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The wizarding world is a cut throat place. It's divided between several great mage families. Each one of these has a network of lesser families allied to them through marriage. Relations between families and a mixture of cut-throat politics, temporary alliances, blood feuds, duels and the occasional assassinations.

To add to the volatile mixture, families often align themselves with one or more mundane nations so mundane wars often lead to wars within the magical community itself.

Wizards have recently discovered how to use magic to split the atom giving them access to atomic power.

Given how volatile the political situation is, what possible explanation could there be for why the families just haven't nuked themselves.

The setting is steampunk with a little bit of magic tech.

What I worried about is how to prevent either A. A scenario where a small incident that spills over into war because of the network of alliances (think ww1 but with nukes) or B. Some blood feud gets out of control (people often react more emotional and less rational in a blood feud image of you gave hatfields and mccoys nuclear weapons. )

Question answered : you do need to be powerful enough to be in a great family but most in the Great Family members could do with a lot of practice, the spell is tricky to learn but if they were given the knowledge and time to master it it would be powerful enough to do it.

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    $\begingroup$ Your own people - being us - have nuclear weapons and haven't killed them themselves since the first, two-part demonstration. Even if the wizards' greater knowledge doesn't give them greater wisdom, why would they be less self-restrained than your own people? $\endgroup$ Oct 21 '21 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ They have much more conflict then we do $\endgroup$ Oct 21 '21 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ For one thing, the degree of conflict they have is up to their world builder. Above and beyond that, how they restrain themselves is up to their world builder. What, in your build, would be wrong with pure terror, let alone the fear of mutual assured destruction? $\endgroup$ Oct 21 '21 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ Well, why not make it clear with some judicious editing? Look again, take out the references to magic and what remains that's worse than we here in reality have survived all these decades? Blood feuds, assassinations and family alliances? Just ask the North Koreans, or even the Russians. Still what, in your build, would trump terror or MAD? $\endgroup$ Oct 21 '21 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ There's a fundamental point you need to clarify: Does EVERY random wizard have the power to make nuclear weapons, or only the most senior members of the greatest families (or something in between)? $\endgroup$
    – Priska
    Oct 25 '21 at 15:26

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For a really comprehensive deep dive into nuclear warfare strategy and negotiation, see William Spaniel's excellent YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/Gametheory101/playlists). There he explains why almost all potential wars - not just nuclear wars - are averted because war is costly.

TL;DW: you can get more of what you want with a kind word and a gun than with just a gun. War isn't (usually) about killing an enemy you hate. Sane people don't value war for it's own sake. It's a means to an end. The world is full of conflicts that are resolved peacefully because everyone involved knows approximately how the potential war would turn out. If you know the outcome, you might as well agree to that outcome without incurring the cost of fighting for it.

So think about why the families in the wizarding world are at odds with each other. What do they want that they can't all have at the same time? We're talking about zero-sum games where any gain for one player is a proportional loss for the other(s)? For example maybe there is some magical resource that is limited and necessary for their survival.

You mention blood feuds, which suggests that wizards have a cultural norm of 'an eye for an eye'. This cultural norm is actually a rational strategy for protecting your own interests by establishing yourself or your clan as a credible threat in a situation where there is no law enforcement to help you. You do this by reliably striking back at anyone who harms you. By making it known that you have a reliable 'second strike' capability - like assassins or armies - you are saying to the world, "you might be able to kill my brother, but if you do, I will kill your whole family." If you are consistently able to make good on that threat, you can deter potential attacks against you, before they even happen.

The same is true with nuclear weapons. The 'assured second strike' capability of nuclear superpowers like the U.S.A. and Russia has arguably prevented a world war for almost a century now. This is why Russia has a nuclear armed submarine that lurks somewhere under the north pole and only resurfaces twice a year to call home. If that sub can't make contact with the Kremlin, its orders are to nuke Washington. And that's part of why the U.S.A. never attacked Russia. So ironically, the presence of nuclear weapons reduces the frequency and scale of violent confrontation. Instead, the conflicts become more frequent and smaller, such as proxy wars and spy-vs-spy stuff.

Nuclear weapons solve the biggest downside of blood feuds. In an 'eye for an eye' strategy, you have to establish your credibility by actually harming your opponent, thus triggering retaliation. But with nukes, you can demonstrate your 'second strike' capability without harming your opponent: just detonate a nuke somewhere harmless (make sure they know about it), and delivering a nuke-sized package to their general vicinity. They'll put two and two together.

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Won't MAD work also in this scenario?

Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender (see pre-emptive nuclear strike and second strike). It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy's use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.

There is a point in vaporizing your enemies if you then survive to enjoy the aftermath. If you are granted to get vaporized yourself as a consequence of your hit, there is not much to gain to become a part of quarreling vapors.

