Let's say you have a pure block of iron. From what I remember from chemistry, the metallic bond forming the iron is a load of positive ions in a sea of delocalised electrons.

Now let's say each positive iron ion has one proton removed. Doesn't matter where the protons go, as long as each iron ion goes from 26 protons to 25. Would this block of iron then instantly turn into manganese? Doesn't matter about the energy requirements to do this, pretend all the energy and heat is dealt with magically.

Let's say you had an iron sword or something. If a load of protons were removed from each iron ion until they had 8 protons left, would the sword instantly turn into oxygen? (and the poor sword wielder wanders where the blade went.) Again, I don't care about the energy requirements, I just want to know if the change would be instantaneous.

  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Yes. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucleosynthesis $\endgroup$ – SurpriseDog Jul 9 '20 at 17:49
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom is called the atomic number. The set of atoms with the same atomic number is called a chemical element by definition. That is, an atom with 25 protons in its nucleus is manganese by definition; that's what manganese is. (And iron has four stable isotopes, with 28, 30, 31 and 32 neutrons. The only stable isotope of manganese has 30 neutrons. This means that no matter how you make a proton go away you will get a very radioactive lump of magnanese...) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 9 '20 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious as to why you would think it wouldn't be instantaneous, assuming that magically all the real-world problems with the missing protons are taken care of? $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 10 '20 at 2:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are the protons physically moved out of the material at a fairly normal speed, or do they vanish from existence. This affects whether Radovan Garabík's analysis matches your scenario. $\endgroup$ – Jetpack Jul 10 '20 at 4:35

It will be a world ending event. Let's have a sword made of 4kg of iron. Iron has an atomic weight 56. There are about $10^{25}$ atoms of iron in 1kg. Removing (or adding) one proton per atom will give you an electric charge of $4\cdot 10^{25} e$, that is $6.4MC$ (yes, megacoulomb). Now, the electric field 1 AU away will be $E=\frac{1}{4\pi \epsilon_0}\frac{Q}{r^2} = \frac{1}{4\pi \epsilon_0} \frac{6.4 \cdot 10^6 C }{(1.5\cdot 10^{11}m)^2 } = 9 \cdot 10^9 \cdot 28.4\cdot 10^{-17} NC^{-1} = 2.56\cdot 10^{-6}V/m$.

The force on one proton 1AU away will be $4\cdot 10^{-25} N$. Which is about the same as the gravitational force on that proton on the surface of the Sun. Yes, this will rip the Sun apart. Never mind Earth and other planets. EDIT: As per this answer, the charge will be effectively shielded, though.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 10 '20 at 12:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think there's a problem here: The electric field inside the sword will be extremely high, meaning the sword will be unstable - the excess electrons would be quickly expelled. For an instant, sure, it would have about 6 megaCoulombs of charge, but that would very quickly decrease. Therefore, the force would only be applied on the Sun for a brief period of time, and it would not be torn apart. Same argument goes for destroying many other objects. Plus, Wolfram Alpha claims (???) that this is only about ten times the net charge on Earth - making me skeptical that your argument's sound. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 10 '20 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ I just asked about this on physics.se - I've seen this come up before on worldbuilding, and it bothered me then too. Hopefully we'll get a good definitive answer that we can link to whenever this comes up in the future. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Jul 10 '20 at 14:28
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ physics.stackexchange.com/a/564930/79374 - "In practice, the sun's electrons would move an immeasurable amount towards the earth, at which point they'd cancel out the applied field." Another thing that might adjust your intuition of how strong a coulomb is - you can get 6.4 MC from fully discharging 1280 double A batteries. I do think there will be devastating local conditions, but the rest of the Earth will be just fine. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Jul 10 '20 at 21:05

Yes, removing a proton from an element would turn it into another element by definition. The different elements are defined by the number of protons in their nuclei.

That said, there are different ions and isotopes of each element, determined by the number of electrons and neutrons respectively. If you remove a bunch of protons from electrically neutral iron-52 until you get hydrogen, it won’t just be a plain vanilla hydrogen atom, but a really strange isotope/ion of hydrogen with 26 neutrons and 26 electrons.

