452: Thaumatological Review

on July 20, 2010 in Book 16

In Which Exactly One Question Relates To The Ongoing Story

“Let me start by saying that there were a lot of questions about the Archmage Girault and nominalism towards the end of our session Monday,” Professor Goldman said at the begining of his class. “I had the sense that maybe some of you had misunderstood our lecture on that subject… which is okay. That’s why we’re doing these reviews.

“The first thing that you need to understand is that nominalism is finished as a principle of magic. It has been as utterly exploded as Lehane’s Delayed Fireball Conjecture… or Lehane himself, for that matter. The only adherents it has today are people who adhered to it two, three hundred years ago, these being mainly a few elves and the greatest human practitioners of that era, such as Girault.

“If I say that nominalism works for them because they believe it works for them, I’m afraid I might be giving some of you the wrong idea. So instead I’ll say that it works for them because nothing about the belief it works interferes with the ability to perform magic. Okay, I can see some of you about to raise your hands, so let me try to explain better. I’m not saying that some beliefs have the power to interfere with magic. I’m talking about practicalities.

“For instance, if I believed that holding a sword in my hand made me a better wizard, then I would do more magic with a sword in my hand than I did without one. If I believed that holding a sword in my guts made me a better wizard, I would do less magic, period.

“The former is an example of a belief that does not interfere with magic. The latter is an example of one that, under ordinary circumstances, does.

“Girault is a powerful wizard and deserves respect for his power, but we know today that the reason his fire trick works is because he himself is reaching for different kinds of fire based on what he thinks each of the names of fire means. If we were to invent a word and we wrote it down with a definition of ‘fire with jagged pink flames’ and convinced him it was an ancient word meaning ‘fire with towering blue flames’, he might thereafter use that name to call up towering blue flames… but it would not be because of any power the word has, or any ability of his impressive mind to reshape meaning or reality to fit his belief.

“And of course, it goes without saying that we would all die horribly, because you do not ‘punk’ a centuries-old archwizard with gibberish words. The point is that things like belief and names only have the power to shape reality to the extent that if I believe your name is Bob, then in reality I will call you that even if your name is Alice.”

I had a sense of… not exactly grumbling, but some kind of minor discontentment around the room. Not everybody seemed satisfied with the professor’s answer. In high school I’d noticed that a lot of my fellow students had strange ideas about how magic worked, and that hadn’t really surprised me… the workings of magic were, by their very nature, arcane.

It seemed strange to me that people would cling to these ideas even when they went off to college… or maybe what seemed strange was that people who had these ideas would be taking college-level thaumatology courses.

I had to admit that this was a slightly snobbish viewpoint, and I felt slightly guilty as soon as I thought about it. It wasn’t like I knew everything that could be known about magic… and where else would people get rid of their basic misconceptions, if not for 100 level courses? Requiring someone to know the basics of thaumatology before they could take a class in it would be pointlessly exclusionary.

“Now, using the idea of nominalism as a tool, as a focus, that works fine,” Goldman continued. “It works well enough that you can be an archmage, so long as you have the talent and drive and ambition to be one anyway. But there’s nothing you can’t accomplish with names that you can’t accomplish by skipping the middleman and going straight for what the name means. If you want a particular type of fire, knowing a word for it won’t make it any easier to bring about, except maybe on a purely mental level. But even then it doesn’t become easier to bring fire with a name… it just becomes harder to do it without. I hope that clear things up. Now, does anyone have a question on a different topic to get things rolling?”

He looked around the room, and pointed to a student near the front but off to the side of the auditorium.

“Yes, you over there?” Goldman said. I knew he had a seating chart, but he was nowhere near his desk or podium.

“Professor… does the law of scarcity apply to wishes?” the student asked.

“See, now, that’s a good one,” the professor said. “Nice to see that you’re taking the different things we cover and integrating them into a higher understanding of magic, rather than treating them as a bunch of isolated bits of trivia. Scarcity and wishcraft…

“Well, the first thing you need to understand is that it’s hard to talk about wishes compared to conjuration or teleportation or enchantment, because there are so few examples. If you want to know what invoking an element is like… and you have any aptitude for magic at all… you can learn how to do it for yourself. You can find people to talk to about it. You can read books about it. Comparatively fewer people ever find themselves in a position to make a wish, and a lot of them don’t talk about it afterwards. So it’s harder to talk about general principles and wishes.

“But of course, we do anyway… and generally speaking, it doesn’t seem as though true wishes respect such limits. It isn’t like it’s harder to wish for a ton of diamonds than a ton of coal… it takes more syllables, but the person doing the wishing isn’t taxed for the effort. If there is some agency that has to work to provide the wished-for ton, we don’t know if it works any harder to get the diamonds than the coal.

“On the other hand, it seems as though the harder it is to fit the results of a true wish into the universe as we know it, the more likely it is fizzle out spectacularly or blow up in the wisher’s face. In other words, it’s better to be greedy with a wish than careless or unreasonable. Next?”