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    $\begingroup$ MAD only works if you have missiles, early-warning radar, radio communication, and hidden submarines/silos. That's not necessarily the case here. If an enemy sneaks a into your headquarters, transfigures a cubic millimeter of red up quarks, and in one shot takes out all the senior wizards who have the secrets of how to split atoms, you don't have assured destruction anymore. You need pairs of really bored, really disciplined men with keys and standing orders to fire if your capital get taken out. No wizard will want to live as a secret underground missile. $\endgroup$
    – johannes
    Oct 22 '21 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ @johannes yet if you let even one enemy wizard escape, the risk for retaliation would be quite high. Also, every wizard house would keep each other in check : if one house made another explode, what would stop them from doing this to the remaining ones ? $\endgroup$
    – Aserre
    Oct 22 '21 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @johannes There could be more than two wizarding groups with nuclear capabilities. They could all promise to take out any groups that use nukes. $\endgroup$ Oct 22 '21 at 14:06
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The power to split atoms is not actually very interesting. Splitting a single atom gives you on the order of 10-11 Joules. This fact is why Einstein originally though nuclear weapons to be impossible. In order to do something interesting, you need to split a lot of atoms at once.

The ability to split atoms in bulk with a spell seems challenging. You'd need to get the atoms aligned to a variance of less than 10% the radius of the nuclei of the atoms in question and then use a split spell on the exact plane of alignment of the atoms. That's much too difficult.

It's much easier is to use alchemy to create fissile isotopes (such as U-235 or plutonium) that can achieve a chain reaction. So, essentially, alchemy replaces refinement of uranium. But now you just have a conventional nuclear bomb (constructed by magical means). Deflecting or destroying projectiles is something that extensive amounts of existing magic would presumably do.

Your enemy tries to cast "teleport" on the bomb followed by a "crush" spell to make the uranium go critical? You just cast a second "teleport" at the right time and your enemy gets blown up instead. Or you cast "scatter" or "turn to stone" on the bomb and the bomb is effectively defused. And presumably you have an anti-teleportation field around your army and key cities anyways to prevent enemy fighters from teleporting next to your ranged troops and to keep your economy functioning

Additionally, with alchemy in play, nuclear weapons are much more vulnerable to pre-battle sabotage. You have a stash of nuclear bombs ready to use? Better hope an alchemist doesn't sneak in and transmute the payloads to useless gold.

Thus, refining uranium could be used for creating power sources for magic. It can also be used to make very dangerous bombs, but these are challenging to use, and only for very specific situations.

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    $\begingroup$ You absolutely do not cast "scatter" on radioactive materials. That's just turning it into a dirty bomb. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Oct 22 '21 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the wizards won't bother with a bomb. They'll create subcritical half spheres of the fissile material and simultaneously teleport two of them right next to each other above the target. As soon as they materialize, a multimillion degree dense plasma will instantly replace the two metal spheres. No time for reaction on the victim's part, none at all. $\endgroup$ Oct 22 '21 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ @cmaster-reinstatemonica That requires a lot of precision on casting teleport. Given you'd need two spells in either case (either two teleports or one teleport and one crush), teleport + crush would be more practical $\endgroup$
    – Zags
    Oct 22 '21 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin Who cares? Any wizard worth their wand has a Philosopher's Stone in the medicine cabinet for the radiation sickness, and about fifty different cleaning and transmutation spells to take care of the fallout. The priority is avoiding getting vaporized, and "Scatter" does the trick there just fine. $\endgroup$
    – Will Chen
    Oct 25 '21 at 21:40
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I was going to answer MAD, but that's probably what everyone else is going to answer, so let's think of something else: strong cultural norms forbid it.

How would a a world that has feudal personal relationships think? Wizarding property is diffused through the world, since with the advent of cost-effective portal tech, one can have their morning coffee au lait under the forged iron arches of the Leffie Tower in Sirap, and then meditate while watching the sunset 10 minutes later in Sol Selegna, half-way across the world. Why would you nuke your own estates?

At any point, members of the Ascended families are spread across the world, so nuking this or that city would be a barbarous and crude affair that no Ascend would even deign to consider. This is not without precedent -- some wars in the late 1700s to the mid-1800 had remarkably low civilian casualties. In fact, bitter enemies during the day often have tea in the Sirap salons in the evening together and play cards, and this is seen as completely normal and civilized.

Now, tactical usage of nuclear devices on the battlefield on the other hand, is completely within the cultural milieu, and only a moderate step up from FyendFire.

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    $\begingroup$ interesting answer, using the culture to solve the problem $\endgroup$ Oct 23 '21 at 4:24
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Secrecy

Wizards have discovered the secret of the atom but the mundane world hasn't, and they would prefer it remains that way. Using weaponised fission openly would create a lot of questions that wizards don't want to answer, and they also don't want to have to go to war with mundane nations in order to retain whatever benefits they have now. Better to just keep the whole thing under wraps.

