Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chemistry II

Yesterday I wrote wildly about chemistry, searching for a unifying fantastical theorem, and Eric left a fairly reasonable comment positing that titanium would do for a stand-in for mithril, while some sort of steel would do as a stand-in for adamantium.  He used my own words in his argument.  I love when people do that.

Alas, it is not nearly enough.  If all fantasy vs. reality needed were create and switch solutions, I wouldn't have needed to write the post as I did.  Unfortunately, we need magical "chemistry" to be so much more.  It needs to be alchemy.

While modern reality, based in quantum physics, is weird enough to be defined as Clarksian "magic," it isn't nearly romantic enough for fanciful creationism.  Not by a long shot.  The packages for magical chemistry have strange, strange markings indeed.  The labels do not only describe the substances in the bottles; they describe with equal abundance conjectures without substance, like emotionalism, fate, spirituality and morality.  Yes, true, it's fine to measure by the oz. something as simple as a philosopher's stone; where is the measure that defines whether your chemical compound successfully attacks "evil"?

Consider, if you will, the principles of hermeticism, and how they were conceived to apply to the alchemical postulations of the Medieval and Renaissance periods.  Most of our modern concepts of immortality, the soul, prophecy, daemonism, kabbalic introspection - indeed the word "magic" itself - derives mostly from the utter bullshit spewed by a long line of imaginative philosophers, many of them quite probably high on a number of psychotropic substances - and many, many of them possessing a pretty loose conception of reason.  Reason, the gentle reader will hopefully understand, was not central to the goal for most hermeticists, who were much more concerned with rising out of the body physical into the realm of the body not-yet-realized-but-filled-with-sincere-wish-fulfillment.

Still, the kookiness of the writings were a spectacularly rich source for fiction authors and storytellers of every design and every culture, who could spin magic into tales of whole cloth, giving us the same stories forming the solid foundation for D&D - which must, in turn, leads to the only possible proposition:

If magic is true, then the hermeticists - and by association, the "science" of alchemy - must also be true.  And if there is to be a magical chemistry, it cannot be solved with the mere insertion of titanium for mithril (with all due respect, Eric - I did not describe the whole frame in my last post).  I dare the chemist to reproduce "evil" upon the periodic table (don't say, lacking in electrons, else you will define poisonous chlorine and flourine gas as "good"); or select out the isotopes most useful in foretelling the future, or if luck is something that obtained from the lanthanides, the actinides or the halogens.

It is a big, big question.  If I were not such a geographer and economist, with my time spent crunching maps and costs, perhaps I might have a massive spreadsheet and graphs defining the nature of matter - in its magical identity, that is.

Ah well.  Someone might get interested yet.


  1. My first impulse is to go with a little As Above So Below- make each
    electron subshell correspond to a celestial sphere, therefore a classical planet.

  2. Not trying to stray from the alchemic/periodic table thread, but the elements alone should lead through standard physics into thermodynamics.

    Prigogine's work on Dissipative entities throws a wrench into the conservation of energy (perhaps tie magic in to fill this gap)

    Another detail that might also be useful to your effort is a study of the Leidenfrost effect (perhaps certain conditions between opposing states can link the magical physics with some kind of cosmology?)

    If these could be incorporated into the symbolic alchemic progression:
    ...via a modified periodic table (instead of 4 states, having many more with different magical attributes or effects... perhaps an undiscovered selection of elements has an unknown quality?)

  3. I think you're approaching it wrong, Alexis. There is a reason why the old mysticism can't compete with modern physics and chemistry - their approaches are too wildly different, and only one of them gives the correct predictions. Modern proponents of links between magic (sympathetic magic, a la "The Secret") and "modern" concepts like quantum mechanics are forced to make gross misunderstandings about the latter in order to make it work, even if minimally.

    So to make it all work together, we must disregard Occam's Razor entirely and multiply the entities, as a half-desperate attempt to flee forwards instead of backwards. I'll try to explain.

    Suppose you're a natural philosopher believing in alchemy. Then, bring a modern chemist into the equation that explains to you the correct facts. Yet you still want to believe. One option is to cower and refuse believing. You just stick to your theory and ignore contradicting evidence. The other option is to admit the truth of the presented statements, but interpret them nonetheless as the consequence of something a lot more "deep". Such is, I think, the position of most creationists. For a long time they merely sat there, refusing to believe and keeping his truth to themselves. More recently, however, they've tried every trick in the manual to explain away the undeniable facts as something that was there all along.