Regarding your question about turning a sword into oxygen: if, somehow, the necessary number of protons magically disappeared all at once, the sword would probably explode. Solid metal is a stable arrangement of atoms, and suddenly removing lots of protons will instantly destabilize the whole configuration.

My suggestion: if you’re already planning on using “magic” to supernaturally make a whole bunch of protons disappear, why not just use “magic” to magically turn the sword into oxygen? Is there any need to overcomplicate things if you’re skirting the laws of physics anyways?

  • 21
    $\begingroup$ Also, a nightmarish electric charge suddenly demanding to be grounded will also be inconvenient to the wielder. $\endgroup$ – notovny Jul 9 '20 at 18:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If you took away protons to turn iron into wierd hydrogen wouldn't all the electrons fly away as there's no longer a charge to attract them to the nucleus? $\endgroup$ – Wiggo the Wookie Jul 9 '20 at 19:15
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @WiggotheWookie Yes, they’d fly away almost instantly. Mostly because the attraction towards the protons was counterbalancing the repulsive force of the electrons upon each other, and the removal of protons would disrupt this equilibrium. $\endgroup$ – Franklin Pezzuti Dyer Jul 9 '20 at 19:17
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @Wiggo the Wookie: And the excess neutrons would soon follow, as there's no longer sufficient nuclear force to bind them to the nucleus. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 10 '20 at 3:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf And then the neutrons make your insides radioactive and you get cancer. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Jul 10 '20 at 10:52

Step 1 -- Iron into Manganese

Yes, it would immediately turn into manganese. As Franklin's answer and AlexP's comment states, the definiton of an element is based on the number of protons in the nucleus. To be a bit more accurate, it would be negatively charged chunk of manganese because the 26th electron is not taken away, meaning that it will be a mass of manganese ions.

Your magic reaction looks a bit like this: XFe + Magic -> X-1Mn- + 1H+

You've mentioned not really caring what happens to that proton, but it is there to balance the equation.

A brief look on Wikipedia reveals that Iron exists in nature with isotopes of 54, 56, 57, and 58 while the only stable isotope of manganese is 55.

Given what is stable for each element and their natural distribution via Wikipedia, if you did this to a random chunk of iron, you actually end up with a block of negatively charged manganese with 8.25% of it radioactive -- the parts not derived from Iron-56. The radioactive part will decay either into chromium (5% roughly) or back into iron (3% roughly)

The electrons will have to go somewhere so there will likely be a discharge into something or somebody. If the proton is just magically booted out physically as hydrogen ions, then the electrons will likely bond with those. Otherwise, it's probably discharging into the ground or into your person holding said iron.

The Sword of Air

Ansering your next question is much the same: By removing 18 protons from iron, it will by definition by oxygen. The resultant mess, primarily Oxygen-38 (56 - 18), will almost certainly instantly decay into other things in a highly energetic event that will likely kill anyone near the now transmuted sword. Your hapless swordsman victim will not have time to wonder where their sword went, the instantaneous radioactive decay will likely kill them.

As a side point, as the most probably steel sword is an alloy of iron and carbon, your sword will also drop carbon dust as the alloy is broken up. Not necessarily a lot of it, but enough.

Bonus: Transmutation Without Horribly Messy Death

If the goal for your atomic mage is to turn an iron sword into oxygen by messing with the atoms directly, then the aspiring mage will want to remove all three subatomic components -- protons, neutrons, and electrons -- so that the result is stable oxygen.

For refernce, a potential reaction could look something like this: 56Fe + Magic -> 40Ar + 16O