Self-policing

Wizards can covertly cull those who they deem too irrational to be entrusted with the responsibility that comes with magical power. In your Hatfield-McCoy example this would mean a third party swoops in and quietly offs the whole lot of them while covering it up. The duties of self-policing would fall onto the greater families(that's why they're "greater", isn't it) while lesser families come and go every generation or so because of their family members ending up in an unmarked grave.

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The spell to split atoms only works at close range. You can perform gold foil experiments all day long, with whatever apparatus is required in your universe, but if you cast the same spell on a chunk of uranium you've got about half a second before turning into vapour.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome Aurell, please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as and when. Nice (if brief) first post. Enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ Oct 24 '21 at 0:11
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MAD is probably the heart of it, but let's see how to get there.

If by "splitting the atom" you mean "making fission bombs", then I'd probably go for it being a matter of using magic to compress radioactive material tightly enough to get the chain reaction going. In which case, you can just say it's a range thing -- you can only do it within a short range, which means a magician that compressed enough to go boom would be instantly vaporized in the blast.

If they instead compressed multiple lumps such that they are noncritical individually but would go critical when put together, well, that just means they can more easily make nuclear weapons. The rest of the mechanism is still necessary, so it's not like they can point, shoot (er... levitate a few miles away), nuke. It'd be no different than using teleportation or whatever to steal existing nuclear weapons. And that just means that all magic factions are nuclear powers, and MAD keeps them from killing each other.

I suspect you may need to further specify what "split the atom" and/or what the risk is that you're worried about. For example, you could enable them to split limited numbers of atoms, producing lethal neutron radiation and/or generating heat for power, but not enough to trigger a chain reaction.

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  • $\begingroup$ And and some more information dose it help? $\endgroup$ Oct 22 '21 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ To make a practical bomb you need U-235 or Pu-239 (other materials exist that can go boom but they have short half lives.) Neither can be mined. Thus the wizards must have either mastered isotope separation or transmutation (and see my question on transmutation for some problems there!) Separation is the logical one--they can make weapons grade material. You can make a black-powder U-235 gun-type bomb. It has a small chance of failing to give a proper boom but you can just light the fuse and teleport it where you want it. $\endgroup$ Oct 23 '21 at 1:42
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If every wizard/ family can easily make nuclear weapons, unless you have a brutal dictatorship nuclear war will happen.

Hot headed young people often make stupid decisions, and someone will no doubt decide nuclear weapons is the best choice. You will have a nuclear war. A society where everyone is armed with a nuclear bomb is short lived society.

If the manufacturing of nuclear weapons is restricted to the greater families, they can make treaties and lower the chance of war.

Perhaps the manufacturing of purified uranium and the creation of spells to make nuclear weapons is technically complicated enough that only the greatest of families can make them. You need a stronger reason than nukes though. Tactical nuclear weapons have much lower consequences.

WW1 notably didn't go into chaos because of a network of alliances. Britain was perfectly capable of ignoring Serbia being invaded, as was France. They couldn't ignore Belgium and France being invaded by Germany, and with the coasts taken Germany could have bombarded Britain freely. Strategic considerations are very important for larger nations.

You need nukes to have negative strategic implications.

Perhaps nukes are very effective at taking out magical resources, but not shielded mage compounds. Nuclear radiation could wipe out most native alchemical resources like magical animals and plants, but have little impact on shielded house bunkers.

As such, using a nuclear weapon on an enemy means you lose access to many key magical components but that the enemy is still fine and able to prosecute war in their deep underground bunker unless you really nuke them hard.

As such, nuclear wars are not strategically useful, and so are generally discouraged. While individuals may have blood feuds, the networks of enforcers each family have will discourage any rogue individual from triggering nukes because of the massive loss of wealth it will cause and the lack of utility against heavily shielded compounds.

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Nukes Destroy Magic

"I don't understand, master," To'Ril complained, "Why is the knowledge of True Alchemy forbidden? Now that I understand this 'atomic theory', it seems so simple. Split off one proton and two neutrons from each mercury atom, and one has a gold atom."

"I will show you why," Krin sighed at her apprentice, "他の場所にいる... Teleport."

To'Ril blinked as he always did after teleportation. Then he blinked again. Before him spread out an empty wasteland. Only scrub grass and small twisted trees. It was silent, perverse.

"This was once the Forest of Eldin, the great home of the elves," Krin explained, "Until the cursed dwarven alchemist Mahaten decided he would end the final elf-dwarf war by splitting a sphere of lead in the heart of the city. You see, split atoms produces a great deal of heat and energy. It was enough to reduce the forest to this. That alone should be enough for you to understand why this knowledge is forbidden, but it is far worse. 雷電は敵を倒す... Lightning!"

