Darrell J. Pursiful

Home » Posts tagged 'Science'

Tag Archives: Science

A Scientific Theory of the Origin of Dragons

I’ve just stumbled upon a scholarly article on the origin of dragon-lore in early human cultures: Robert Blust, “The Origin of Dragons,” Anthropos 95 (2000): 519–36.

This is far more highbrow than many of my readers will appreciate, but it’s the sort of thing that stokes my imagination as I think through how I want magic, dragons, and other mythological creatures to “work” in my writing. Here’s an intriguing paragraph from near the beginning:

[T]he idea of the dragon arose through processes of reasoning which do not differ essentially from those underlying modern scientific explanations. Far from being the product of a capricious imagination, the dragon was mentally constructed in many parts of the world as a by-product of 1. meticulously accurate observations of weather phenomena, and 2. an earnest but unsuccessful attempt to grasp the causality of natural events, particularly those relating to rainfall. The dragon thus stands as one of the supremely instructive examples of convergent evolution in the symbolic life of the mind.

By the way, dragons will make their first appearance in the Into the Wonder series with its fourth book, The River of Night, which is currently in the hands of my beta readers. 🙂


The Physics of Vampires

As it turns out, vampires need to finish feeding in under seven minutes. Some physics students at the University of Leicester did the math:

A bite to the neck and a clean getaway—that’s what a vampire needs. A group of physics students from the University of Leicester calculated exactly how long a vampire would need to accomplish those two things: about 6.4 minutes. They published their findings in the university’s Journal of Physics Special Topics.

The human body can’t function during major blood loss. After 15 percent of the blood leaves the body, the heart rate changes, and blood drinking, even from the carotid artery, becomes a process of diminishing returns. The Leicester students set out to calculate how long it would take for 15 percent of the body’s blood to make it out through a couple of holes in the neck.

Technology and the Fair Folk

When I first decided to have Fair Folk in my Into the Wonder series fire elf shot from shotguns, it was purely in service of a pun. Mortals may have buckshot and birdshot, but the fae have elf shot! This one decision, however, ultimately exerted a good bit of influence over how I imagined the Fair Folk interacting with technology. Suddenly, they were not mired in medieval stasis but open—at least at some level—to later technological innovations. This was fine, of course, because much of northern European faery lore comes from a later (though still pre-industrial) stage of history, and that was where I had started in working out the “rules” for my fictional world. But shotguns strongly implied machine tooling, and that set me to thinking about other ways modern technology might impinge upon the lives of elves, pookas, goblins, and the daoine sĂ­dhe. Here, then, are some of my semi-random thoughts on the matter.

Technological innovation in the Wonder has moved more slowly than it has on human earth. In general, Wonderling society in North America operates at technological level comparable to that of late in the Age of Exploration or the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution (roughly AD 1700–1800).

The Relative Rarity of Tech

Wonderling tech is not as prevalent in their society as it was in ours in the late 1700s, however, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, inhabitants of the Wonder are able to use magic to accomplish many of the goals for which Topsiders must rely on technology. There is little incentive to develop technological ways to enhance a farm’s yield when all one needs to do is turn a few friendly pookas or poleviks loose in the fields! Why develop technological means of transportation and long-distance communication when the ring network and a good Seeing Stone can work at least as adequately as anything mortals have devised—if not far better?

Another limiting factor is the widespread aversion to iron and steel among the true fae. (This is not a significant factor for other denizens of the Wonder such as dwarves, little folk, trolls, etc. It does, however, limit the overall demand for products made of iron or steel.)

Add to this that many inhabitants of the Wonder have a deep connection to and appreciation for the natural world. Beings who have lived for centuries in harmony with springs, fields, forests, and trees are not likely to forsake these things for technological advances that, left unchecked, may threaten to mar or even destroy them.

Furthermore, the Wonder in general lacks an economic system conducive to widespread industrialization. Inhabitants of the Wonder engage in barter with strangers or outsiders and cultivate complex networks of patronage with their associates in an intricate social hierarchy. In such an arrangement, there is little to no incentive for a young sprite to leave the farm in order to work in large urban factories. Therefore, whatever technology is available is still almost exclusively the product of small cottage industries.