What happens to the argon's worth of bits is your choice, but this would lead to a sword vanishing into a poof of gaseous materials without killing your swordsman. Bonus is that both argon and oxygen are gasses so even if you kept the removed parts, it would still be a gas.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ "but this would lead to a sword vanishing into a poof of gaseous materials without killing your swordsman" Oh, yes, it would kill the swordsman: If you turn 1kg of metal into 1kg of air, the result is a region that's extremely densely packed with air molecules. And extremely densely packed gases have a tendency to expand. Fast. Violently. Actually, the only difference between a sword-turned-to-air and a stick of dynamite is, that the later will start out a bit hotter than the former, but the basic effect is the same. Your swordsman simply gets ripped apart by the detonation. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Jul 10 '20 at 7:58
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ 1 Mol of air at base temperature is 22.4 liters. A sword of 4 kg is about 73 mol and we generate 2 mol of air per mol of iron that we split. So ignoring the temperature and energetic needs (because magic) we get 146 mol of air that want to occupy 3270.4 liters of air - or about 3 1/4 m³ - all compressed into 0.000511 m³ that had been the sword. That's an airblast originating in the sword with 6400 times normal pressure! That's a shockwave akin to a nuke! $\endgroup$ – Trish Jul 10 '20 at 11:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Assuming that it starts with normal temperature of 20 C the final state of adiabatic process would freeze the 'sword' to 20 K The expansion can perform a work of 1 MJ (about 200 g of TNT). Oxygen boiling point is 90 K so it would not be as bad - 'only' 750 kJ of work - 150 g of TNT - before you start holding liquid sword. I'd venture though that 90K oxygen is perfectly capable of causing burns to lungs. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Jul 10 '20 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ Entriely fair. I was more fixated on the idea of not dying by the immediate radioactive decay a foot from your face versus death by pressure expansion of the resultant gasses. That death by shockwave would probably happen regardless of how one transmutes the sword into air unless the magic doing the job takes that into account as well. $\endgroup$ – Haylen Jul 10 '20 at 17:07

To summarize this answer:

  • Yes, you'd form a new element, but not necessarily the one you wanted. By the definition of an element, as soon as the number of protons change, you have a new element.
  • Each atom would quickly decay through either beta decay, the emission of alpha particles or some similar mechanism. This would release energy in the form of neutrinos and fast-moving electrons.
  • Electrons would be forced to transition to new energy levels, releasing a series of characteristic spectral lines.
  • The chemical bonds in the sword would be broken, releasing more energy, although it's possible that they could re-form.

Nuclear stability and beta decay

Let's say we have an atom of iron - in particular, its most common isotope, 56Fe, with 26 protons and 30 neutrons. Say we remove 18 protons to form oxygen, as you suggested. We now have a heavy isotope of oxygen: 38O, with 8 protons and 30 neutrons. The reason you've never heard of 38O is that it's unstable. In fact, if you take an atom of any element and just keep adding neutrons to it, at some point it'll become too unstable to survive for long, thanks to the Pauli exclusion principle. (As a side note: it's possible to have high neutron/proton ratios that last for more at least a few milliseconds, but they're still not stable.)

The result? Those 30 neutrons will be forced into high-energy states, while at the same time, there are plenty of empty low-energy proton states. It may then become favorable for some of those neutrons to undergo beta decay into protons, via the process $$n\to p+e^{-}+\bar{\nu}_e$$ i.e. converting a neutron to a proton and emitting an electron and an electron antineutrino. Therefore, the unstable isotope of oxygen will decay into a stable isotope of a heavier element, somewhere between oxygen and iron. I should note that the atoms may take other decay paths - say emitting alpha particles - to reach stable elements and isotopes, but the net effects should be similar. Perhaps the energy carriers will be light nuclei in some cases.

In this process, each beta decay releases roughly $1\;\text{MeV}$ of energy. To use Radovan's numbers, in a 4-kilogram sword, beta decay will release $\sim10^{12}\;\text{J}$, or the equivalent of 300 tons of TNT. Whether this blows the sword apart or not depends on how that energy is released. If it is primarily imbued in the neutrinos, then things might be okay; they'll pass through the sword without interacting significantly.

On the other hand, if that energy is transferred to the electrons, we will have a problem. Fast-moving electrons will collide with nuclei and other electrons, heating up their surroundings and possibly, yes, blowing up whatever remains of the sword.

What about the electrons?

The electrons previously in the atom will also experience changes. The energy of an electron in the $n$th energy level of an atom with $Z$ protons is $$E_n=-\frac{\mu c^2Z^2\alpha^2}{2n^2}$$ where $\mu$ is the reduced mass and $c$ and $\alpha$ are the speed of light and the fine structure constant, respectively. As we have gone from $Z=26$ to some lower value, each electron will either 1) shift an energy level to compensate or 2) become unbound completely, if their energies exceed the ionization potential of the new element. In that case, they would either join the "sea" of electrons in the metal lattice or perhaps be ejected from the sword entirely.