A familiar bolt of energy shot out of Krin's hand. It was a common attack spell, one of To'Ril's favorite. Only the bolt broke apart and vanished after only ten feet.

"The child atoms created by splitting the lead are poison," she told him, "Any living creature that spends too much time in the cursed zone will sicken and die. But so to, will the curse eat away at magic. The reason I teleported us here, is that any closer would be impossible. The wasteland is also a zone of anti-magic. No spell will work in there. No blessing will protect you. We cannot cleanse it. From what the best of us can tell, it will be at least four thousand years until the poison has weakened enough for even rudimentary spells to work. That is the price of True Alchemy. Would you pay it, my apprentice?"

The radioactive fallout produced by a nuclear reaction has a secondary effect. It interferes with the binding/weaving of mana into a spell. As a result the area around the nuke effectively becomes an anti-magic zone. Or at least becomes one until enough of the fallout (cursed/poison atoms) have decayed.

Mana Propagates Fission

Normally, if one applies enough pressure to induce fission in Uranium 235, the Uranium is the only (or at least the main) element split. Unfortunately, mana, the Nth fundamental force and the energy of magic has different ideas. It causes the fission of not just the initial target, but all atoms within a certain range. Splitting a single Iron atom will near instantly reduce everything in about 200 meters into superheated Hydrogen, and a lot of nasty by products. As well as the commiserate air burst and thermal radiation release from splitting that many atoms. Of course, if there is any oxygen present, then a secondary Hydrogen burn explosion will happen.

True, such a reaction can be prevented by removing all mana from the area first. But a spell like that is so draining and complex, the energy would be better spent on attack spells. Splitting the atom is better left forgotten.

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If you can use magic to wield a power as destructive as nukes then it should be possible to wield a power preserving/constructive/protective to fight against it. I don't think any world with magic has magic that is purely destructive unless the entire point of magic is to destroy. Might be quite the spectacle, wizards in an arm-race trying to outmatch each other in best nuke and best shield.

The first wizard atom splitter could also have killed themselves in the development and final success of their spell, like a Marie Curie sort of situation. It follows the same line of thinking as to cast a ward or conjure up some other protections before summoning demons or whatever to protect you from their influence. The wizard could have died of their success before being able to share it, preventing wizard nukes for everyone. Yay! This could be gone around by having wizards already know about nukes and radiation and the like and then had protection when they were experimenting but you've not given how educated people are and their general level of scientific knowledge.

For that matter most wizards might just be uneducated when it comes to the mundane. How to polymorph without losing sanity? Got a degree for that. How to split atoms? What the heck is an at-tome?

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Weather, pest and neutron control.

Rain, snow. Flies, cockroaches, and rats. Wizards could summon these things if for some reason they wanted to. More often they prefer to cast a spell to make them disappear. It gets tougher the larger the object, and it is a luckily potent wizard who can unsummon the toddlers from more than one nursery yard at once. But neutrons, well, free neutrons are tiny little things, not very common, and all weighed together they wouldn't jiggle a scale. Most people would never even know they were there, and the laws of magic certainly don't account much for them being gone. A wizard can but wave a hand and banish the stray neutrons from here to the horizon. It is little trouble to nuke-proof any land he cares about, and people might be surprised when things come to contretemps just how much land that turns out to be.

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Access to nuclear weapons is classified information, on pain of death

Only the great families have access to nuclear weapons, and such knowledge is carefully regulated.

Rogue wizards attempting to breach this secret are hunted down and killed without further ado. Sufficient proof includes any evidence of study, training, practice, or even unnatural interest in the nuclear rituals. The great families maintain vast networks of spies and fake "knowledge dealers" to ferret out such renegades. The general ban on wizarding nuclear weapons becomes the cultural norm.

Naturally, these families maintain a joint agreement not to use nuclear weapons in feuds against each other. It is not in their interest to destroy the society that elevates them to such high status.

While in principle the great families could teach it to their rank and file members, common sense dictates that only the most senior and trusted members should be given such an awesome power, capable of destroying their own family along with much of the wizarding world. Wizards with impulsive or hotheaded reputations, however brilliant, need not apply. Only people who believe in maintaining the peace through the delicate nuclear balance of power would be allowed to learn their terrible secrets.

In short, the wizarding world is much like the real world

So long as the power of nuclear weapons is restricted to a small number of powerful groups, it can be controlled. These groups can reach an agreement among themselves to maintain the peace, and work together to prevent the secrets from spreading further.

All dread the day when these secrets become so commonplace that any street magician can craft his own nuclear bomb. No one will be able to stop the nuclear apocalypse then.

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