemistry levels are as low as mowed grass, so there is a high possibility that this idea might be really stupid; if so, please point it out
  • Mages are pretty rare; it’s probably genetic and often comes with physical or mental disabilities (which leads to even fewer mages getting old enough to be mages, and stigmatises magical abilities for the general public)
  • For your magic to have a visible effect you need to change quite a few atoms; this will take time (I don’t have a formula at the moment) but as you will get more experience you will be faster at altering the world, too
  • Since this magic is based on atomic structures changing an atom to one close to it on the periodic table should be faster than changing it to one far away; that means changing gold to platinum (or even silver for that matter) should be generally easier and faster than changing it to iron, or vice versa

TLDR: There are two magical energies: one in the world around you, one in den mage itself. The own magic is some kind of catalyst for the world‘s energy. The world‘s energy consists of some sort of Ditto or stem cell atoms or maybe just protons and electrons (as said, I only know vaguely what I’m talking about). As a mage you can use those pink Ditto atoms to change the atoms of the desired object to whatever you like (with appropriate amount of Dittos and your own energy). When you cut your connection to the object, mother nature wakes up and starts to clean the mess you made to its natural state (if possible). Humans‘ (and possibly other animals‘) atoms can not be altered in any way, unless they want you to.

My Question: Can a magic system, as described above, work in said setting without breaking laws of physics or even breaking significantly more than pure physical strength could do? For example, it would be possible to alter parts of a stone pillar to something gaseous in room temperature, let it spread, then break the spell. In this way, the pillar could collapse due to its now missing parts. But this would be also possible for some beefy guy with a hammer. But I think to do the same with a mountain should be quite impossible (at least in a lifetime).

For Reference: The idea to this magic was sparked by Fullmetal Alchemist’s transmutation, but I think that was far too powerful and its theoretical restrictions felt more like loose guidelines to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is quite broad at the moment, but I can see that this has been well thought-out and has a lot of potential. If you can combine or condense some of your questions so that this post isn't quite so broad, we'll be able to answer better and you'll get a better response to it. There's also a close vote on this for "Idea Generation" - idea generation questions generally don't fit the StackExchange format as they are subjective. For more information, see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Mar 30 '15 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ In FMA universe Edward committed a taboo and paid the ultimate price, his brother in order to create life. Well science already beat them to it if you define life loosely, the alchemists make up their own rules as there are no restrictions or penalty for committing a forbidden transmutation remember Edward give up this power to bring back his brother. If you argue that he just simply forget or ban from using it but I'll rather believe he simply impose a rule on himself similar to how superman's mental block works as he is living in world of cupboards. Magic is a personification of the mind. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Mar 30 '15 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode I can see the Idea Generation part and was afraid of it beforehand. Though I saw a lot of question asking in a similar direction (like "here is situation X, what could character Y whith Z characteristics and A abilities do"), though I'm not looking for a solution for a specific situation, instead of an impact on the world around said mages (which seems quite worldbuildy to me). I will try to reword the question part. Thanks for your feedback. $\endgroup$ – Kay Rail Mar 30 '15 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 The FMA restriction I meant were things like the conservation of mass (Edward seems to constantly break this rule by making things that are seemingly larger than of what he created them) and the premise the whole story is build of (if you have the exact materials, something is build of, you can cast your transmutation and will create said thing; and I think, he broke this rule quite a few times, possibly to hold the pace of the show) and, most of all, the transmutation speed (which seems to be close to instant, even for large structures, by what transmutation would be overpowered). $\endgroup$ – Kay Rail Mar 30 '15 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @KayRail very true indeed in FMA universe Edward is being led by his own rules and worse these rules are revised from his teacher whom herself also committed taboo. Remember when he fought Father who consumed the power of god, Edward realized that his friends and even his ex-foe a homunculus is hurt or killed, he never hesitate or recite any rules it seems like there are no rules at all. He simply charges in and apply transmutation with only one thought in mind, he will it to work and it did despite risk of exhaustion or even his very own live in order to protect everyone he loved that's magic $\endgroup$ – user6760 Mar 30 '15 at 13:29
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If you're going for as much scientific realism in your magic as possible (which seems to be the case), you need to be crystal clear about how atoms are being manipulated. As the comments in HDE's answer point out, there is a very big difference in the result of a spell that creates particles and one that rearranges them, given your world's condition that things attempt to revert to their previous state. I draw the following conclusion's from your explanation:

1. Magic is in everything and everyone, even though only mages can consciously control it.

The existence of the "natural balance" combined with magic's ineffectiveness on humans unless they are willing suggests one of two things: Either everything that exists does so at a stable "balance point," which using magic alters, and all humans possess a passive magical ability that keeps their own states from being altered unless they consciously allow it; or else will is an intrinsic part of magic, and humans are normally immune because their wills generate a natural magical field (which disappears if they want it to, even if they don't understand that that's what they want) and that nature (or some omnipresent force) has a will, although a mild/slow-acting one. In the latter explanation, your dittos are essentially will particles, a sort of conceptual hybrid between philotes in Ender's Game and a Green Lantern.

