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I've been toying with the idea of including manipulation of the strong and weak nuclear forces in my magic system but have had a hard time balancing the sheer power of said forces. As far as my limited intelligence can comprehend said powers, the weakest version of either force manipulation would basically be alchemy right? That renders manipulation of the other elements in my magic system(fire, water, metal, darkness, light, sound, etc.) pretty redundant and one note by comparison. Since either force manipulation could do what users of the other elements could do and possibly more. So how should I balance the power of strong and weak force manipulation while keeping the other "lesser" elemental powers in my magic system unique and useful?

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  • $\begingroup$ And a phrase "The Force Is Strong With This One" will come to a new meaning in your universe. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 18:05

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TL;DR: every wizard is a nuclear bomb/reactor/atom smasher/etc. without all the machinery that is required to make matter do that. a) Treat them as such. b) They're very very very very very very likely to kill themselves trying to do anything useful. There's a reason we use machines to mess with these forces...

This is a very very difficult question, and throwing no shade, but the other answers (so far) have not exactly comprehended the exact scale of energies being manipulated here. Because you're asking at all, I assume you want an answer at least sightly grounded in reality. For that purpose, we're going to assume:

  1. The first law of thermodynamics holds.

  2. Violations of the second law are magic.

Let it be noted: the second law applies strictly to classical systems, that is, things where the laws of big numbers apply and the effects of quantum mechanics become statistics. Let me make something clear: we live in a quantum world. Energy does indeed go from cold to hot. Disordered systems do indeed suddenly order. However, such instances are rare, and when you're talking about numbers of particles on the order of quadrillions at minimum, minute chances skip negligible and become impossible. Without magic, that is.

Clarification aside, let me provide a quick example of the energies we are talking about.

Consider a small lump of lead. Let's say it masses one kilo. Our intrepid and foolish wizard proposes to transmute it into gold. First, let's look at this the bad way--each lead nucleus just magically becomes a gold nucleus.

One kg of lead is 4.826 mols of lead. Turning each lead nucleus to a gold nucleus via weak force stuff actually will weigh less--only 0.95 kg (although gold is less massive than lead, it's denser in metallic form because of the compactness of the crystalline structure). Let's do some ballpark back of the envelope math. Just throwing special relativity at the problem, that 50 gram difference represents 1.074 megatons of TnT, aka somewhat less than the yield of a B83 nuclear bomb, the biggest thermonuke the US operates.

How cliche. But we're professionals--we're not crude users of the weak force who just decompose matter, we can actually do decay right. A few things are going to happen:

  1. Because we are disintegrating and reforming nuclei, the difference in nuclear binding energy will be released or absorbed into/from the environment.

  2. We're transforming quarks between up & down, turning protons into neutrons. These have different energies, and again the difference in energy will be released or absorbed into/from the environment. All electroweak interactions that can effect the change of a proton into a neutron consume an electron (or release a positron), preserving charge parity. Which is great, because otherwise the electrostatic energy in the accumulated charge would be astronomical.

  3. We're also going to shuffle around electrons in the shell structure as we consume them. While this also has an energy difference, it's minute compared to the other amounts and we're going to ignore it.

  4. Similarly, we'll neglect the energies associated with crystal formation.

  5. Finally, we're ejecting the extra neutrons.

The nuclear binding energy of all isotopes of lead is close enough to 7.87 MeV per nucleon. If a sample of lead (roughly equal amounts of Pb206, Pb207, and Pb208 (wrong, but whatever it'd be worse if it were accurate)) has an average of 207 nucleons, that's a total nuclear binding energy of 181 thousand tons of TnT in our Kg of lead. Note that that's the energy required to break the nucleus apart, not the energy released by doing so. Nuclei are more stable than random nucleons flying around, that's why they tend to stick around. By the same math, the total nuclear binding energy of our 0.95 Kg of gold-197 is 173 kilotons of TnT. (I hate that I started using these units.) The difference is 8 kilotons of TnT, which is absorbed from the environment. That's a very small nuke's worth. Doesn't really help us much, but still...

Don't have to worry about electrostatic energy from charge, thank god.

We're going to need to turn three protons per nucleus into neutrons by either beta (+) decay or electron capture. Luckily, we don't have to speculate how this energy will be released, because we already know--either in the form of a positron & neutrino in the case of beta (+) decay (note: the positron will annihilate with one of our excess electrons, releasing two 511 keV photons), or just a neutrino. Unfortunately, electrons also have to shuffle around a bunch, which releases some x-rays. Also, nucleons also have to shuffle around a bunch, which releases some gamma rays. Fortunately, we already accounted for the latter in the nuclear binding energy calculations, and we'll ignore the former because the chemical energy difference is going to be... laughably small compared to anything else we're worried about. It's kind of stupid that we're calculating this bullet point anyway.