He pointed to another student, near the center, who stood up.

“I guess my question is about thaumatalogy itself, if that’s okay.”

“Sure! Hit me with it,” the professor said.

“It seems like everything you teach us is so… vague and unsure,” the student said. “The only thing you seem certain about is that looking for certainty is going to end badly. Professor Goldman, how can we make improvements in a discipline that’s so unpredictable at its heart?”

“Unpredictably,” Goldman said. He paused for polite chuckles. “Really, you’ve put your finger on the reason that thaumatology is not the single most respected course of study anywhere. Advances in thaumatalogy serve to advance all practical magic disciplines, but even those who work magic don’t always give the field its due. Those who do are among the most skilled and powerful practitioners in their fields, though they’re often dismissed as ‘mere metamagicians’ by their more, ah, superstitious colleagues.

“Forgive me if this comparison seems insensitive in light of recent events, but the metaphor I keep coming back to is the pamphlets you get when you enroll here. They’re full of advice on keeping yourself safe, keeping your academic career on track, and fitting in with dorm life. These things can all be phrased as rules, and many of them are, but none of them deal with absolutes.

“You carry a weapon, stay on the paths, and avoid going out after dark because doing so makes you more safe. Ignoring any of these rules makes you less safe. Can we ever say that anyone is completely safe? Can we say that someone who leaves their weapon up in their dorm or takes a shortcut across West Campus at night will necessarily come to harm? No and no.

“If we were to evaluate everything the same way some people judge thaumatalogy, we’d conclude that these safety rules are pointless,” Professor Goldman said. “And indeed, many students in their second and third years, having never once had to draw a weapon outside of class, conclude that the rules are something a bull might leave behind. If this were a PSA, I’d go on to tell you about all the horrible things that happened to each and every one of them, but the fact is that the vast majority of students survive to graduation.

“So to bring this back around to your question: thaumatalogy might never succeed in telling us how to achieve all of our goals as magicians or how to remain completely safe while doing so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t refine our ideas and make them better, more effective at what we need them to do.

“If nobody minds a small digression: sometimes, some of my colleagues buy into the notion that thaumatology is a flawed discipline because of the imprecise nature of our knowledge. They express a wish that we had something more concrete to work with. But if I were to try to imagine a universe that revealed its workings to us in an orderly and consistent fashion, and while that might seem like it would be to our benefit, I think an honest analysis would have to include everything we’d be giving up, in comparison to the universe we have… for instance, my job. The study of thaumatology… or whatever it might be called in such a universe… would be so simple and straightforward that I doubt it would exist at a university level. People who ‘specialized’ in it would no doubt be looked upon as we might look at someone who devotes his life to mastering a game like tic-tac-toe, where simple rules produce predictable results time and time again.

“From an egalitarian point of view, such a world might be ideal… no specialized knowledge or devotion would be needed to understand the secrets of the universe, so the fruits of progress would belong to everyone equally instead of the powerful and the comfortable. We would have the means to completely end hunger, end deprivation, everywhere, and when I say ‘we’ I don’t just mean those of us privileged enough to live under the protection of a power like the Imperium.

“This might sound like an ideal world, but it has two flaws: we can’t get there, and I wouldn’t have a job if we did. Next question?”

“Yes, Professor,” another student said. “I’m not entirely clear on exclusionary comparison: is it a refinement of the principle of comparison, or is it a separate principle entirely?”

“Well, now,” Goldman said. “First we should be clear that ‘principle’, as far as I know, is not an actual thing… whether we call it a completely separate principle or a refinement is among the more pointless things that thaumatologists tend to argue about. And in the field of all things that thaumatalogists argue about, that’s a high honor.

“I prefer to think of it as a special case of comparison, if anything,” he said. “It’s the same principle but applied differently. Think about the phrase ‘comparing apples and oranges’. This is, in fact, possible to do. The fact that one is sort of yellowish-red and the other is an apple color is, in fact, a point of comparison. It is not often that the best point of reference you can find for something is how unlike it is to other things, but when it happens, that’s when you use exclusionary comparison. Next?”

“On the subject of comparison and metaphor?” another student said.

“Yes?” Professor Goldman said.

“If I was trying to give a friend the speed of a deer, which ‘deer’ would he be as fast as? I mean, is it the Universe’s idea of ‘deer’, or mine, or his? And could that encompass a buck, doe or fawn? I mean, as a joke, could I give someone the ‘sight of a hawk’… but use a blind hawk as a reference?”

