Imagine a world that works mostly like our own: it's built of atoms and quantum particles, there's gravity and conservation of energy, etc. Perhaps the physical laws aren't exactly the same as our universe, for sci-fi purposes, but overall the world looks, feels, and operates just like our own--with one, massive exception.

In this world, there is a Handwavium of sorts that just doesn't play by the rules. It isn't made of recognizable particles, doesn't follow conservation of energy or momentum, and resists all attempts of scientific investigation. It's widely believed to follow its own set of laws completely separate from ordinary matter, but no one has been able to figure them out. Maybe it's made of a new class of particles; maybe it's some completely new kind of "stuff" unlike anything in our universe. Nobody knows for certain.

The problem is that this Handwavium isn't floating out in space or in some sort of shadow dimension: it's a very common substance in this world and forms large portions of the ground. It's visible, heavy, touchable, and behaves a lot like rock most of the time (except for when the story needs it to do something more interesting, of course).

At least, that's what I want it to be like, but I'm starting to feel that this is logically inconsistent. If my substance doesn't obey quantum mechanics, then how can it interact with photons to be visible, or electrons to be tangible? If I disregard real world physics entirely, I don't think I can satisfactorily justify why it superficially behaves so much like ordinary matter, especially since the rest of the universe is supposed to be relatively hard-ish sci-fi.

So, my thinking goes, even if it isn't made of electrons and quarks and gluons and whatnot, maybe it can superficially act enough like them to explain its appearance. For example, it doesn't have electrons, but some of its structure is negatively charged, and is "electron-like" enough to repel ordinary electrons and become solid. In programming terms, I want it to "implement the physics interface" while being completely different under the hood.

Preliminary sub-question (probably too opinion-based): is this a plausible explanation for my Handwavium's properties?

I myself have drilled users here in the past for asking about the "plausibility" of systems that knowingly invoke alternate laws of physics, but remember, I'm staying rooted in real-world physics here, and then tacking on something "other". Based on the real physics that I'm mostly sticking to, is it possible to postulate anything about whether not nor my idea makes sense? If not, move along, that is not the main thing I'm here to ask.

Main question (assuming the first part is positive or unanswerable): what is the minimum behavior my Handwavium has to express in order to "act like" ordinary matter?

Extrapolating on the electron/tangibility example I gave earlier, what would this substance have to do in order to:

  • Be solid to the touch. Negative charge seems like the answer.

  • Be visible to the human eye. Other radiation doesn't matter.

  • Have mass and be affected (perhaps inconsistently) by gravity. This is probably unanswerable considering that we lack a theory of quantum gravity.

  • Be movable by force (transfer kinetic energy). Like with gravity, it's a bit lazy in this regard, seems to follow intuitive mechanics but isn't consistent with the amount of force needed to move it.

  • Have temperature.

  • Optional challenge question: give it a taste and smell, explaining how it triggers the receptors and what it tastes and smells like.


  • No conservation of energy/momentum.

  • None of Newton's laws:

    • It can start moving with no force acting upon it.
    • Acceleration is unpredictable.
    • A force can be exerted with no opposing force.
  • None of the laws of thermodynamics:

    • Heat can flow from cold to hot.
    • Entropy can decrease without expending energy -- MAYBE. I know this is probably the most fundamental law I'm breaking here and it's not a big deal if this can't be accommodated.

I haven't thought about relativity, could go either way.

All of this applies only to the Handwavium itself, not to regular objects interacting with it. So for example, regarding Newton's law, if you punch a block of it with 20N of force you will have 20N of force applied back to your hand, but if it reaches out and punches you with 20N equivalent of "force", there's no saying what the force applied back on it will be, if any.

Hopefully this makes sense. If not, please explain why.

Note: I really don't know how to tag this, I refrained from using "science-based" or "reality-check" but I'm not sure if there's something more appropriate. Thanks.


5 Answers 5


What you describe is remarkably similar to the traditional philosophical stance of dualism. Dualists believe there are two fundamental substances in the world: matter and mind (they get different names, but I find these are the most popular two). Matter follows the laws of physics, and mind does not. Mind typically has something called "freewill," though it's not very well defined. The important part is that mind does not follow the laws of physics. This is actually a well documented philosophical approach dating back literally thousands of years (Plato talked about it, for instance), so there's lots of work out there to suggest you're not crazy for trying to make a story out of it!