    In terms of D&D, I can picture the magic as an additional layer of reality that would be between what we know it's true (the periodic table, the chemical reactions) and what we see around us (demons, cold iron, "truth" or "evil" or any other inmaterial substance that nonetheless is real to us in-game). Let's say that magic is a layer that can be present or not. If present, the electrical field on the surface of a certain metal (let's take cold iron, for example) would react to the substances in the skin of a demon in a different way than usual, then rendering the weapon deadly to demons. However, in absence of magic we would have the "common" kind of physical/chemical reaction.

    Same for potions. A healing potion would be nothing more than, say, an isotonic mix, but having been treated with magic, it closes the wounds and replenishes the lost blood instead of merely providing you with fluids and salts.

    I'm fully aware that since magic cannot be said to be just one and only, the same mix (let's say, wheat flour with water and some drops of vinegar) would be moderately nourishing without magic, a healing potion of a certain kind in the presence of a certain alchemical process, and a powerful venom in the presence of another one. Specifying an internally consistent system to take into account all the possible kinds of magic and substances that are affected by it would be a daunting task, to say the least. And that is not taking into account how two separate attempts (by two different game designers,for example) to make classical magical items work would be, in all probability, internally inconsistent. We reached the current understanding of electron bonding through experimentation, but there would be no possible experimentation with such a system. Just wildly different imaginative approaches. Like the old alchemists used to have.

  4. I haven't approached it wrong at all, Scarbrow. I'm approaching it as you suggest - with the inherent understanding that in the game its ALL true. Salt is still salt, and it is salt for the same reasons in a D&D world that it is salt in reality - so chemistry and alchemistry must exist at the same time, and there must be a unifying justification for both.

    Daunting? Of course. Differing? Well, I'll tell you, if someone came up with such a theory that wasn't based on (a) denouncing actual chemistry and (b) complete ignorance of actual chemistry, I'd use it. Anything brilliant would happily be co-opted by many, I think.

    I think that the situation we get where multiple game designs compete, one seeming as good as another, results from all the game designs being shit. It is difficult to choose between two pieces of shit. They're so much alike. But a really brilliant game design has no competitors.

  5. Magic is all about energy.
    Take electromagnetic energy: It causes action at a distance. It is generated and affected by matter with specific properties in specific states, but it is not defined by that matter. To the average person, it is a mystery only barely perceived let alone understood. Electromagnetic energy has a short list of properties like phase, amplitude and frequency that combine in infinite variety to produce the many technological wonders of our modern world.
    Magical energy can be defined under symbolic or numerological principles such that the most basic property is positive vs. negative. More complex properties such as elemental association also apply. Sources are personal, animistic, material, temporal, extraplanar or divine. Simple rules such as 'like attracts like' and 'concave attracts, convex repels' combine to produce complex but predictable behavior. This is codified in culturally-specific magical traditions rather than a universal tradition because preconceptions affect the result. Asking how fire energy reacts to water energy presupposes fire and water as distinct energies and further implies two or three other elements. The commonality is generally that the human mind has power over this energy if it is applied properly.
    Matter gains additional properties which define how that type of matter interacts with the properties of magical energy. Silver collects and focuses positive energy, for example. Bone handled in a particular way acts the same for negative energy, but handled in a different way it can block or dissipate that same energy.
    In your later chemistry post you mention adamantium and mithril as magical states of matter. Titanium as mithril could be the result of an alchemical process which patterns the individual metal grains such that they collect the desired energies. The same principle applies to magical objects which recharge over time, except that these objects are 'wired' to discharge the collected energy in a specific pattern. The physical plane (prime material) is in contact with each prime elemental plane, moderated by a barrier in each case. Opening a gate to an elemental plane is simply the act of parting the barrier in a controlled fashion. One can charge an object slowly using ambient energy or quickly using a direct conduit, but the end result is the same: a fireball is a fireball whether it comes from a live spell, a wand, a trap or an amulet.
    A radioactive substance as mithril is at least as interesting since the real 'magic' of the thing is the conversion of energetic particles and gamma rays into bulk long-term material properties.
    Apologies for the rambling comment. I'd suggest referring to "The Magician's Companion" if you can find a copy for a much more in-depth approach to defining and categorizing this nebulous thing called magic.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.