2. Magic's effectiveness is directly related to the laws of chemistry.

You said yourself that a spell that changes fewer atomic particles is easier. If we also assume that it is easier to create something from nothing than it is to rearrange an existing atomic structure (because rule 1 applies only to existing matter, and it is generally easier to create things that will quickly fall apart than those that will last), we can already break spells down into two major categories:

Lower-level spells rely on magic to create objects, and are easier to perform, but the objects the create vanish immediately. How effective these types of spells would be against humans is tricky. A mage should not be able to wound a human with a conjured blade, but he should be able to cut a rope a person is climbing with one, perhaps causing them to fall to their death.

Higher level spells are harder, more so as the area affected grows, but are as permanent as if they would be if they were naturally occurring. In other words, if you move the particles around to a new balance point (i.e. anything that can exist naturally), it will stay there; if not, it will fall apart. This means that the best mages will have knowledge of chemistry. Likely they would carry pouches of various finely ground metals, which they could use to make more advanced spells balance easier.

In short, a mage is simply a chemist with a very powerful tool for manipulating reactions, and knowledge is literally power to him. Think MacGyver with a pointy hat.

3. A truly great mage could turn a willing human into a mage.

If magic ability is genetic, there are physical protein sequences which control it, which magic could alter. This would be one hell of a spell, the stuff of legend that perhaps no one alive could do, but it would be possible. A more common ability would be to modify the DNA of a newly conceived embryo so that it is born a mage (or isn't). A mage with this skill could also prevent his offspring from having any of the disabilities that often afflict them.

4. Advanced mages could have unnatural healing abilities, and perhaps even immortality.

A mage should be perfectly willing to heal himself, and would do so if possible. You can decide if this is possible or not. Either it isn't, because even magical forces must act on other objects, not themselves (which is why you can't pick yourself up off the ground and levitate); or it is, because the magical and physical worlds are distinct enough that the former scenario would not be a violation. Even if a mage couldn't heal himself, a pair of mages who trust each other could keep each other alive a very long time.

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I think that we have to accept that the concept as a whole breaks some physical laws, simply because it's magic. You can't easily come up with a plausible scientific explanation for how it works. I admire the planning, thoroughness, and - to a decent extent - realism of your idea, but, as I think you know, we have to admit that some laws of physics go down the drain when we use this magic.

There's only one other thing I can find a hole in with the idea, and that's based on one passage (emphasis yours):

„As soon as you stop fueling your spell with your energy, something known as natural balance will start to set it, reversing what you did as good as possible.“ . . . Think about it like cooking soup. The soup is the object you want to alter, the fire is the magic of the world and the logs are your own energy. Without some wood the fire would instantly go out. But even then it would take a while until your soup is cold again.“

The one thing I see here is that the analogy is poor. Let's say that you instantly take the soup somewhere else, in a perfect vacuum isolated from every other thing in the universe. The soup will retain its heat. Why? Because there's no place for the heat to go. On the other hand, if you keep the soup where it is, it will cool down, because it is hotter than its environment, and heat energy flows from hotter things to cooler things.

On the other hand, take an example you gave about turning an atom of one element into an atom of another element. For simplicity's sake, Let's say that you have a hydrogen atom with two neutrons. This is called tritium, an isotope of hydrogen1 Tritium is radioactive, but that's besides the point, because not all the atoms in a sample of tritium will instantly decay.2

Say you add a proton to an atom of tritium. You now have an atom of helium-4, which is nearly identical to an alpha particle, with the addition of two electrons. Helium-4 is stable. It will not radioactively decay back to tritium and a proton.3

This is the main problem I see with your magical setup. Are there other things? Sure. But they can be explained with magic. This one thing - the idea that the system will go back to its original state once magic is no longer applied - is one of the things that makes your great idea distinct from other magical systems, and it is the one important thing that goes against the laws of nature.


