Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Salamander: Magic and Physics

I originally mentioned the economic element in Salamander, but one commenter asked about the relation of the magic to physics.

Part of what I was doing in the book was trying to sketch an original, interesting, and plausible version of magic. Since the story was largely set in a college training mages, I wanted something that sounded as though it had a deep enough theoretical background to be interesting.

What I came up with was modeled on the mathematics underlying quantum mechanics. As readers familiar with the subject will know, the same particle may be described by a superposition of states of exact momentum or a superposition of states of exact position. At the extremes, a particle with precisely known momentum can be represented either as a certainty of one eigenstate of momentum or as a superposition of eigenstates of position spread across the universe—hence, as per the uncertainty principle, if its momentum is known perfectly its position is entirely unknown—and similarly the other way around.

For an example of the same logic that does not depend on quantum mechanics, consider polarized light. The polarization of a beam of light can be described as a mix of vertically polarized and horizontally polarized. The same beam can be equally well described as a mix of left handed circularly polarized light and right handed circularly polarized light. In particular, vertically polarized light can be described as a mix of left and right handed with one phase relation, and horizontally as a similar mix with a different phase relation, and similarly the other way around.

That was the set of ideas on which my system of magic was based. In my back story, magic was originally thought of as based on the elements: earth, air, fire and water. What Olver, the Newton equivalent in my world who set off the shift of magic from a craft to a science, worked out, was that the elements were merely one basis star, a set of four things which could be combined in ways that describe all magic. But there are lots of other basis stars, each of which can also provide a complete description, and one point of any one star can be described as some mix of the points of any other star--just as a momentum eigenstate can be described as a mix of position eigenstates, or vertical polarization as a mix of circular polarizations. That gave me a structure sufficiently counterintuitive but coherent to work for my  purposes.

I should confess that I did not work out the whole system. In particular, while there is one throwaway reference to "phase," I don't actually know how it fits in. My objective was only to get the description deep enough into the system to be convincing, to look as though there was a real theoretical science there.

One thing that came up in writing the book was the question of how the theoretical structure got figured out. The answer was that two mages, for their own purposes, had put together a very large collection of spells.
"Then Olver showed up, and what he had been looking for was sitting in the library waiting for him. Olver didn't need powerful spells. What he needed were multiple spells doing the same thing in different ways, using different talents. If you could banish horseflies with a spell of fire and air and get exactly the same result with a spell built only on heat, that meant that in some fashion heat was fire plus air. How the spell was constructed let you figure out just how the air and fire were put together. Olver started with more than forty multiples—two or more spells that did the same thing in different ways. When he was finished he had the science of magic as we now know it—the different basis stars, the central paradox that any one star spans all of magery, and the rest. That was the first big breakthrough in three hundred years, since the Dorayans worked out the basic principles by trial and error.
"If he had a spell that used warmth he could make one using air and fire, so mages were no longer limited to using only spells that fit their particular talents. Jon is right; the library came first. The theory of magic was built on the library; the College was built on the theory of magic. The talented came here because it was the only place in the world where they could learn not only what worked but why."

In my next post I plan to explain the link to economics—the Cascade as the magical equivalent of the central planning fallacy.


Karl said...

I once pointed out on a panel that the strength of a scientific theory arises not from what phenomena it can account for, but what phenomena it rules out.

For example, Newton's laws explain how objects move, in free fall and when force is applied. But so would the theory of "The Flying Spaghetti Monster willed it to move that way".

Newton's laws do not allow, for example, for water leaving a coiled hose to continue following a coiled path. They absolutely rule it out. The Flying Spaghetti Monster theory does no such thing.

In a theory of magic, I would not only expect explanations of what happens when magic is involved, but I'd also expect to know what the limits are.

Can Harry Potter use "reparo" to repair the World Trade Center? Probably not, but why not? And what are the limits of that spell?

Jonathan said...

Karl: Indeed. Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories refer frequently to the limitations of magic, which makes his magic much more convincing than Rowling's, even though he never explains anything fundamental about it.

David Friedman said...

The obvious limitation of magic in Salamander is that it's weak. The average fire mage is nearer a match than a blowtorch. So a lot of the training of a mage is in how to get large effects from small causes--which isn't magic at all.

The less obvious and more complicated limit has to do with talents. A pure fire mage can only do things that can be done with fire--and most magic can't. It would, for instance, be very difficult to do any healing with fire.

Most mages are not pure, so a strong fire mage might also be a weak air mage, and able to do spells that use air magic, although not very well. And the new science also means that he could do spells using whatever point of a different star can be created out of the combination of fire and air, but again not very strong ones.

In addition, a mage is limited in the total pool of magical power he holds, in how fast it refills, and in how much he can channel.

laura said...

Haven't read your fiction before-- but I think you just won me over. Time to take a look.

laura said...

Is Salamander not available in hard-copy? Will it be available in other forms at any point? I only saw a Kindle version on Amazon. :(

David Friedman said...

Salamander is only available at this point as a Kindle file. I've thought about producing a POD paperback, which at this point is pretty easy and inexpensive to do (I use CreateSpace, Amazon's POD subsidiary). Do you think a significant number of people would buy it in that form who would not buy it as a kindle?

As you may know, there is free software that lets you read Kindle files on a computer.

laura said...

My son just told me about that Kindle-enabling software last night-- he wants to read Salamander, now, too. :D Thanks.

Slim934 said...

I do not own a kindle, so personally I would buy it in a physical format.

I would imagine that if you did you'd probably get enough supporters in the Libertarian blogosphere to market it for you to the most likely audience of buyers.

There is still quite a market for physical books.