“There is a principle that might apply here,” Goldman said. “It’s been phrased in many different formulations, but it comes down to this: nature abhors a wiseguy. When you invoke a metaphor, you are not referring to any specific iteration of an idea but the idea itself. If you took a literal deer and took some trait from it and gave it to a friend, you wouldn’t be doing anything metaphorical… in fact, you’d be doing something potentially illegal. Now, nothing stops a northern shaman from blessing a hunter with the sight of a metaphorical blind hawk, but what is being invoked here is blindness, not hawkness. The effectiveness of the invocation would be weakened by the fact that effort is being made to encompass a superfluous concept. You might as well invoke the sight of a blind hawk with green feathers and a horn. Do the feathers and horn affect how blind the hawk is? No, but neither does the fact that it’s a hawk.”

There were a few more questions from people feeling their way around metaphor and other forms of comparison-as-magic, many of which made me think once again that a surprising number of my fellow students were hung up on the idea of magic as this totally subjective thing. Which it could be… but it was just arrogant to assume that the thing it was subject to was us.

I blamed bad TV and movies, mostly… a lot of really terrible mag-fi out there took the idea of uncertainty in magic and ran wild with it.

“Professor, how does a crafted object’s functions become part of ‘the way things are’?” a student asked.

“For instance?”

“Well, before carts were invented, you couldn’t use a box with wheels on it as the subject of transportation enchantments…”

“You couldn’t because nobody had boxes with wheels on them,” Goldman said. “There were thousands of years of history before industrial enchantment became widespread… it’s still not likely to be very widespread outside the great empires. Do you think if we went to any of those places where they have been making do without enchanted vehicles for thousands of years that we would find some great improvement over the basic ‘box with wheels’ design? It’s fundamentally true that a cart or wagon or other such conveyance is good for transporting things over land. This was true before anybody knew it, and it remains true even as the changing tides of fashion and the lower cost of enchantment makes less practical vehicles possible. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of…but do items really have these qualities because they have them, or do we imbue objects with them?” the student asked. “Moving away from wagons and carriages: in a world without sentient creatures would, say, a staff still be a staff, or is it the creatures that impose the concept of staffness on the assemblage of physical and magical structure that is the staff?”

“We’d need a world without sentient creatures to test that hypothesis,” Goldman said. “And then we wouldn’t be able to because as soon as we looked at it we’d be ‘imposing our concepts’ on it, according to this line of thought. This is an idea that can never be proven or disproven. The best way I can think of to test it would be to have a group of skilled enchanters in one room and a group of really sincere people in the other. Each person would be faced with a blade that was to be swung at them. The enchanters would be tasked with removing the quality of sharpness from the blade. The other group would be tasked with sincerely believing that blades aren’t sharp.

“I actually got the funding for this experiment, and I have a bunch of volunteers to be in the first group. It’s finding test subjects for the second group that’s proven to be the sticking point.

“Things are what they are. Tautologies are tautological. Do you have a question on this subject?” he asked a student who had just raised a hand.

“Kind of related, I guess,” the student said. “If the properties of objects are fixed, I was wondering, is it possible to take a property from one thing and put it on another? Like taking the transparency of glass and putting it into a brick?”

“Very good question,” Goldman said. “The short answer is yes. This is a staple of enchantment. It is also arguably an application of metaphor, by which I mean it is definitely an application of metaphor but enchanters will argue it isn’t, because they’re all hip and modern and metaphor isn’t. But the brick becomes transparent like glass. Well, that’s technically a simile, but discussing metaphor-workings with metaphors makes you sound like you’re talking about transmutation. It is also possible for an enchanter to add entirely new traits to an object without using a source… whether or not this is done depends on how the two objects or substances lend themselves to comparison. For instance, a sheet of glass is often referenced when making sheets of steel transparent, but glass to brick is a bit more of a stretch. If you wanted to peer through mud, glass would be a hard sell but it would be easy enough to liken it to water.”

“Speaking of water, when we take water from the elemental plane, how is it replaced?” someone asked.

“The short answer is that it isn’t,” Goldman said.

“Then could we one day run out?”

“Nope,” the professor said. “The elemental planes are infinite expanses. An infinite amount of water spread out over an infinite area. Infinity divided by infinity. If we subtract a gallon from the numerator, we’re left with… oh, let’s see, hmmm… infinity, divided by infinity. Same as we started with.”

“But where does the new water come from?”

“It doesn’t come from anywhere,” Goldman said. “It’s the same infinite expanse it was before.”

“I’ve got a question,” another student said, “but it’s more about that last question than about anything we covered in class.”

“Go ahead,” Goldman said.

“Could somebody who’s never seen or experienced ice conjure it? Like, if someone lived in a very hot jungle and had only heard of ice, had an idea what it looked like and that it was cold, would they be able to bring it forth?”

“They would certainly have enough familiarity with heat to take the fire out of water until it froze,” Goldman said. “So there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to invoke water in that state. In terms of being able to summon elemental ice as a thing in itself, I think our hypothetical jungle-dweller would be very hard-pressed to do so, at least until he did it the other way a few times.”

