This post is a completely re-worked version of a post I put on my personal blog back in 2014. It’s a think piece about the nature of magic, because there are multiple ways to do magic in fiction. Often magic falls along certain tropes in fantasy, but what would happen if magic had to follow scientific rules? What if magic were simply extra power supplied from the universe somewhere–or perhaps another universe–and by “power” I mean energy convertible into types we recognize in science. If magic were in fact extra power, then spells that used less power would be more feasible and “easier” than spells that required more power. Allowing the creation of magical systems that are internally consistent, but unlike most tropes of fantasy magic. Offered here for creative minds thinking about creating stories of their own–or people simply interested in comparing the magic they read in stories with what I’m offering here.
Energy Source and Application
A previous post of mine discussed that idea that Christian writers may have problems dealing with magic that secular writers do not and I suggested six ways around the problem. This post in effect looks at some of the implications of the approach I listed at number four. A number of writers have thought along the same lines, but what if there is a type of energy unknown to modern science which responds to concentrated thought or other acts directed from a person, such as speaking out loud, which would wind up resembling the magical spells of fantasy lore? If the energy is out there, the “wizard” in effect learns to study how to use that energy in a way that parallels a scientist studying the natural world–except with means that resemble fantasy tropes of how magic is used.
Part of what inspired the idea of energy flow stems from an understanding I gained of electrical circuits when studying medical equipment repair for the military. An electrical device with a power source has to have a flow of current both to and from the place where electricity is used. But the return line for current has almost no voltage in it. So a person normally will only be electrocuted by the “hot” power line, one that’s going out to an electrical device. So…what if magical power flows through universes (assuming a multiverse), but is mostly depleted as it flows through ours? So there’s very little usable magical power for us–but alternate universes might have plenty…
Note this kind of magic in effect would not be supernatural power technically speaking–magic would be a natural power, like electricity or atomic energy. To be used, this magical energy would have to be converted into a form of energy we recognize from physics. Something people could use for either good or evil. It would only seem supernatural in contrast to the world we actually live in.
Note also I did a previous post for speculative faith in which I talked about how a blend of magic and technology could be the basis of an original story idea. I’m not talking about that directly here, but a few of the implications of magic having to follow scientific rules would mean that using technology alongside magic could make a lot of sense.
Ordinary Physics Applies Alongside Magic
Gravity and Kinetic Energy
If other scientific principles are still true, causing an item to levitate by a spell “just because” would be impossible in the type of magic I’m talking about. Scientific principles still apply, so gravity is still gravity and will still be in effect. The power of magic would have to actively counter gravity, which wouldn’t go away. Which would mean a spell pushing an object downhill would need less energy than one pushing an object uphill.
Perhaps a spell could locally shut off gravity, but doing so could cause the strange or damaging effects of shutting down the Higgs field, which I described in a old personal blog post on the Higgs Boson. Perhaps a more practical form of levitation would involve increasing an object’s repulsion against the magnetic field that would exist around this fantasy planet. If that’s how it would work, ferro-magnetic objects made of iron, nickel, and cobalt would be easier to levitate than anything else. Note that a magician in this universe would not necessarily have to understand that a magnetic field exits or that what he or she did involved magnetism. He or she would simply know from experience it’s easier to lift particular kinds of metal than anything else.
Or perhaps levitation could involve creating an additional gravitational pull from above, or magnifying the pull of an orbiting moon. If so, the position of the moon could effect levitation. Or delicate objects might prove difficult to lift without fracturing them between stresses from gravity above and gravity below.
Since many reactions in the known natural world produce heat (chemical reactions, friction, absorption of radiation, etc), it would make sense that one of the simplest spells in this hypothetical magical system would be heat generation. Lighting a fire would be simple and using heat in a beam to attack enemies would also be simple but obviously would require more power. Making an enemy burn from afar without any visible means of attack would be much easier than making a fireball for reasons I’m going to explain in a bit. Also, magical welding would be a thing.
Making something cold is actually removing heat, so it’s harder. Cold spells and heat spells, treated as opposites in most fantasy tales, would not be opposites in the system I’m thinking of. Generating cold would be significantly harder and would require the use of magical energy to move heat from one place to another, generating cold the way an air conditioning system does.
Light and Electricity
Since light is a common form of energy from electromagnetism, a spell generating light should be easy-peasy for our imagined masters of this kind of scientific magic. But making light that’s amplified by sharing a common phase is a type of modification of light that may be relatively simple. If so, a laser spell ought to be common, simpler in fact that many other types of spells–definitely easier than a fireball. Electrical-based spells should also be prevalent, not just the lightning bolts that are common enough in fantasy, but taser-like paralyzing effects, and continuously-running electric arcs for lighting, and more.
Since transmuting elements involves moving the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in atoms around, which is something the type of energy I’m imagining could effect, Alchemy should be possible in the sense that Alchemists would still attempt to transmute lead into gold. Under this type of magic, transmuting elements might be simpler than a number of other imaginable spells. But alteration of atomic nuclei by magic (the magic user does not have realize that’s what he or she is doing to be doing it), perhaps could come with the risk of setting off a nuclear blast, even if a small one. Because messing with atomic nuclei could run the risk of some matter converting directly to energy. Though a much more likely effect would be the generation of hazardous ionizing radiation. Nuclear magic could therefore be a branch of magical arts in this type of story world.
Energy to Matter
Spells that would be hard would be any that involve the creation of matter from nothing. That’s because these would have to gather a great deal of ambient energy first in accordance with E=mc2, where it takes a huge amount of energy to make a tiny amount of matter. That’s why a fireball would be much more complex that a heat beam–a fireball is burning matter generated by magic, as opposed to pure heat. (So lasers and heat rays would be a thing much more easily that a burning fireball–though magic could easily enough be used to manipulate matter that was already burning and throw it at someone…)
Especially those spells that create life would be massively complex. In fact spells involving significant alterations to living creatures might be virtually impossible–life is just so complex. Though a plant’s growth might be accelerated by altering time for the plant (again, the sorcerer may perceive her or his spell makes the roots grow instantly, but what they actually would do is accelerate time for the plant in question, allowing it to produce what it would normally do, only much faster). Restoring someone from the dead may never work, but even if it did, it would almost surely produce a zombie instead of a normal person.
Healing spells in general would be hard, other than simple wound cauterization. Healing spells could perhaps work most effectively by accelerating natural healing–though it would have the inherent limitation of eventually aging the patient to the point of death if used too often.
Time based effects, as mentioned in the section above, which are not common in fantasy stories I know, perhaps should be extremely common, especially slowing time for a particular object, since that only requires an intense gravity field to increase local acceleration (with effects coming from Relativity). Note though that going backward in time would require the generation of a wormhole, which would neither be safe nor easy. Accelerating time might also be possible, though it might be hard on a large scale.
Levitations by magnetism or the implications of heat, lasers, atomic blasts, the difficulty of making life, levitation, electricity, and time are only examples of what this type of thinking about magic could produce. They are not by any means the only subjects this discussion could have covered. What other examples can you think of? And can you recall stories in which magic was used like this? Magic with an eye to what is scientifically plausible? If so, how did the magic in that story or stories differ from what I’ve suggested?