Regardless, a proton has two up (+2/3e, 2.3 MeV) quarks and one down (-1/3e, 4.8 MeV) quarks for a total of +1e charge. A neutron has one up and two down, being neutral. The energy/mass difference is 834.6 tons of TNT. Notice how we're getting smaller and smaller? Again, that's absorbed from the environment.

Finally, we've got an excess of three neutrons per nucleus from proton decay and seven extra left over from turning Pb207 into Au197. So we're emitting 10 neutrons per nucleus. Here's where the energy difference comes from. Of course, 48.26 mol of neutrons masses just about 50 grams. So what's our energy deficit again? It represents only 0.448 grams of our excess neutrons, minus however much you want to use to put energy into your neutrons, but it should go without saying that *if you're measuring your neutron emission in GRAMS, everything in the vicinity is getting ACUTE neutron poisoning. Better have some extra lead on hand unless you like rotting from the inside out. That kind of neutron load is going to turn every around it horribly, horribly radioactive. Let's just say--that energy is the EXACT same as the million tons of TnT, just stored in the form of neutrons. While a lot of that energy will stay in the form of neutrons, even if a very slight percentage of it is ultimately released as radiation through secondary and tertiary (etc...) decay from the nuclei it destroys... you and everything else in a wide radius is still going to be very, very dead. This is the kind of neutron load that make steel shatter like glass... lots of very very thick steel. It's the kind of neutron load that makes everything around you turn radioactive, so radioactive it makes everything around it turn radioactive, for a very long time.

And again, this is the best-case scenario. If, much worse, even 0.1% of this energy were not emitted as neutrons, rather, emitted as photons, or heat, or literally anything besides neutrons, that'll be 2.6e25 MeV--somewhat more than the energy of blowing up the fuel in a fully loaded Airbus A330. Also going to kill you very effectively, if slightly less horribly. Point is, there's a lot of energy being released one way or another, and that tends to be bad for organized forms of matter.

So to summarize: screwing with the weak force is going to kill you and everyone you love. Please don't do it.

PT 2: I want to do it anyways

Well, why is a lot of energy bad? Because it tends to turn into heat. Why? The second law. But wait, didn't we said we could violate that due to magic? Sure did. So manipulation of the weak force is a great way to get a bunch of energy out of things for magic. Call it mana, whatever. Besides, if you can manipulate the weak force you can turn anything into a neutron source. Make a little containment container with neutron reflectors with an outlet at the tip, stick the gem-looking thing on a staff, you've got a weapon that turns anything you point it at into about as husky, death-in-the-most-horrific-way, dark magicy dead stuff you can imagine. Seriously, look up the effects of neutron poisoning & crank it up to 11 because that's what you're able to do.

But more broadly, how to balance nuclear bomb-level amounts of energy? The same way the real world treats nuclear bombs. Deterrence, control of the methods to produce them. Tell a magical cold war story. Just do the math, and please don't be off by orders of magnitude. E=MC^2 is crude, but accurate to within at least 1%, as demonstrated above.

Oh, and for the record, directly manipulating the strong force is even worse.

PT 3: Sorry I forgot about this

Coming back a year later to say: I totally forgot about the strong force. The strong force is weird because it's what's responsible for making matter into baryonic matter--that is, stuff that can form atoms. Because we don't interact with non-baryonic matter very frequently, it's really hard to say what, if, anything not equally deadly thanks to release of energy--strong force manipulation would do. But wait, you're saying, isn't nuclear binding energy the strong force? Didn't we already talk about that?

Well, both yes and no. The strong force is primarily responsible for making protons be protons and neutrons be neutrons. Remember how I mentioned baryonic matter? Protons and neutrons are the aforementioned baryons. They're made of quarks, and there's an absolutely insane, mindboggling amount of energy that keeps quarks together. So much energy, in fact, that if you were to put in enough energy to tear a proton apart, separating the quarks, that same energy would be enough to just make new quarks they'd immediately bond to. That's a thing. Look up quark containment.

Said insane, mindboggling amounts of energy is why the strong force is called as such. "Strong" is one of the most incredible understatements of all physics. 99% of all the mass of a proton comes just from the energy of this force binding its constituent quarks together. The nucleon binding force that holds the baryons together into atomic nuclei is kind of this force leaking out of the baryon.