“Now, as far as questions that are a bit afield of our actual discussion topics… the ostensible point of this exercise is to make sure you’re ready for the quiz, which will be to make sure you’re ready for the midterm, which is to make sure you’re ready for the final, which is to make sure you’re to pass this class. But lest we lose sight of our actual goal, the point of passing this class is to provide a foundation for further studies. So don’t feel like you need to be strictly constrained by the subject matter of the class. If something we’ve dealt with inspired a question in you, feel free to ask that… maybe the answer will help you get a better handle on the general principle, or see how to apply the learning more broadly. So… anyone have anything they want to know?”

More hands went up all over the room. He picked one.

“Has anyone ever made a foolproof wish?”

“That depends on how you define ‘foolproof’,” Goldman said. “Plenty of people have made wishes that turned out exactly the way they meant for them to. These tend to be simple, straightforward things.”

“Is it possible for someone to become permanently invisible?”

“For certain values of ‘permanent’ and ‘invisible’, sure,” Goldman said. “Like any enchantment, it could be removed by someone of sufficient skill and power, and the subject would still be ‘visible’ to varying degrees to certain forms of supernatural sight. The most foolproof form of invisibility is that which is possessed by naturally invisible things: the utter lack of an appearance. Even divine true sight reveals nothing, because there’s nothing to be seen.”

“How exactly does infernal and divine energy affect thaumatological manipulation of energy?”

“However it wants to,” Goldman said. “Well, not literally… there are limits to what any form of energy can accomplish. But picture two people standing in the same room, and imagine all the different ways that they might affect, interfere with, or cooperate with one another on purpose. Now imagine that they have separate tasks to perform in the exact same area, but they can’t see or hear each other and you’ve got all the different ways they might affect each other completely by accident. The short answer is that life is messy and complicated.”

“Professor, are there other extra-dimensional energies besides infernal and divine, or are those two special somehow?”

“You ask two questions,” Goldman said. “And the answer to both of them is yes. Yes, there are other forms of extraplanar energy, and yes, divine and infernal energies are special somehow. Whether and how they might be ‘more special’ than other kinds is above my pay grade. They are tied together much more strongly in a relationship of opposition than the classical ‘elemental opposites’. Their origin planes are the ‘nearest’ ones, according to our current understanding of planar cosmology, to be alien enough to have a pronounced destructive effect upon contact with a natural mind… ‘natural’ here meaning ‘native to this plane’, but there are planes further out that are more alien and more destructive than even the infernal realms.”

“Professor Goldman, I’ve read that back in the era of attempted ’scientific magic’ that many wizards used physical components for their spells, was this purely a matter of primitive foci, or has there ever been evidence to support the use of spell components to mitigate the magical power required to cast?”

“Really, no evidence,” Goldman said. “In some cases there was some metaphorical transference involved, and we can imagine the ‘scientific’ magic-users noticed the heightened efficacy and attempted to generalize from it, but in other cases there was no clear relationship between the component and its intended effect, or the importance of one particular item was exaggerated. For instance, I mentioned the wizard Lehane before… he was known to have carried large quantities of bat guano with him, under the belief that this substance’s flammability properties made it more helpful than any other substance in the creation of fireballs. I used to have an interesting etymological anecdote about how this practice lent its name to a particular form of insanity, but I’m not allowed to tell it in class anymore.

“I think we’ve got time for maybe one more question… I hope somebody has something either horribly overwrought or optimistic, so we can end on a more dramatic note,” Goldman said. “You look likely.”

“Wizards have become more knowledgeable and proficient in the things they can do. I know you can’t predict the future, but do you think this sort of magical progress is likely to continue?” the likely student asked. “What sort of things do you think we might be able to do twenty or thirty years from now that we can’t do today?”

“That’s a good question,” Goldman said. “I think the most significant thing that will happen in the practice of magic in the next twenty years is that people who are right this moment babies will be sitting in the chairs you’re all sitting in now. Advancements in the field of magic… in what we can do with magic… come primarily from the presence of new minds looking at what we know we can do today and figuring out new ways to put it all together. As the example of our old friend Girault shows us, the most experienced wizards are not always the best at coming up with new ways to do things. He was quite the innovator at one point… that was the point where the things he’s been doing for the past two hundred years were fresh and new.

“I’m not as old as he is, but I’m not as young as you are. What advancements are we going to see in the next few decades? You tell me. Or better yet: show me. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.”

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81 Responses to “452: Thaumatological Review”

  1. Seeker of Justice says:

    My question got answered; I feel special!

    Current score: 1
  2. Ducky says:

    Me too 😀 Thanks, AE! I actually felt like I was back at school for this one.

    Current score: 0
  3. Corven says:

    I looooooooooooooooooooooooove worldbuilding chapters 🙂

    Current score: 2
  4. Kevin says:

    So a permanently invisible creature might not show up in Mack’s sight. Interesting very interesting, I didn’t find out if there was an MUverse equivalent to Klingon though. I wasn’t expecting to however so it’s no biggie.

