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Earlier today I was mulling over the connection between magic and science. Specifically, the fact that many common magic powers or superpowers in TV and books often have interesting or unintended ramifications when examined using real science. For instance, take the Flash: super speed! This guy can move faster than a bullet. Cool, right? But when you start looking at what would happen to a human who could actually accelerate this fast, you start finding out a lot of interesting things about friction, drag, etc. that would be very bad for the Flash if he doesn't have secondary powers, and not so great for his surroundings either. What would really happen if the Flash "saved" you by grabbing you to whisk you away from the path of that oncoming truck? The sudden acceleration would be more than a normal human body can bear and you'd die. Oops, didn't mean to do THAT to that charming young lady, did you, Barry?

I've been playing with some common magic powers myself in setting up abilities and limitations for my pantheon of divine beings in a recent story, and I started wondering which seemingly harmless abilities actually stem scientifically from an implied power that could, oh I dunno, nuke a whole city on a larger scale?

Here are a few example abilities (I'm sure I could think of more, but let's stick with these for this question):

  • Stopping moving objects (bullets, arrows, falling cars) in midair.

  • Creating fireballs/explosions

  • Summoning a directed lightning bolt

  • Creating an earthquake in your immediate vicinity.

  • Conjuring something from midair (a sword, or a sandwich?). On this one I feel the need to clarify that for this exercise we cannot create NEW matter ex nihilo, conjuring an object must be done using the building blocks already existent in the world.

  • Healing someone else's injuries/illnesses.

So the question is: What would a magic-using individual actually be doing, scientifically speaking, in order for these observable effects to occur? (Does this character have an innate ability to mess with protons and electrons, and if so, golly gee, what else can he do with THAT?) Would the ability to do whatever it is have unintended consequences (for instance liquefying nearby people with the resulting shockwave) or applications (guess what boys, the fact he can do that little thing there means he can also do THIS, and blow up the world!) Finally, what limits can be imposed to control or "power down" a given overpowered skill, if any?

Examples of limitations might be "Power required" (perhaps making a tiny explosion is doable, because it requires a small amount of power, but to blow up a whole city might require an exponentially increasing amount of power, which a super-powered individual may not possess) or "range" (character can only control objects within a relatively close vicinity to themself).

Of course, some magic powers probably can be explained with sheer handwavium. Take the glowing-orb-of-magic-light-floating-behind-your-shoulder cliche, for instance. Rather than needing the ability to effect the material plane and create light scientifically, perhaps you could just use this explanation: Magic is a source of energy that normally exists outside the material plane. When it is physically manifested on the material plane, just so happens that it glows. Thus the glowing ball of light is just a ball of manifested magic. No physics-affecting powers required. But others are less easy to dismiss. Like the Flash's super speed. These are the interesting ones.

[I hope this question isn't TOO broad. I tried to limit it to a few specific examples, but there is still a lot of content here! It seemed silly to create a separate question for each one I was currently curious about though, especially since some of them probably have some overlap.]

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  • $\begingroup$ A lot of the consequences depend on exactly how these work. Does a bullet decelerate, or simply STOP? Does the inertia shift to the air, or another dimension, or convert to heat? Do fireballs need a source of fuel (either at the impact or from the casting)? An earthquake can't move a contiguous object (like the ground) but only part of it (you can't shake only a corner of a table) so how does this work? Does summoning merely conserve energy, or can it work alchemically (like lead to gold)? Doe healing require input from a knowledgeable healer, and what if the healer is wrong about cause? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ Please ask about just one ability and please describe that ability within the context of your magic system with much better detail. VTC:Needs Focus. If we do our job well, answering the first, well-asked question will provide you with insight such that you needn't ask after the other abilities (you know, teaching a person how to fish vs. just giving them a fish). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ One of the problems with thinking about something as magical is that you don't feel the requirement to look at the whole picture. Magical/comics think of the flash as just being able to run fast. Scientifically, we'd have to look at the entire thing, which includes the problems requiring extra explanation. That is why magical explanations break things, while scientific explanations makes things more whole. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 20:02

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Thinking with portals

Almost all your magic-explaining-woes can be dealt with if you allow dimension-breaching portals to be created cheap. Furthermore, even if the actual casters don't know they're creating portals when they cast magic, you can use them on a mechanical or fundamental level, and even better, they don't egregiously violate thermodynamics. Some examples:

  • Stopping moving objects/general telekinesis: Magic users aren't actually conjuring and applying phantom forces, they're simply using gravity. Open a gravity-only portal to another dimension (or Jupiter or wherever) and manipulate the portal's size, location, rotation, etc and use gravity that spills out from the portal to push/pull/move things.

  • Creating fireballs/pyrokinesis: A magic user casting "fireball" simply creates an unstable portal to the "elemental plane of fire" (the nearest star will do fine) and then hucks it towards the enemy. Upon encountering mass, the unstable portal destabilizes and breaks, but in that moment a large amount of fire slips through dimensions. Similarly, a mage using a flamethrower-esque spell isn't magically creating fire but rather simply manipulating a portal to somewhere that has lots of fire (again, eg. a star).

  • Summoning Lighting/electrokinesis: A bit more tricky, but still doable. The mage could open a portal to a dimension or location (eg in a thunderhead) where there's a big electrical charge imbalance and provide an optimal path for the electricity to ground itself, preferably through a foe. To further direct the lighting, a path of ionized air can be prepared for the lighting to take, and this can be done by portaling in ionized air from elsewhere or using pyrokinesis/intense light.

