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Dwarves have been a popular character race for fantasy stories since at least J.R.R. Tolkien.

Common lore bestows upon dwarves a unique and all-encompassing relationship to the stone that composes their environment. They are born within it, they serve it in their deeds, and they feel its impact upon their lives in many ways. Those dwarves who live underground are sometimes gifted by the gaming and fan-fiction communities with an ability called "Stone Sense". This ability provides subterranean navigation, and dwarves believe that it is derived from their connection to the Stone.

Simply attributing the ability to "magic" is a cop-out. The most credible explanation that I could devise is an organic version of muography (or muon radiography), a technique that exploits the penetration capability of muons (elementary particles similar to electrons, but with a mass about 200 times larger). I'm not well-versed in physics or biology, but it seems to me Mother Nature has a pretty good track record for experimenting with unique and eccentric physical mechanisms, and making them work (though maybe with mixed results).

My question is this:

What mechanism might explain the Stone Sense? (I'd even accept some reference to the human aura, if it makes logical sense.)

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Echolocation through their body

There are more ways to hear sounds than just your ears, and by sensing vibrations in the ground and walls a dwarf can "feel" their environment. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seeing-through-soil-with/

When a dwarf walks around his feet create vibrations in the ground that will reflect off of objects and differences in the ground soil and sediment. These return echo's can be sensed through the feet or hands when placed on the walls, allowing the dwarf a certain view of the surrounding area. This way they get a certain feel for the path ahead, where other tunnels might be, if there are interesting materials to dig for or if their tunnel might be better to go around underground water or soil with a high chance of collapse.

When in doubt a Dwarf can use his tools to hit the wall or floor hard, creating a stronger vibration and a clearer picture of their environment. Add to that a natural idea of distance and direction traveled and a dwarf can point almost directly to the entrance even after a few days walling in an underground maze.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aah, the Toph Beifong method.. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 12 '20 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs - I was thinking Toph Beifong was that Chinese underground hearing apparatus to listen for sappers. They tested one on Mythbusters. mythresults.com/episode39. But no. Toph Beifong is actually the main reason to watch Last Avatar. They should have a spinoff with her the sassy and badass main character. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 12 '20 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk: perhaps a buddy cop show from the early days of the Republic City PD... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 12 '20 at 20:31
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A very good eye for geology, a sensitive inner ear and remarkable dead reckoning skills.

The dwarves just get geology in the same way humans intuitively understand how to throw and catch things. If you ask a Dwarf to describe the geology of their surroundings they won’t be able to, but on a bone deep level they’ll have picked up that the red sandstone layer formed a hundred or so meters below the yellow sandstone layer, with a slight incline towards the north caused by tectonic action a few dozen million years ago. That’s just information they’ll have picked up from observing their surroundings, watching how their parents navigate, and really grokking the workings of stone.

Of course, no Dwarf parent would dream of leaving their child with just that information, so they’ll practice ‘throwing and catching’, teaching and passing down knowledge that the young dwarves just immediately get. This has the effect of honing their offspring’s skills until they’re doing the geological equivalent of juggling. They no longer have to think, they just know not only what’s going on with the local geography (that they’ve been around since they were born) but can also extrapolate their skills to new and unfamiliar situations in ways that baffle those without the skill.

It might take them a while to reorient if put in an unfamiliar location, but it’ll be the difference between juggling apples and bananas : if takes a while to get used to, but hey, it’s pretty simple in the end.

The second thing the dwarves have on their side is barometry. Their inner ears can register pressure changes pretty sensitively, and they use this to add extra topological information to their already sophisticated understanding of tunnel networks. Air pressure in tunnels acts remarkably predictably, which gives any tunnel dwellers a good reference point to cross check with their current understanding of where they are. Wondering how deep you are? Gunthar the dwarf’s inner ear knows. Wondering if there’s a storm coming? How would he know? He’s lived underground his whole life.

The third (and arguably most vital) part of this ‘sense’ has nothing to do with stone, and is in fact something humans have got some skill for. This is the art of dead reckoning, or starting with a known direction, travelling some exact path with no external references, and ending up at a known location.

If blindfolded you or I might stumble into walls and doors, but someone who is blind can, in a familiar house, move with absolute confidence as long as nobody has moved things around. How? They hold the topology of the house in their mind and then dead reckon (ADDENDUM: It’s not this simple, but I’m trying to get a complex skill across using pictures invented by monkeys). They know that eight and a half steps from their bed there is the bathroom door. A ninety three degree left turn and four steps later and they’re at the toilet. Occasional touches on reference points and other ambient references provide navigational information but between the bed and bathroom door they’re purely relying on their own knowledge of their stride length, which will likely be an internalised thing rather than a conscious effort.