    Current score: 0
    • Morten says:

      Mack can’t see invisible. Two can though.

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      • Morten says:

        Steff and Dee can probably hear invisible though. Can Feejee smell fear?

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        • Brokencookie says:

          See you’re over thinking the whole invisibility thing by tacking on inaudibility

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          • bramble says:

            Well, there’s “inaudible,” and then there’s “making the usual amount of subtle sounds such as light footsteps, breathing, and heartbeat, which a human (or person with comparable hearing) may not notice but an elf (or person with comparable hearing) almost certainly would.”

            Mack is kinda off in her own world a lot of the time. It’s perfectly possible that she could locate an invisible person by sound if she thought to listen closely, but is too caught up on her preconception of “oh Gladys must have just left” to do so. Steff and Dee, on the other hand, have the advantages of a) incredibly acute hearing and b) not being completely oblivious.

            Current score: 1
        • Arancaytar says:

          Hearing invisible things isn’t exactly a special ability. 😛

          Current score: 0
  5. Andrea says:

    “For instance, if I believed that holding a sword in my hand made me a better wizard, then I would do more magic with a sword in my hand than I did without one. …”

    Does Goldman mean that as a result of this belief, you would choose to hold a sword more often than not when doing magic? Or does he mean that this belief would cause you to wield (?) more magic when you happened to be holding the sword?

    Current score: 0
    • fka_luddite says:

      I would interpret this to mean that the mage is acting with greater confidence, and thus wields the magic with more precision. More precise wielding would cause an enhanced effect.

      Current score: 2
    • Stormcaller3801 says:

      I think Goldman’s point was that if you believed you could only reach your full potential for wizardry while holding a sword, you would subconsciously limit yourself when not holding one. Either you simply wouldn’t try more complex spells (under the belief that you couldn’t pull it off without a sword), or you’d attempt them with the expectation that they may fail. Depending on how sure you were of their failure, one of two things would probably happen. One, you’d be more careless than usual because you were certain it wouldn’t work anyways, and thus it would fail due to your errors. Two, you’d try harder than usual, putting extra effort into pulling off the effect, and it would succeed.

      Of course, in the latter case, because you did ‘have to’ put in the extra effort, you’d assume it was harder to pull off.

      Depending on how deep-seated the belief was, if at some point you mastered a particularly difficult trick without needing the sword, or if you reached a point where you could cast anything without a sword, you may just assume that you’ve grown powerful enough that you don’t need a sword anymore.

      Think of it as being akin to a security blanket. Only one you probably wouldn’t want to curl up with.

      Current score: 0
    • incoherent says:

      I thought it was much simpler than that – if I though that a sword made me a better wizard, I would to make sure to have a sword with me more times than not when working magic.

      Current score: 0
      • bramble says:

        That’s how I interpreted it, too. Confirmation bias. “I did really well casting that spell while holding the sword,” ignoring the fact that you’ve held the sword all the other times you’ve cast the spell. After all, you’ve never successfully cast the spell when you /weren’t/ holding the sword, right?

        Current score: 0
    • NTG says:

      It’s like that story about ballerina slippers, isn’t it? She believed they were magic shoes, so she danced better, but really, it was her all along!

      Current score: 0
    • Krail says:

      I was under the impression that it wasn’t just a matter of confirmation bias, but was also matter of learning to do magic with a sword.

      That is, the mage who believes the sword makes him better at magic will practice his magic more often with the sword. Thus as he practices and develops spells, the sword becomes incorporated into his spellcasting.

      You know? Like Mackenzie used her staff as a focus for her flamethrower. Our hypothetical mage uses the sword as part of his somatic component, as part of his focus for a spell. He just doesn’t know how to do itas well without his usual focus.

      Current score: 1
  6. jagroq says:

    wow typos nobody else posted, this is a first

    “I used to have an interesting etymological anecdote about how this practice lent its name to a particular form of insanity, but I’m not allowed to SAY TELL it in class anymore.” One of these is an extra.


    “… but it has two flaws: we can’t there, and…” Not wrong I guess but its kinda funny wording, not sure if you meant to include a verb like, go or be, in there or not

    Current score: 0
    • SightSoBlind says:

      its most likely meant to be say/tell since they have not only different connotations but denotations he’s not allowed to do either. I actually know people who speak it as “one slash two” or in this case they would say “Say slash tell”

      Current score: 0
  7. Zathras IX says:

    On par with Lehane’s Delayed
    Fireball Conjecture

    Current score: 0
    • 17 says:

      you’d better watch out
      ‘fireball conjecture’ has
      got six syllables.

      Current score: 0
      • James says:

        fire-ball con-jec-ture i read 5

        Current score: 0
        • Marid says:

          When I pronounce in my head, it’s phonetically “Fie-yur-ball”. Depends on your regional accent, I suppose.