  • Localized Earthquake: This is just telekinesis applied to the ground at a large scale

  • Conjuring a sword (or other item): Portals make it easy to stash stuff elsewhere. Simply drop a sword in an empty (or hammerspace) dimension beforehand and then fetch it using a portal. Alternatively, create a sword-shaped portal (like a mold) which intersects with a hunk of metal in another dimension, thus giving you a portal-percision cut chunk of metal in the shape of a sword.

  • Healing: This one's a doozy, but I've got some ideas. First, you could partially portal the injury into an alternate dimension where time flows faster, thus accelerating natural healing processes. Alternatively, you could go and portal-swap perfect-match organs or limbs from alternate reality/dimension versions of the victim (it would be very difficult to find an exact match though making this difficult magic).

  • Glowing light orb: Easy, just a round portal to somewhere bright (elemental plane of light or just a star and limit the portal to only transmit specific wavelengths of light).

To limit this magic, you can impose limits on portals. For example, it costs a spellcaster more to maintain a portal the more mass and energy pass through it, making conjuration one of the most energy-intensive magical skills while light, having little mass, is comparatively cheap to portal. Also, caster skill would effect what portal shapes they can make (eg round sphere) and control over what it transmits (eg gravity only, 650nm light only, etc).

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  • $\begingroup$ Healing would be terrifying from the other person's perspective. You are just sitting around writing comments on Worldbuilding or something whe- OHGODMYARM! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JoelHarmon you could just rig the spell so it just swaps that person's limb with another alternate and repeat, infinite-hotel style $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm. With enough energy and "volunteers", you could amortize healing across a large population a fraction of a second at a time. You would just need to keep the spell going for roughly the time it takes to heal naturally. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 0:15
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Certainly a lot of ground to cover. I'll stick to just the first for now: Stopping moving objects.

I'm assuming you're talking about more than just being immovable, like superman "stopping" a bullet. Assuming you mean arresting the movement completely. A follow up consideration would be if this is immediate, reliant on factors such as mass, or possibly controllable.

In essence, you are removing kinetic energy. Since you asked the question trying to completely avoid "hand wavium," we'll look at what that means for conservation laws. The energy must go somewhere.

Questions: How is the energy transferred? Does the agent control the destination of this transferred energy? Does it get converted to mass? I stop an arrow, do I gain weight? Can I reverse this? Is it really the ability to convert mass and energy back and forth?

Unintended consequences: I stop an airplane by removing kinetic energy. What about the passengers? Is this a field effect, or an object effect. If it is a field effect, have I also robbed all the passengers of a functioning circulatory system? Can I kill by just stopping the brain, or heart, or any organ from functioning?

Keep in mind all heat is merely molecular kinetic energy. Have I just reduced everything to absolute zero?

just a start . . .

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget; they're on celestial spinning bodies hurtling through space. Removing all kinetic energy will make it look like they fly off with insane speeds into the air or some close-by stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, that too! You could get around some of these issues by implementing a "frame of reference" as motion is relative to frames of reference. Reseting a frame of reference could be an interesting power. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 23:58
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Creating something out of thin air (by using existing molecules) has some pretty nasty consequences:

It breaks other things unintentionally:
I'm just sitting here minding my own business on my nice new computer when it blue screens, and then powers off. It won't turn back on again.

Turns out one of my neighbours summoned themselves a new iPhone, and the nearest molecules of some rare metal were hard at work displaying this webpage to me.

And the plastic molecules were insulating the power cables in my ceiling.

Copyright, counterfeit, and trademark issues:
That summoned iPhone didn't send royalties to Apple. How does Apple get a return on its investment researching and creating such a product?

Currencies are devalued as anyone can create a copy of counterfeit proof money, with unique serials and all.

Its also a "destroy anything" spell:
After the electrical fire he inadvertently gave me, I don't like my neighbour, nor his house and want it destroyed. So I create an exact copy of his north-most wall, 1m to the north of where it currently is. The molecules are moved from nearby (his real wall) to the new wall. The house then falls over. The new wall also falls over, as I didn't clone the foundations.

It's also a "murder anyone" spell:
Other than taking a few key molecules from critical organs, what's to stop me just summoning a noose around your neck attached to a passing jet aircraft? Or a grand piano 10km above you?

How would it work?:
Little nanobots grab molecules, fly them around, and reassemble them. Done totally with nanotechnology.

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  • $\begingroup$ That one in particular I was pretty sure was bound to have some nasty implications! Worrying about copyright issues may be a bit outside the scope as of yet though, lol, since we don't know how prevalent this magic is. Might only be one person who can do it. (Also we're talking solely about magic / inbuilt superpowers as the source, no nanobots are necessary!) I like the bit about the grand piano haha. That's a classic. "Why is there a piano on my cake?" $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 1:28
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Earthquake:

Is it truly creating a genuine seismic earthquake, or is it imparting a force into the ground? The first could possibly be caused by probability manipulation. I just happen to be able to nudge a previously unknown fault into action. Such an earthquake would be subject to all the usual factors governing the destructive power of such quakes based on soil composition, etc. This is then not really the power to move things, but allow them to move unhindered, releasing stored energy. This could go along the lines of inanimate objects (or at least the earth) having wants. It wants to move. I'm just giving it permission. This power would be wildly variant based on locale.

The unintendeds sprout from how far-ranging this probability manipulation is. Can I create (or discover highly improbable) structural flaws in other objects? Is there a cosmic luck balance that must be answered for? Or am I constantly bombarded by the "wants" of the world around me?

The main damage of an earthquake is not the movement that is the plates jerking, but the immense energy wave that is created. If the power is imparting energy instead of releasing it, things get rather generic. At this point it is very similar to any power weapon, it just happens to have a very specific target. All the usual suspects crop up. Where does the energy come from? How much can be channeled? Specific to earthquakes: Can it only by inserted into the earth? How about a pot of soil? Statues?

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