The Science of Magic


This post will look into the science of magic, both in the ‘real’ world and the realm of speculative fiction. Is science indeed magic? Are the two concepts related somehow? If so, where is the dividing line between them? Read on…

In the ancient past, science WAS magic. The needs of primitive humans beyond those attainable by mind and muscle were accomplished through the technology of intent and belief, known then as magic. Creating a bountiful hunt, calling on ancestors for wisdom, influencing the weather and healing were some examples. Though miraculous, the practice of magic had to follow certain rules, such as knowing the name of the spirit to be called on, knowing specific ingredients for spells, and only attempting some forms of magic during favorable times (like under a full Moon).

Over centuries, the practice of magic became more sophisticated, culminating into the proto-science known as alchemy. Alchemy was the basis of the scientific method, relying on measurements, laboratories and specialized instruments. Unlike the discipline that would become science, alchemy also dealt with astronomy and the occult, concepts which are difficult to quantify. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 1500’s, the field of medicine would branch off from alchemy, becoming the first ‘official’ science.

The technology of using intent and belief in ‘supernatural‘ forces for magic eventually gave way to belief in science, which manipulated ‘natural‘ forces such as the elements, magnetism and electricity to make magic “real”. Feats such as levitation, clairaudience and clairvoyance (hearing and seeing at a distance) curing disease and other extraordinary accomplishments are now achieved with the technology of machines.

In a sense, technology has replaced magic items as the tools used to perform miracles. For example, the launch button for a nuclear ICMB has become the modern version of The One Ring from Tolkien‘s famous fantasy novels. And the wings formed by Daedalus for he and Icarus to escape the Isle of Minos have become private jets and helicopters. Since flight, instantaneous communication at a distance and other things not possible with ordinary means are all derived from the intricate manipulation of natural forces, nature herself could be considered magic.

As far as we have come scientifically, much of nature remains mysterious such as how the human brain works (we still have no computer-based artificial intelligence as smart as the human mind) and where and how the universe was formed, for example. Science is constantly progressing toward a complete understanding of everything in nature currently beyond explanation.

So much for reality; on to the science of magic in fiction. Mixing technology and magic results in concepts like Magitek, found in the video game Final Fantasy VI. Magitek, or magical technology, is weapons and equipment enchanted with the distilled life force of magical creatures called Espers. In the Final Fantasy universe, the Gestahlian Empire rises to power by enslaving and draining many such espers, forming a major plot device for the storyline of the game.

The 1980’s anime series Aura Battler Dunbine represents the science of magic by featuring giant robots made from the enchanted bodies of giant insects, which serves as amplifiers for the aura of their pilots. This anime also makes use of time travel, as the the main character is displayed form modern day Earth to the sword and sorcery land of Byston Well.

Other notable video related to the science of magic include The Flight of Dragons, The Star Wars saga, Time Bandits, Ghostbusters and Highlander. There is a long legacy of the science of magic in fictional literature, including the macabre H. P. Lovecraft novels, featuring alien demons and science so advanced it resembles magic, but the understanding of which drives mortals insane. Also notable are The Incomplete Enchanter by Harold Shea, Lawrence Watt-EvansWorlds of Shadow trilogy, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, the Dragaera books by Steven Brust and Piers Anthony‘s Apprentice Adept series.

A few graphic novels featuring the science of magic are Judge Dredd, The New Gods, Saga, both Secret Wars by Marvel, and Frank Miller‘s Ronin.

Some video games steeped in the science of magic are all of the Final Fantasy titles, Xenoblade, Crystalis, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, the Guilty Gear series, The Elder Scrolls, The Longest Journey series, the Star Ocean series, Wizardry 7 and 8, Doom, and more recently Destiny. Some role playing games that take place in a science of magic setting are Destroy the Godmodder and The Arduin Adventure by the renowned Dave Hargrave.

The science of magic continues to be a font of intriguing content spanning all known forms of media. It remains as the ‘pi‘ of genres, a fictional constant producing questions, answers, and more questions ad nauseum. What does the science of magic mean to you, dear reader? Please comment below so that we might continue the conversation.


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