          Current score: 1
          • Steph says:

            …what does it say of me that I went and researched this? Or, rather, googled, clicked, read a few dictionary entries and a year-old thread..

            I think that this – “Honestly, this is one of those strange, but interesting, linguisting phenomenons (pun intended) that comes about in English because of its hodgpodge origins.” (from – http://icrontic.com/forum/showthread.php?t=80786 ) sums up so many ‘questionable’ pronunciations in our language.

            The last word seemed to be “officially one syllable” frequently pronounced as two.

            Current score: 1
  8. Arancaytar says:

    > as utterly exploded as Lehane’s Delayed Fireball Conjecture… or Lehane himself, for that matter

    That discovery must have been quite a blast in the thaumatological community…

    Current score: 1
  9. Ross says:

    Do I detect a bit of Feynman’s (and Knuth’s) “All Questions Answered”?

    Current score: 0
  10. Arancaytar says:

    “But the brick becomes transparent like glass. Well, that’s technically a simile, but discussing metaphor-workings with metaphors makes you sound like you’re talking about transmutation.”

    (Metaphors are like similes in that they are both analogies; and analogies are like sandwiches in that I’m making one now. http://xkcd.com/762/ )

    Current score: 1
  11. Arancaytar says:

    “I used to have an interesting etymological anecdote about how this practice lent its name to a particular form of insanity, but I’m not allowed to say tell it in class anymore.”

    So THAT’s where that comes from!

    Current score: 2
  12. Ylistra says:

    I love the “in practical terms” answers. 🙂

    “And of course, it goes without saying that we would all die horribly, because you do not ‘punk’ a centuries-old archwizard with gibberish words.”

    Current score: 2
  13. EOI says:

    I’ve now got a question about the infinate planes in which magic comes from, if ice is water with the fire removed; does that mean ice is the more pure element and has its own plane from which it can be summoned. Or when conjuring ice does one have to remove the fire from the water which comes to from the water plane…. and if thats the case where does the fire go?

    Current score: 0
    • io says:

      Unless you’re in an envronment with no Fire, the Fire gets sucked into the Water when the Water is summoned, like popping the seal on a vacuum.
      Then you tell the Water to stay put, I guess. Or put some Earth into it to make it solid.

      Current score: 0
  14. Barbrady says:

    Re: infernal vs. divine “picture two people standing in the same room, and imagine all the different ways that they might affect, interfere with, or cooperate with one another on purpose. Now imagine that they have separate tasks to perform in the exact same area, but they can’t see or hear each other …”

    Now that raises an interesting possibility regarding Mack’s unseen neighbor …

    Current score: 0
    • Erianaiel says:

      If she were that divine Mackenzie might not be able to -see- her, but she would most assuredly -feel- her.

      During the god of pain excercise Mackenzie had to stay half a fairly large sparring salle away from Gloria just because she was praying. Somebody so divine that she would be invisible to her infernal nature would probably obliterate her on the spot just by the amount of divinity she radiated.


      Current score: 0
      • Erianaiel says:

        I guess that I should have read the story again, as well as paid more attention to the comment, before starting to talk nonsense.
        This should be a lesson to us all that it is hard to read the story too often …

        Current score: 0
  15. Tristan says:

    Loved this chapter. That “naturally invisible” thing was a new way of thinking about it to me.

    Current score: 2
  16. Dani says:

    He was right three out of three times: In a world whose laws are governed by knowable science, not much science would be taught at universities, thaumatologists would be poorly paid, and there would be no poverty. Okay, make that two out of three.

    Current score: 1
    • Jacobus says:

      Two out of three ain’t bad. 😉

      Current score: 0
    • Stormcaller3801 says:

      Eh- dunno. I think anyone who’s sat through organic chemistry or attempted to understand the principles of quantum physics would argue that given he’s talking about simple, logical rules governing everything, we’re not quite that world either. Things get pretty complex…

      Current score: 2
      • Stonefoot says:

        The more closely you look at quantum mechanics and general relativity, the farther you get from “simple, logical rules” describing our world. Quantum Electrodynamics can predict experimental results with phenomenal precision, but the equations use a mathematical sleight of hand called renormalization – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and no one knows why. Then try looking up things like the EPR paradox and counterfactual-definiteness. The world with simple, logical rules is hardly closer to ours than to the world of MU. At least as I see it….

        Current score: 1
        • drudge says:

          The issue is to get a consistant universe you need to expand on that universe. 1+1=2, 2+2=4. If things go up that way then you can multiply and use exponents. If you need to count that way you’ll run into charts and graphs rather quickly. Just keeping things internally consistent in numbers so that 1=1 will take just about all your highschool mathwork unless you take certain extra classes.

          Now imagine what happens when things begin moving around so you need numbers for how fast it’s all going, what could interfere with it’s movement, and what could it hit?