You can think of it much like hydrogen bonding in water. It's not a fundamental force. It's just an artifact of the electromagnetic force bonding the atoms together. Water isn't charged, but when you get very close to it, there's some bits of it that are more charged than others, and that attracts things together, if they're close enough to notice. In the same way, quark color charge is always cancelled out in baryons, but if baryons get close enough, they can start attracting each other. Nuclear binding force isn't a fundamental force. It's just an artifact of the strong nuclear force binding quarks together.

Anyways, the actual strong force is like 500 times stronger than the nucleon binding force--and the nucleon binding force is what we use to power nukes. If you could ever break the actual strong force, oh baby, that's a whole nother ball game.

Anyways the long point is if you start f*cking around with the strong force you'll release tons of energy & invent forms of matter that haven't really been seen since shortly after the big bang. I can't see that having any impact on delicate, fragile, baryon-and-chemical-based life as we know it besides gifting it an instant death that uniquely happens to advance the field of particle physics by centuries.

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    $\begingroup$ So the short version is that pretty much anyone with these powers kills themselves (and everyone around them) before they ever manage to do anything useful with it? $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Without either extreme environmental controls (think shielding, isolation, dedicated buildings--the same way IRL nuclear power is secured) or magic, then yeah. It's just a shortcut to releasing a ton of energy as some form of radiation. That kills things. $\endgroup$
    – neph
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ There is a way out. The mages use the energy released to bind the weak force to electromagnetism, aka the electroweak force. Now you have EM range ( macroscopic ) range for your effects, and the huge energy required to bind those forces together is then not available for the neutron plague, which by the way, they should be able to deal with. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 4:35
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There are tiers of power and skill. An average wizard who starts casting will find that they can just about turn one isotope of an element to another stable one in small quantities and won't be able to do much of note. By contrast, the same amount of skill in fire lets them throw fireballs and use flame whips and power small villages.

Extremely powerful and skilled people could use the strong and weak force to get special effects. It would take a huge amount of experimentation and practice to get decent effects. Even then, you won't have the fluidity of manipulation that the other powers have.

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Weak force manipulation does indeed allow for transmutation of elements. Though, perhaps not in a way that most would appreciate... your results will likely be radioactive, and it will always be heavier elements turning into lighter elements (this at least allows for lead to gold, I think, though not directly).

Note that if you want to go with the Aristotelian elements (4) or Chinese elements (5) as some fantasy stories do, that's not a very compatible system.

Balancing such might be as simple as having those 4 elements be a misconception on the part of the magic users... playing with weak force manipulation without the science to know what you're doing could be bad.

Strong force manipulation is more powerful still. The ability to create even minute amounts of neutronium, or other exotic matter besides (imagine having a paper-thin protonium/neutronium breastplate) is probably on the table. More transmutation (light to heavy elements) is no big deal. Disintegrating enemies, world-ending weapons, sun-ending weapons. These are not little kids' toys.

But again, they don't make much sense in the context of some fantasy worlds, and their inscrutability might be the weakness you need.

The other magic could just be manipulating other real physics forces (which they don't understand either), but a deeper level of existing expertise exists ("I know that things #1-100,000 work, even if I don't know why!"). They, while weaker, are simply more sophisticated.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the concept of transmutation without a real knowledge of chemistry. You try to create gold but are off by two protons and end up with highly-toxic thallium instead. Your "make things disappear" spell actually creates unstable isotopes that decay almost instantly and bombard you with invisible radiation. Most of your magic users mysteriously die before they get too experienced ... $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ You'd need advanced mathematics or some equivalent symbology to work this magic though. These are quantum interactions, and most likely the magic would be statistical in nature. Like, you cant "see" what you are doing, you just have to lay your will upon the phase space and modify the quantum constants, like Plank's number etc. Without your will, things would go back to normal probability. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 6:16
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It can work if you bring the 4 elements into the scientific realm as well.

The 4 "elements" then become the 4 phases of matter.

Earth = Solid 
Water = Liquid 
Air = Gas 
Fire = Plasma

This the "elements" are independent of their composition. The strong and weak forces would just alter their composition.

Note that certain chemical elements would be at rest at different "elements". Silicon is at rest as "Earth" and takes energy to temporarily move it down the list of "elements" (melt it, vaporize it, make it a plasma).

Because of these "rest states," primitive magic uses will lump certain elements with certain magical "elements." Those who have learned their magic more scientifically, will know the different elements that make up the "elements."

With this, you can have both systems work seamlessly together with the use of strong and weak forces coming from the learning that the different elements can have different compositions and studying those compositions and how to use and alter them.

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    $\begingroup$ If you are going to include plasma, what about other exotic states like Bose-Einstein Condensate? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ You could but those don't map to the "traditional" elements. So you would have to figure out something else. $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 22:41

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