1 An isotope of an element has the same number of protons as all other isotopes of the element but has a different number of neutrons.
2 That's the idea of a half-life: Only half of the atoms of a radioactive element will decay within a certain timeframe. Let the same amount of time pass again, and only one quarter of the original number of atoms will remain, etc.
3 We really should have added an electron along with the proton to tritium to produce helium-4; otherwise, the atom would be an ion and not electrically neutral. Thus, the helium-4 atom would go back to a tritium atom, a proton, and an electron - if your idea worked.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes but you could argue that because the proton was created by magic that it no longer exists once the magic force is no longer applied. Though if the proton was extracted from a different attom and moved then your idea stands. The Idea for the question is good though, I want to read that book :) $\endgroup$ – Necessity Jul 16 '15 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamNicholls I assumed that the proton was added on from somewhere else. If you're right, though . . . then I could be wrong. That's perceptive; I didn't think about that. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 16 '15 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I totally forgot about half-life! But Adam is right here, the additional protons would be created through magic and would also "vanish" without magic. Though, another interesting point, I didn't think of, is what would happen if I would create a radioactive atom. I mean, what would happen to the magically created parts auf the decaying atoms and so on. But thank you for your answer, nonetheless! $\endgroup$ – Kay Rail Jul 18 '15 at 12:09
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You may want to look up the movie The Sorcerer's Apprentice. There the mages do magic by controlling the very atoms of everything (not with dittos like you explained but similar in a way nonetheless).

As for implications, if there few mages they would probably all be killed by the majority of scared normals. Unless they are really really strong or just an accepted part of society.

I also believe that one mage putting up a defensive barrier could be easily out-transmutated by a stronger mage. If the stronger mage uses his ditto force to alter the very ditto force of the defending mage, his defence will vanish along with it. Secondly if they are altering atoms themselves it can become easy to kill humans (and animals) even without having 'access' to their inner atoms. Just make the whiffs of air in front of their mouth toxic. this doesn't even have to be a really efficient toxin, just making the air they breed thinner or heavier on CO2 will suffocate them, especially during war time when one breaths more often.

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Any form of magic would per definitionem breaks the laws of the physics is some way, since magic is the ability to cause scientifically unexplainable effect with your own intention. (Not asking a divine being to do so, since it would be a miracle. ) But you may decide to preserve some fundamental principles and concepts. Lets start with the conservation laws. These can be used to draw a well defined line between possible and impossible:

1.) Conservation of energy. Since the special relativity kicks out absolute simultaneity, this should be formulated locally: The the change in the energy (magical and non-magical) content of a volume equals the energy flowing through its surface. This contradicts Rhabea's quote: „While the energy around us never seems to deplete" . But, if the magical energy in the world is astronomically high, the changes in it by the mages would be negligible.

2.) Conservation of momentum. This would force you to accelerate some mass in the opposite direction, while accelerating something. Causes extra energy to be wasted, but otherwise not too much trouble.

3.) (Local) conservation of electric charge. The the change in the charge content of a volume equals the current flowing through its surface. This allows the creation of positively charged objects (particles, bigger objects) only, if something with the same negative charge is created right there.

4.) Conservation of barion and lepton numbers. These laws allows the creation of 'matter' (in the meaning of objects composed from barions and leptons, eg. atoms.) if the same amount of antimatter are created. And vice versa: you can only destroy matter into energy, if you destroy antimatter too. (annihilation)

You could preserve the theory of relativity too. This would surely cause interesting consequences, witch I cannot cover fully, but assuredly it would require the Laws of Magic to be invariant against Lorentz-transformation. It would mean too, that mass is connected to all magical energy too.

You might include the Heisenberg uncertainty principles. These would mean a theoretical lower limit to the size of the things, which can be manipulated with magic. A quite exciting quantum-magic would come to existence, but serious calculations would be necessary to determine, whether this would render subatomic magic ineffective, or not. So, it might be wiser to drop this idea.

I have mentioned the Laws of Magic before. This (at least from the in-universe scientist) would require a significant effort to create. Since the magical energies can be controlled directly by one persons mind, spirit, soul or will or whatsoever, so traditional mathematical apparatus and physical concepts, like particles, vector and tensor fields, forces and interactions, waves, functions and operators... would be insufficient. They (in universe theorist) would have to develop theoretical models and mathematical concepts to describe willpower, spirit and consciousness.

What would be this all useful for?

Subatomic magic is not to be used on macroscopic objects, which can be manipulated pretty good by conventional means. Mages should focus their minds on the nano and picometer scale. They could create impressive nanotechnology, easily perform genetic modifications, create metamaterials with unusual properties, or even make exotic mater. (Containing antimatter in bound state, strangelets, or degenerate matter...) The possibilities are almost endless.

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