          Then generally things collide in ways that you get one big thing thats made of many smaller moving parts, so particles become atoms which become objects and eventually become stars which birth smaller stars and planets which creates organisims which become more complicated and eventually start wondering where it came from and begin making things up about dragons inside mountains and the sun being made of giant feathered boas.

          Keep in mind a good deal of this can be done with addition and subtraction. Simple things generally add up, if you’ll excuse the pun.

          Current score: 0
  17. Felix says:

    That was really a fun one—my favorite chapter in quite a while.

    Current score: 0
  18. Ferwe says:

    Yay! My question got answered, and in a way suitable to the world too (something that bothered me when I phrased it).

    Current score: 1
  19. Zergonapal says:

    Another good chapter, I like it when Mack is thinking about the lecture and not about boobies or feet when she should be paying attention.

    Current score: 0
  20. potatohead says:

    –“For instance, I mentioned the wizard Lehane before… he was known to have carried large quantities of bat guano with him, under the belief that this substance’s flammability properties made it more helpful than any other substance in the creation of fireballs”–

    Hehe. Nice reference to the (seeming) absurdity of some D&D material components.

    Current score: 1
    • Amelia says:

      I was just running through these thinking: “non-one’s mentioned the guano!”
      Excellent reference, and I love Goldman’s running “explicitly describe the joke” gag.

      Current score: 0
    • CodeRed says:

      No wonder my fireballs always smell like rotting eggs! Its all the sulfur!

      Current score: 0
  21. Critic says:

    It’s not a bad update but the professor’s speech needs to be edited. Not for mistakes, but for characterization. It doesn’t read like a lecture at all, it reads like a DM explaining magic at the table in her own narrative voice.

    I think you’ve done a lot better AE.

    Current score: 0
    • Ross says:

      No, it sounds exactly like an excellent professor having a Q&A session, not a lecture. See my previous ref. to Feynman and Knuth.

      Current score: 1
    • I’d hazard that you had very different lecturers in college than I did, and also that you’ve never sat at my game table.

      Current score: 1
    • Pyra says:

      I love this chapter specifically because it reminds me almost EXACTLY of the way my current Chemistry Professor teaches!

      Current score: 1
  22. Frelance says:

    “But there’s nothing you can’t accomplish with names that you can’t accomplish by skipping the middleman and going straight for what the name means.”

    nothing you “can” accomplish with names, I think

    Current score: 0
  23. Chips says:

    I love infinity and math.

    Let’s say I have an infinite pile of numbered marbles. I hand you all the odd-numbered marbles. We now both have an infinite number of marbles. Infinity – infinity = infinity!

    You then give me every other odd-numbered marble … we both still have an infinite number of marbles. Infinity + (infinity – infinity) = infinity.

    Current score: 0
    • LlubNek says:

      infinity – infinity is undefined.

      If we say infinity 1 is greater than infinity 2, then the result is positive.
      If we say infinity 1 is less than infinity 2, then the result is negative.
      If we say infinity 1 and infinity 2 are equal, then the result is zero.
      However, infinities cannot be compared. One infinity is neither more nor less than two infinities or infinity + 1. And the actual value could be not just +/- infinity or 0, but any value from -infinity to +infinity, since infinity + x = infinity for any real number x.

      Current score: 0
    • Gabor says:

      first of all. thank you so much for using my question, if this page ever got into one of your books I’d probably buy multiple copies to give to my friends and family.

      See, i remember doing this sort of thing in a few of my math classes, (high school) and that one question where you have to chart 1/x , when we asked where to line goes near 0 ( never touching) he said that ” it goes through all the number till it reaches something that easier to describe as a place rather then a number.”

      I would talk more magic influenced math but I’m still too overwhelmed that you actually used my question.

      Current score: 0
  24. Belial666 says:

    “One infinity is neither more nor less than two infinities”

    That’s practically wrong in several cases. There are infinities larger than others. For example, if there’s an infinite number of stars in the universe and each star has five planets revolving around it, then there are exactly five times more planets than there are stars.

    Current score: 0
    • LlubNek says:

      ok, so try this:

      inf3 = 3 * inf1
      inf4 = 2 * inf2

      where inf1 and inf2 are both infinity.

      Which is greater inf3 or inf4?

      Current score: 0
      • Stonefoot says:

        All 4 are equal (inf1 = inf2 = inf3 = inf4). They’re each infinity. Try inf5 = inf3 x inf4. That’s still equal to each of the others. This is based on the use of set theory to measure the sizes. Look up “infinity” in Wikipedia and go down to the section under “set theory”. There are other ways of looking at infinite quantities.

        Current score: 0
    • Sailorleo says:

      There is, in fact, a category of mathematics, called Transfinite Mathematics, that exists specifically to address this situation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfinite_number

      Current score: 0
    • Someone says:

      There are five times more planets than stars, but it’s difficult to say if there are more planets than stars. You imagine running around the universe and spray painting every star with a (natural) number, and every planet with a (natural) number. So there are as many stars as natural numbers, and also as many planets as natural numbers.

