Thursday, October 9, 2014

Practical Magic

More thoughts in re magic and technology.

Except for the fact that no wizards or gods were involved, something like a Damascus Steel blade functions a lot like a +2 sword. That is, it is measurably different -- better -- that most swords.

But it isn't a game changer. A +2 sword is just a little better. It doesn't have powers that go completely beyond sword-like. This is an artifact of game balance. Mythology can afford named weapons like Caladbolg or Kusanagi or the Odin-spear, lopping the tops of hills and killing armies in a single blow. Dungeons & Dragons makes a lot more use of the lesser, more common artifacts.

There were several ancient steels that owed their strength to what was essentially chance and secret incantations. Methods arrived at empirically and passed down verbally as closely-protected trade secrets, and luck of the draw in natural elemental ratios in the ore they were using. What gave the strength to a Masumune, or the tone to a Stradivarius, was unknowable at the time. It depends on subtleties in microstructure that there simply weren't instruments -- or the metallurgical understanding -- to read.

Anyhow, magic meets rationality, and at the moment rationality is winning. There's a strong trend in fantasy literature for systematic magic; magic that can be categorized and analyzed and basically behaves like another science. The two major breaks that occur to me at the moment are from the real world; one is the believers in psychic phenomena who have declared that (handily) scientific methods and the rational mindset itself is toxic to magic (thus neatly making it impossible to study).

The other is in several threads of religious belief. Basically, that god are above scientific laws, and simply redefine the universe as necessary to keep from being discovered by logic.

Oddly, although the first shows up in some works of fantasy -- usually as the reciprocal, with technology that would otherwise swiftly tilt the playing field conveniently ceasing to work within the Hogwarts the author desires to establish -- the more interesting explanation, that magic is a gift of the gods and the gods are, at the very least, free-willed and hence innately unpredictable, rarely utilized.

But I think there is another option a writer might take today. I think we have entered a cusp where basic logic and simplistic scientific method is incapable of pushing the boundaries of understanding much further. We are discovering more and more regions of knowledge, such as protein folding, that are so complex it is impossible for a human mind to properly comprehend and work with them.

In something as basic as the thermal flow and distribution inside a Dreamliner, calculation is impossible. Direct modeling is impossible (at least to the degree desired). Calculus even can not sum up all the variables properly. Only statistical methods and the weird brute-force fractal attack of finite-element-analysis (run on a supercomputer) can pull out the useful data needed by the engineers.

I am not saying we are reaching a point where things become intrinsically un-knowable. I am saying they become impossible to know in the more direct ways we've learned to know things. Back a handful of decades, computer vision was considered a trivial problem, artificial intelligence just around the corner, genetics was viewed as a simple code that once cracked would be an open book.

Now we are realizing our models were simplistic. Grotesquely so. There is no simple key to the genetic code, and machine vision is still stumbling. That said, even the second-hand ways of knowing; the rules of thumb, empirical findings, statistical measurements, FEA simulations, etc., can still be easily leveraged. You don't have to be able to understand how to program speech recognition in order to plug in a chip that already contains fairly efficient algorithms at doing so.

Which brings us back to magic spells and black boxes, as of my previous rambling essay on the subject.

So, yes, I think a writer might be able to defend a magic that could not be analyzed, reproduced, and mass-produced. Not because it was intrinsically impossible, but only because it had such interdependent complexities that modeling it properly was an incredibly difficult task. At some point, of course, the trade-offs work against magic. Either magic is so weak it doesn't matter that "technology" can't understand it. Or magic is so strong that technology is forced to spend the money and time necessary to tame it.

Which might make an interesting setting for a story, at that.

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