One thing I think is interesting is that if an electron shifts energy levels, it will likely have to emit a photon to make up for the difference in energies as predicted by the fact that $E_n\propto Z/n^2$. Therefore, we'd presumably see a variety of spectral lines corresponding to the transitions of bound (i.e. non-valence) electrons. I suppose you'd need to do a quantum mechanical calculation to figure out which states they'd drop into; if anyone does such a calculation, I'd be quite curious to see the results.

Metallic bonds

Finally, we'd see an additional release of energy because the chemical structure of the sword would change. The new element might not be able to retain the metallic bonds that had previously kept the sword together. We could instead see new ionic and covalent bonds form as the atoms rearranged themselves in a stable configuration. Unfortunately, I'm not too knowledgeable about chemistry, so I have to leave the details to someone who is.


See Franklin's answer.

I just want to add a thing:

The radiation coming from the decay after you pair the wrong number of protons with the wrong number of neutrons will probably burn everyone around, then the isotopes flying around after this event will radioactively poison everyone who is left, leading to heavy lung diseases.

Also there will be too many electrons around which will discharge as a fat lightning strike.

Your magician better removes protons, neutrons and electrons together, making harmless gases from them.


Different elements have different orbital shapes and configurations, and different arrangements that can be made. In general elements in the same family have about the same chemical properties. By removing one proton from each atom, you are going for an element one column to the left in the periodic table (unless you're already in the family of Hydrogen, the alkali metals, in which case you'll get noble gases).

If the magic also keeps your sword from destroying the solar system as Radovan Garabík has demonstrated, the sword will most likely crumble many little broken crystals, with sizes varying from a cm to the size of grains of fine sand. That's because manganese has a different shape or the $d$ orbital and won't hold the same chemical binding as the iron crystals originally did.

  • $\begingroup$ Great point. Any idea, how slow the transmutation needs to be to allow natural re-arrangement of the material? A fraction of second may still feel instantaneous to any (human) observers. $\endgroup$ – Martin Grey Jul 10 '20 at 8:15

My assumption is that your magic takes care that all excess electrons would go away with protons and resulted hydrogen is teleported on somwhere on Phobos (doomportal, you know). All exccess neutrons also go to hell.

Change into manganese: the sword disintegrates into dust

You see, properties of steel partially depends on it's metastucture. Iron and any other metal are not one crystal grid with common sea of electrons. It consists of great number of small domains, "sub-grids". For steel these domains are separeted with carbon. Iron has a special property - it easily bonds with carbon, while manganese does not. So when all iron atoms turn into manganese these domains would quickly stop being bonded by carbon layer and fall apart. Sword would just become manganese dust (with little carbon dust inclusions).

It may not turn into dust instantaneously. For a moment it would be like nothing has changed (due to air pressue and different intermolecular forces responsible for friction). But any mechanical strain (like wind pressue) would immediately break it. It would be like holding a sword made from a pressed wet sand.

Change into oxygen ($Fe\overset{magic}{\rightarrow}O + (18H \rightarrow hell)$: sword explodes like bus tire and burns everything around it

As it was mentioned in other answers, even though we took away a lot of hydrogen, we still have a highly packed atomic oxygen. Which is many times more reactive than O2.

For 2.6 kg sword it would be 100 moles of that oxygen (1,6 kg) left, that should occupy a bit more than 2 cubic meters, but occupy only 1/3 of it. So pressure is 6 atm - like in a bus tire.

That might not kill swordsman (espesialy if he is wearing armor), but will certainly injure him (like rip his hand or arm apart). But what would kill him - atomic oxygen itself. It would just burn through his whole body leaving only some charred remains. It will ignite all metals on his body! Yes, iron burns at this conditions. At the end it would look like a bonfire in Darksouls (but without the sword, remember - we turned it into oxygen)

So if you want to get the sword away without injuring anyone and you have some magic that can transport particles to hell - just transport all protons, neutrons and electorns (i.e. whole sword) there. It would be less disastrous.

P.S. Btw, hell would recieve much more damage! No supprise demons are so angry :)


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.