      Current score: 0
      • drudge says:

        Not IF, but for this excersize we assume infinity stars each having five planets. If there’s infinite, and then there’s infinity times five, then the second is larger

        Current score: 0
  25. Mike says:


    It’s interesting that a term would develop in a culture where you have what we would call “science fiction” being referred to as fantasy. You think they would just refer to fiction involving magic as fiction, since it would be a world of fiction without magic that would be fantastical.

    Current score: 0
    • LlubNek says:

      Science and a specific brand of magic traded places. So you have “magic fiction” involving advanced (or even fantastical) magic, and “science fiction” which is a subset of “fantasy”. I suppose there’d also be “hard mag-fi” as well, which would be mostly written by thaumatologists and based around what they consider probable advances in magic. I’m not sure if fiction involving other magic systems would be “fantasy” or “soft mag-fi”.

      Current score: 0
    • Then why do we have science fiction?

      Current score: 0
      • drudge says:

        Either someone wants a story about a fancy but realistic technology that doesn’t exist in the presented form or avalability today, or someone wants to just make shit up and set it in space.

        Current score: 2
  26. l0stZ says:

    The question I had asked turned out to be stupid, heavily relying on the importance of names. But AE did answer the other questions I wanted to ask… The questions asked satisfies my curiosity… for now. Thanks AE!

    Current score: 1
  27. Greenwood Goat says:

    As I read through this chapter, I wondered whether the subject of academic turnover would come up. As Niels Bohr once commented, quantum theory didn’t become generally accepted by winning over doubters and opponents in the establishment; instead, it seeded itself through the younger generation of researchers, and waited there until the doubters and opponents retired or died.

    Which leads to the question of how quantum theory would have fared if its opponents had been immortal…

    Current score: 1
  28. Gabor says:

    I really do wonder, in a world so influenced by magic, assuming that at the least some fundamental laws of our worlds are the same. how high of an education can a math major get. I mean in this world you can get pretty important and rich if you can crunch numbers in your head. So I wonder would they have Mathematicians in the MU world, meaning a totally different thing.

    once again excuse my poor english

    Current score: 0
    • Wysteria says:

      Well, there’s been a lot of occult math stuff – circles with significant numbers of points, numerology – in our world. I think it’s been mentioned that higher math is a weird hobby for some people, not something taught rigorously?

      Current score: 0
      • Gabor says:

        well I guess, what i mean is the main reason that math is important here is something that exists in the MU world too. Money. I’m sure banks still use math for loans, inverters, calculating return revenue on potential future endeavors, or do banks just use diviners to know what to do with their money.

        Current score: 0
        • jagroq says:

          we have those in our world too. they’re either the guys that manage investment accounts or the guys on TV telling us not to buy tech stocks

          Current score: 0
          • Gabor says:

            I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say there. I believe I said that we have those things here, what i was wondering is how you would learn to be an accountant or an architect, or any number of jobs that need a high understanding of math, I mean yes i bet you can solve it with magic, but unless the building is to be always supported by magic, then it still has to adhere to certain math related rules. Stuff that’s not exactly taught at a lower level.

            basically I’m just wondering where the line is drawn between where “okay 2+2 is 4 that okay that not weird” and ” that guy is into some weird voodoo stuff called ‘kalculass'”.

            Current score: 0
  29. Dashel says:

    I get an impression that the professor and his subject could be simply states as being, “The more precisely you attempt to define something, the less precise it is. Sort of like limits in Calculus.

    Two, played much D&D Miss Aerin?

    Current score: 0
  30. Matthew Tereau says:

    I didn’t read all the comments, so I may have missed someone mentioning this. But apparently the wizard Lehane was batshit insane?

    Current score: 1
  31. Perry says:

    Pretty sure that “unpredictable” is right there because it’s accompanied by “be”. You would jump around unpredictably, but you are unpredictable then.

    Current score: 0
  32. Excellent! I wish I had this guy as a prof.

    Also, while reading this, my mental picture of Goldman coalesced- I think he’d be played by David Mitchell, of Mitchell & Webb.

    Current score: 0
  33. You completed a lot of good points there.

    Current score: 0
  34. Mackenzie says:

    tldr. Can’t focus in lectures. What was the question that related to the plot. I skimmed but couldn’t find it. Am I going to miss something important?

    Current score: 0
    • Anthony says:

      Clearly the one about Gladys being invisible, even to Mackenzie’s See Invisible racial ability, because she has no appearance to reveal.

      Current score: 0
  35. MackSffrs says:

    So, I’m not entirely sure about this. Is magic supposed to be subjective unto itself? Or is subjective unto the source of magic? Onto the workings/mechanics of magic? Onto the creator of magic?

    Current score: 0