The final limiting factor is purely cultural. Although the inhabitants of the Wonder benefit from eighteenth-century technology, their clothing, values, and other aspects of culture are generally closer to fifteenth–sixteenth century. Many in the Wonder are wary of technological innovations beyond this Renaissance-era horizon.

Technological Diffusion from Topside

It should be noted, however, that some Wonderlings are quite acquainted with the Topside world, both in historical times (Mara Hellebore knows of Shakespeare and Spenser) and more recent decades (Danny Underhill is familiar with Walt Disney, Janis Joplin, and Michael Jordan). It is quite possible that a well-read fae could be the equal of any Topside scientist or engineer in terms of the underlying principles of modern technology even if his or her society has not produced all the intermediate steps needed to reproduce it. Algebra and calculus, the germ theory of disease, modern genetics, atomic theory, and other advances are easily comprehended by astute Wonderlings.

Furthermore, many inhabitants of the Wonder are known to enter patronage relationships with Topsiders (“Friendlies”) which might result in the Topside client trading technological trinkets for magical favors.

I have left a number of hints about Wonderling technological capabilities here and there in the Into the Wonder series, however. Moe Fountain’s home has indoor plumbing, including a heated shower (steam pump?). A guard reads a periodical magazine (printing press), there is a clock in the dining hall of Dunhoughkey (clockworks, machine tools?), and various characters deliver elf-shot using blunderbusses, muskets, and shotguns (gunpowder, machine tools). All of these fit very well within eighteenth-century parameters.

Two Borderline Cases

There are two instances of technology more clearly associated with the early nineteenth century. In The Devil’s Due, Lawdwick Vesper carries canned foodstuffs in his pack (c. 1810), and in Children of Pride, Shanna Hellebore’s cell at Dunhoughkey is adorned with photographs (1839). I’ll admit I hadn’t nailed down the tech level in the Wonder as precisely as I since have when writing these details, so what follows may be something along the lines of a writer’s saving throw. Be that as it may, here is how I might be tempted to justify these details.

In the case of Vesper’s canned rations, (1) this innovation is so close to the AD 1800 cut-off as to be virtually negligible, and (2) Nicolas Appert first began working on his food preservation method after a chance observance that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the seals leaked. Had the same observation been made fifty to a hundred years prior, canning would be an eighteenth-century invention. Furthermore, (3) since some inhabitants of the Wonder are aware of mortal innovations, there is nothing inherently implausible about canning foods using eighteenth-century technology—all that is really needed is a suitable canister, a pressure cooker, and a heat source.

In the case of photography, Shanna’s cell décor is perhaps best explained by appeal interactions between Wonderlings and Topsiders. Well-read inhabitants of the Wonder would know the basics of photography as it is practiced on human earth—in fact, many of the necessary technical innovations are pre-nineteenth century: the camera obscura, silver nitrate, silver chloride, and the photochemical effect. Indeed, a passage in the novel Giphantie by Tiphaigne de la Roche (1760) anticipates photography.

The first attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura on a light-sensitive substance was made by Thomas Wedgwood around 1800, and it is not inconceivable for Wonderlings to have developed a process something along the lines of a daguerreotype (1839) or perhaps even the wet collodion process (c. 1850).

What do you think? Is there room in Faery Land for gunpowder, machine tools, steam engines, and the cotton gin? Or do you prefer your fantasy races to be strictly medieval?

The Mathematics of Vampires

Yes, apparently there is such a thing.

A surprisingly large number of academic studies—as in, more than one—have applied mathematical modeling to the concept of human-vampire co-existence. Using the depiction of bloodsuckers in various forms of media, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to True Blood, these papers look at whether Earth’s vampire population would inevitably annihilate humanity, and, if so, how long it would take.