Now for the fun part: science doesn't do what you think it does. Most of us in the Western world are brought up believing that science tells us what reality is, but that's never what science was supposed to do. The best scientists know it, but we've convinced a huge portion of the population that science seeks what philosophers would call ontological truths. Ontology is the philosophy of reality. It answers the question "what is 'real?'" If I say "electrons exist," that is properly thought of as an ontological statement about reality.

Science is actually a branch of epistomology, which is the study of knowledge. Science is concerned with what we can know, not necessarily what is real. A lot of times you can get away with muddling the two, but when exploring the topic you are exploring, it's very helpful to recognize how distinct they are. Diving a little further, science is a branch of empiricism, which explores what we can know through empirical measurements -- what our senses tell us.

When scientists talk about electrons and protons and quantum mechanics, what they're actually talking about is models. They say that if you think of the world in terms of these electrons and protons, you can very effectively predict what is going to happen in the future. They back this up with empirical evidence showing that, every time they used these models to predict the future, the results were just as they predicted!

Of course, talking about things that can be "modeled as electrons" is a bit verbose, so in science we change the meaning of some words. When science says "there are electrons," what they actually mean is "it appears that you can model reality as though it has electrons, and you can predict what will happen." The former is just shorter, and we assume that you knew what we meant.

So when your scientists face this handwavium, they may notice that, in some ways, it behaves as though it is made up of electrons and protons. You can model your handwavium as electrons and protons and make good predictions. However, some of the predictions fall short. For example, electrons and protons are not permitted to disobey the conservation of energy. So rather quickly the scientists will realize that it isn't made of electrons or protons. However, they will soon realize that you can model it as though it has an electric charge. They don't know where the charge is coming from, but they know that if you pretend this blob of handwavium has a charge of 3 columbs, it does a great job of predicting what will happen next!

Don't try to make your handwavium "act like ordinary matter." Instead, give it the particular properties of ordinary matter that you find important, such as the ability to absorb or scatter photons. You can go as deep as you please. You can try to have your handwavium interact "properly" at the quantum mechanical level, or you can just assume it operates on the classical mechanics scale (which would mean that any attempt to interact quantumly with handwavium would automatically collapse the waveform before the interaction occurred).

Your handwavium can break any law of physics you please. Remember, they're artificial laws, invented by humans to characterize the world around us. However, do realize that the humans in your world will adapt. The more the physics of handwavium is important to life on your planet, the more their concept of physics will account for the behaviors of handwavium. Perhaps your scientists will find Aristotle's theory of motion more applicable in their universe because it captures the oddness of handwavium better.

As an example, I'd offer one of my favorite theories from the Marvel universe on Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. I've since found this theory disproved, but I like it so much better than the official stance that I keep it around anyways. It concerns why Thor is the only one who can lift Mjolnir. The theory is that the hammer isn't actually heavy, it's merely stubborn. The reason Thor can lift it is because he's the only one who is more stubborn than it is!

How's that for handwavium?

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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, I really like your approach to the question! I want to wait a few days before accepting an answer but have a preliminary +1. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 8:08


Your abnormal matter could have a surface effect that makes normal matter stick to it, or the surface turns into normal matter the way many real-world material oxidize at the surface.


What you're seeing is actually a 3-dimensional "shadow" of the true substance - the actual bulk of the material is outside of this dimension, allowing for changes in momentum/mass without (to outward appearance) the application of external forces.

  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't seem to make it touchable (one of the five requirements). $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ Why not? Hyperdimensional shapes can easily be touchable, when they have some continuous 3D "surface". $\endgroup$
    – Juraj
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 19:21

These particles could bind to normal atoms somehow and be mixed in with normal materials. For example, you could have rock with these particles mixed in it, but these particles have infinite energy or something so they can put energy into the atoms. This would let them start moving with no outside force other than these magic infinite energy particles. Maybe they could also absorb infinite energy too, so they could randomly cool stuff. The particles could move around atoms or change them so they wouldn't have gravity. Basically, it is normal matter but it doesnt act like it all the time.


Nanobots could all of the above, up to certain limit, undetectable when there are no electron microscopes. Movement can be done using invisibly thin tendrils attached to the surrounding environment. Thermodynamics "violations" are doable with ability to store/release vast amounts of heat, or invisibly exchanging it with the environment.


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