While I may not include ‘The Power of Belief’ in its title, belief is still relevant in the advancement of science and how we incorporate it into civilization. It’s been a slow transition from attributing natural phenomenon as acts of God to the mechanics of weather, gravity, solar activity, etc. I won’t go too far into characterizing natural superstitions. There’s enough there to do a whole other article! That being said, there’s actually a specific tradition I have in mind to introduce this topic when considering humanity’s conversion to scientific thought: alchemy.
Alchemy is one of those unique processes that employs magic in what should be considered a scientific approach. That is, measuring a specific list of ingredients, following a prescribed formula and expecting the same result no matter who performs them. Of course, this is my impression of alchemy in general. Since I want to relate the power of belief to how its demonstrated in story, this is the impression I gathered when reading the Harry Potter series (potions does fit this description of formulaic replication as we only hear of Nicolas Flamel and the practice of alchemy) and watching Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
The show does a great job of showing the blurred, almost indistinguishable lines between science and the mystical. In their world, alchemy IS science. Yet if you took away the label and watched one of the protagonists turn a bunch of metal scraps into a functioning radio via a glowing circle, you’d probably say it’s wizardry. This process of putting ingredients together to create something is demonstrated best when the protagonists (Edward and Alphonse) attempt to bring their mother back to life. The human transmutation doesn’t end up as the boys intended, owing to that variable: magic, which creates a degree of uncertainty in alchemical processes. For more reading on alchemy’s influence on today’s chemistry, check out this article by Richard Conniff of the Smithsonian.
Science isn’t the only place where magic helps its development from superstitious here-say and pseudoscience. Technology acts as a sibling/partner to science, evolving from the contraptions that built the pyramids (no mean feat to be sure) to fitting a computer in your pocket. Really, I’m still flabbergasted at how much we can do thanks to technological advancement. When I was a kid, I would make-believe talking to friends via communicators around our wrists like they did in the movies. Now the public has access to the iWatch, Bluetooth, and wireless headphones. People can speak to each other face-to-face via screens on opposite sides of the world in real time! Before the turn of the century that was science fiction. At what point can we engineer magic because of technology or conjure technology because of a magical idea? There’s a reason I placed an “=” sign on either side of the seeming opposites in the title. It can be read both ways.
Before I continue to how technology is portrayed to have magical qualities in story, I want to point out that even in our prosperity in this Computer Age, there’s still legitimacy in the phrase “movie magic.” Special effects have enabled the film industry to transport audiences into fantastical worlds. Because of the attention to detail and the strong stories that reach across the stars or to distant kingdoms, we allow ourselves to suspend our disbelief in what’s actually going on (realms via computer generate images) and enjoy the realizations of our imaginations. We walk out of the theatre thinking “how did they do that?”
Herein is that power of belief. Just because we know the laws of aerodynamics, does that mean we don’t still gawp when get on a plane or watch it fly overhead? Science may continue to enlighten civilization to what’s actually going on, but that doesn’t make it any less wondrous. We can know the Northern Lights are electrically charged particles from the sun and be mesmerized at the same time. I think it’s important to find the magic in science but also not to let that magic cloud the reality of things.
Anyway, back to tech acting as magic in story, primarily in Marvel’s Black Panther and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I’m still wrapping my head around vibranium’s multi-purpose use for the Wakandans. It enables them to do as much–sometimes more–as their contemporaries with fewer resources all while operating in isolation. Let’s run over some of this wonder-metal’s features:
- strongest metal on Earth (sub adamantium)
- can absorb sound waves and kinetic energy, adding to its strength
- a mutagen, whose radiation alters the flora and fauna of Wakanda. The heart-shaped herb can mutate the biomechanics of human anatomy upon consumption (i.e. when the Black Panther is initiated)
- enhances ‘mystical’ energies
- can be woven into fabric and worn as a hidden shield
- used as a power source (read here and here)
There’s much more that can be said especially because the Wakandan variety isn’t even the only type. I’ll leave it at that. Given all that’s listed, it can easily be explained via science why and how it absorbs energy to make it stronger. I would say that doesn’t make it any less magical sounding to us on this Earth. And, no, just because this is a fictional world doesn’t give it leave to write off vibranium’s over-poweredness as “it’s comic books.” Fantasy worlds can contain every degree of logic and science to enforce how their world operates.
Which leads me to my final example of technology presented (or received) as magical.
‘Who Watches the Watchers’ is a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about the Bronze-Age Mintakans, who are convinced Jean-Luc Picard (captain of the Starship Enterprise) is a god because of the technology of the Federation. A summary of the episode can be read here. Read it? What’s important is the discussion between Dr. Barren, Riker, and Picard about mitigating the violation the Federation’s Prime Directive: the supreme law that prevents any Federation agent from interfering in the natural progression of a civilization.
Dr. Barren advises Picard to provide the Mintakans with a set of rules of what the ‘overseer’ expects of them.
Naturally, Picard refuses to impose commandments on a primitive culture, posing as their god. To the Mintakans, watching Federation members disappear in a flash of light as they are beamed to the ship is magic, an act of God. It’s only until Picard decides to bring their leader, Nuria, onto the Enterprise does the of this article manifest.
So what do we make of these stories and their presentation of magic, science and technology? Is magic only magic until proven otherwise? Are the gods of our belief systems products of human imaginations of what we don’t understand, visits from alien life, characters from the future? Is science and technology (progress) the exterminator of magic, or are we as a species so enchanted by life that we cannot help but see the mystical in what is so readily explainable?
Cheers and Happy Halloween!
*feature photo credit: Marvel Database [http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Vibranium_Energy_Daggers]