The Science of Dragons (and Other Assorted Beasties)

Is “hard fantasy” a thing? Because I love it when there is at least the attempt to ground fantastic beasts, magic, and so forth in known science.

Maddie Stone has enlisted the help of some biology experts to uncover the science behind some of the creatures found in Game of Thrones. She looks at dragons, direwolves, manticores, lizard lions, krakens, and white walkers.

A while back I noted some prehistoric beasts that would make excellent stand-ins for some of the more notable monsters of mythology. One of those, the naked bear (aka the stiff-legged bear) even made its way onto the cover of The Devil’s Due.

The Science of Aquaman

Pondering merfolk and whether they might make an on-stage appearance in a future volume of Into the Wonder, I stumbled upon a deep-sea biologist’s attempt to explain the physiological problems DC’s Aquaman might face as a marine humanoid and some of the adaptations he might have evolved to deal with them. I commend Andrew David Thaler’s musings to you:


The Science of Super Heroes

The Week has the rundown courtesy of Sulagra Misna of World Science Festival: “The Science behind Captain America’s Shield, the Hulk’s Anger, and More.”

Quantum Cheshire Cats

Scientists have created an effect comparable to a subatomic Cheshire cat. Rather than a grin that has been separated from its cat, they have created a property of magnetic moment (I’ll not pretend I understand what that is) separated from its neutron. As Stephen Luntz explains,

In the classical world we are familiar with the idea that a property like magnetic moment cannot be separated from its object – it would be like taking the taste away from a chocolate bar so that the bar produced no sensation on the tongue, but a disembodied taste could be detected somewhere quite distinct.

However, things work differently in the world of the very small. In the 1990s, Professor Yakir Aharonov of Tel Aviv University proposed the properties could indeed be detached from particles (his book explaining it is delightfully subtitled Quantum Theory for the Perplexed). The idea develops on Schrödinger’s famous feline thought-experiment. However, instead of ending up with a live and dead cat, you have a cat without its properties, and properties without the cat. The naming after Carroll’s Cheshire moggy was inevitable.


Denkmayr and his co-authors…temporarily removed the magnetic moment from the neutrons using an interferometer. They used a silicon crystal to split a neutron beam and reported, “The experimental results suggest that the system behaves as if the neutrons go through one beam path, while their magnetic moment travels along the other.” The beams were then reunited, leaving no disembodied magnetic moments prowling the universe.

It’s a Good Thing She Didn’t Just Blow Up the Place

Check out Aaron Goldberg, “Powering Disney’s Frozen with a Carnot Refrigerator,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics 3 (19 Feb 2014). Here’s the abstract:

Frozen is Disney’s latest film, in which the character Elsa unleashes winter on her entire kingdom. This paper quantifies the amount of water frozen and the amount of work required by a Carnot refrigerator to do so, arriving at values of 5.49772788 x 10^2 moles and 5.8 x 10^15 Joules, respectively.

You can read about how a Carnot refrigerator works here. Basically, it is possible to harness a temperature difference between two reservoirs to generate work (a Carnot engine). But you can turn the equation around and harness work to create this difference of temperature. This effect is called a Carnot refrigerator.

In layman’s terms this means

It has been shown that in Frozen, Elsa froze approximately 5.5 x 10^12 moles of water. To accomplish Elsa’s feat, a Carnot refrigerator would require 5.8 x 10^15 Joules of energy. This amount is equivalent to the energy released by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb 115 times over, or that released by 63 Nagasaki nuclear bombs. This immense number puts Elsa’s power into perspective, implying either that the Snow Queen has enormous strength, or that Disney underestimated the ramifications of their animated fantasy.


I’m going with the second option on this one, but it would still be pretty cool if Elsa could generate enough energy to basically hold her own with the likes of Superman or the incredible Hulk. That’s a movie I’d go see.

(H/T: io9)

Optics and Elvish Eyesight

Of course, this video doesn’t take account of magical elvish eyes! Still, I’m more and more convinced that a basic grasp of science and mathematics is a valuable tool for fiction writing in any genre.