Other (frankly amazing) examples of this include Aboriginal Australians using absolute directions (North, West, east, south) instead of left/right, requiring them to always have the absolute direction they’re facing fixed in their mind and update it based on dead reckoning their turns. Another example would be the skill of ‘voyaging’ (multiple island societies did this), or setting out in a boat with no instrumentation bar your bare skin for wind speed/current measurements, holding all the navigational information of the trip in memory, then successfully reversing the course with no reference to actual position.

This is the skill your dwarves really need to foster. They hold in their minds an image of their path so far, and know exactly how far forward/left/right/up/down every step takes them. If a dwarf is conscious they will always be able to retrace their path, even in the pitch darkness.

Coupled with a mental map of the tunnels they know (or of how tunnels must form/ be mined out, thanks to geology) and the constant reference points provided by pressure changes (where they occur) that lets them rapidly and instinctively match their progress through any bit of tunnel to their knowledge of those tunnels and make nigh on miraculous inferences about their location.

If they know it’s likely (because in limestone of this type water prefers to flow in a certain way, obviously) the branch tunnel you’ve found to your left will arc through the rock and connect with the branch tunnel you passed on the right on your way in (which they remember the exact location of in their 3d mind map), then they’ll simply walk that way to route around the cave in that blocked your entrance. You won’t know how they did it. They won’t be able to explain how they did it an any way other than a gruff:

“Well, It’s knowing the stone, innit?”

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    $\begingroup$ Navigating blind via step-counting and memorization is not at all how it works. Imagine that you're walking somewhere and get the least bit distracted; now you lost count and made a single off-stride step, and will spend an unnecessary 1-30min correcting for it. Source: am blind, step-counting is so unnatural that I fail to use it when it'd be useful, like in audio games. I don't think I've ever heard a blind person say that they step-count, while I have heard some say that they do not. Dead reckoning and memorization are involved, but more so subtle and not-so-subtle environmental info. $\endgroup$
    – CAE Jones
    Jan 12 '20 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ @CAEjones: I’m not trying to say step counting is the way it works. As you’ve said it’s a lot more nuanced than that, but me trying to explain how someone can dead reckon across a room they’ve internalised the layout of requires some simplification, much like me trying to explain how a dwarf understanding where they are needs simplification. It’s not a matter of simple explanations, more just something you know. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 12 '20 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ — Things like air pressure, echoes, texture, etc are more actively relevant than might be obvious, even without specific training in echolocation. It does involve subtle things you might not notice unless it's brought to your attention. That cane-tapping sound echoes quite usefully, but it took many years for me to realize that was happening. Exactly what a person uses will vary based on their experience, probably subtle brain / bodytype / head-shape / sensitivity details, such that one person might use their hands more while another tends to step in a more echo-friendly way. $\endgroup$
    – CAE Jones
    Jan 12 '20 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ — Sense of direction is one of those things that varies wildly from person to person, and makes a big difference when information is insufficient or overwhelming, so yeah, it makes a ton of sense to say dwarves would want an extra helping of that. $\endgroup$
    – CAE Jones
    Jan 12 '20 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ @CAEJones: so is the familiarity with a known location more down to knowing the ambient properties of the building than the layout, or are there elements of both? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 12 '20 at 10:03
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Whiskers!

Did you think those beards were just for show?

Every stiff hair in a dwarf's impressive facial mat is attached to a highly sensitive nerve, capable of detecting the most minuscule of vibrations. Together, they function as an incredibly powerful 3-D network of receptors, giving them echolocation capabilities that would put bats and dolphins to shame.

By tapping on stone, they can analyze the returning sounds to get a feel for the stone's density, hardness, texture and other physical properties. They can also use this ability to detect thin walls (which might be hiding deadly gas pockets) and even sense irregularities that may indicate veins of precious metals or gemstones beneath the surface.

Dwarves can also use this sense for communication between mineshafts - tapping out coded messages for dwarves in nearby tunnels.

And of course, every dwarf baby is taught geology from a very early age, so by the time they grow up they know exactly how to intuit further details from their natural senses.

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Magnetoreception.

Many birds and other animals have magnetoreception, and are able to sense north/south due to the earth's magnetic field. The most likely mechanism for this is clumps of iron surrounded by bundles of nerves in the brain.

If you use a larger clumps that are made of a material that is more magnetic than iron, you could sense not only north/south, but also large deposits of iron, cobalt, and nickel. You could use these deposits as resources or as landmarks in an otherwise featureless underground.

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Different types of materials have different densities.

Different densities result in different gravity.

If the dwarves are able to sense these small differences in gravity they will be able to map the matter distribution around them and use it frame of reference during their subterranean movements, the same way we use points of reference when we move in an environment.

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I had forgotten about Toph Beifong, but she does come closest to what I had imagined, though 'way overpowered. Actually, the reference that comes the closest is the Graboids from the "Tremors" franchise. :)

Thanks for your times and consideration, folks.

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  • $\begingroup$ You posted this as an answer, but I think you intended to leave it as a comment $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Jan 18 '20 at 10:01

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