When does magic become science?

I am completely unashamed to admit that I am a total squealing fanboy when it comes to Brandon Sanderson books. He's the modern day JRR Tolkien, if you ask me. One of the things I like best is how he has magic systems that are based on rules the reader can understand. There's always a clear source where the magic comes from from, and it operates on a strict set of rules and limitations. For example, allomancers get their power by consuming certain types of metals. Tin enhances your senses, pewter makes you stronger, steel and iron let you push and pull on other metals like a magnet, respectively, etc. Each metal only gives you one power, and those powers work the same for whoever uses them. I like it because it lets you know exactly what each character is capable of, and when they fight it comes down to who uses their powers better, faster, more effectively, rather than a race to see who can wave their wand and spout gibberish faster.


That makes me wonder, though. Some people will say that Sanderson's magic is no good because it takes away the element of the unknown. Magic is, by definition, a word to describe things that are beyond our understanding. Sanderson understands and explains his magic so thoroughly that it's, in a way, more of a science than sorcery. The way I see it, the powers are still coming from supernatural means, and even if we know HOW to use them we might still not know for sure WHAT they are. Then again, look at Superman. He's got powers out the wazoo (heck, his wazoo probably HAS powers), but nobody calls them magic. To him, they're just natural abilities that his alien race has, just like the people in Sanderson's world. Then again, AGAIN, Gandalf and Harry Potter's powers are both natural in their own worlds, but people have no problem calling it magic. It's confusing.


What do you guys think? At what point does magic become science?


I won't say "no good" but I will say that I think fantasy tilts too far in the direction of "explain the rules" for my taste these days. I like there being shadows and whispers and secrets with my magic.


To me it becomes science when it's presented as a natural force within the world, like gravity.


Magic becomes science when it has to be explained. If magic can be explained, then it's no longer magic.


But at the same time, guys, magic with no explanation almost always becomes a plot crutch. When you don't know how to solve a problem, just have the wizard thrust his staff forward and yell "HAAAAAAAAH!" and knock the entire army over. When you don't present rules for your characters to follow, that either ends up with them doing whatever the heck they want because, I mean, you never said they COULDN'T, did you? Or, the readers spending the whole story saying, "Why didn't he do this? Or that? There are so many better ways he could have done that!" Take Harry Potter, for instance. To this day, people are still coming up with better ways for Harry and Co. to have solved their problems, and Rowling is backtracking all over the place providing crappy explanations as to why her way was the only way it could really be done. If she'd only implemented some ground rules for using magic beyond "wave the stick and butcher the Latin language," that would have fixed the problem.


What Sten said. Magic is just science that people haven't figured out yet.


When you figure out how it works. :P


TheAdamBo, what you're describing is a danger but not an inherent flaw. Every world building choice carries with it an associated danger. That's not a reason not to use it.


And "rules" have their disadvantages, too. Take the metal stuff mentioned in the OP, for example. How does that even make sense? Tin enhances your senses? But why? What's the rational explanation for why nature would work like that, besides "because the author said so"? (Looking it up, and it appears to be something along the lines of "because God designed it that way", which raises all sorts of theological questions! And what I read suggested there was 16 metals/powers ... But there are way more metals in nature, so how does that work? Or does it imply Sanderson's world doesn't adhere to the fundamental laws of science? I mean, where do his fictional metals fall on the periodic table? Etcetera etcetera etcetera.)


I'm a big fan of Charles Stross's "The Laundry" series, that treats magic with scientific rigor and manages to preserve the spine-tingling awe and wonder (and especially horror!) of magic while still treating it as part of a scientific phenomenon.


My story, From Winter's Ashes (http://www.fromwintersashes.com) gets compared pretty often to Sanderson and Stross's work in reviews. I share that love of making magic emotionally powerful while still giving it a comprehensible structure for the reader to hang their suspension of disbelief upon. :)


What is Science?


According to wikipedia it's "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe"


In other words, it is a way of studying the world.


Magic is an element of the world, but not a way of studying the world, thus it can be studied using Science, but it is not and can never be Science, and thus the question is moot and pointless.


Kind of confused by what you mean by "an element of the world." Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds more like a Wiccan way to look at it. Most people consider magic to be something *not* of the natural world, or at least OUR world. Plus, if you could study it using science, wouldn't the study of magic, in itself, be a science? Like, the study of living things is biology, the study of rocks and minerals is geology, etc.


This is one of the things that Tales of MU did really well - the whole point (it's been a while since I read it, so forgive me if I misremember) is that you couldn't study magic, or even maybe the world, scientifically because it just won't work. So you can't measure the distance from the ground to the moon because the moon goddess will be offended, smite you and put the moon somewhere else (or something like that anyway).


A lot of people conflate science and technology. For example, all the people who say that they don't want food with "chemicals" in it, they want "natural" food (good luck with that guys, watch out for the dihydrogen monoxide). Since writers are people too it's not surprising if they do it too.


You could say that magic is a natural element of the world, or something outside it and alien. You could say it's just natural forces that we don't have in our reality (probably), or whatever you like. There's definitely room for both approaches, but as Rincewind said the whole point of science is that it's an approach to finding knowledge. If that's not going to work you need a good reason why.


I don't think magic has to stay mysterious and unexplained in order to be magic. I love Brandon Sanderson's systematic explanation of well-thought-out magic systems that have internal consistency. All of his characters have to act within the magic system, which makes his plot much more reasonable than when an MC randomly pulls miracles out of nowhere and says "because magic".


What makes it magic from the reader's point of view is that it accomplishes things that aren't physically possible, or even theoretically possible, using our science and technology. It's very possible, however, that within the author's story world, whatever magic system they use is so thoroughly studied and understood that it is a science to the characters. "Magic" to them might just be another energy source to get things done, much like how we use electricity in society.


Honestly, other than really improbable miracles being pulled out of nowhere, I think stories can succeed very well with either detailed, systematic magic or more mysteriously accomplished magic. The thing that pisses me off is when people attempt to use "scientific" explanations for things that are clearly physically impossible, even with just my Physics 101 understanding. Biological explanations get me even more because I majored in biochemistry, so I'll catch even more errors. If people want to go with scientific explanations based on Earth's science, they'd better do their research and get it right. It's much easier to go with a magic system, which only needs internal consistency.


@TheAdamBo The study of magic is a science, but that doesn't make magic science. And the element of the world stuff? That was me trying to say that usually magic exists as part of the setting and is also something that can affect the setting. I'm not that good at succinct descriptions


Right. Electricity isn't science. Gravity isn't science. Life isn't science. They just are things natural to the universe. Science is the act of trying to understand and harness these natural things.


On a slightly unrelated note, I found chemistry really easy to learn in high school because I processed it in the same part of my mind that memorized the rules to all the magic systems in all the books I'd read to that point. :P


I wouldn't call what the magic system in any of Brandon Sanderson's novels close to sciences because just because he explains how it works doesn't make it science. It just have more specific rules. That also doesn't make it less magical because it's explained and not mysterious and unknown. That's a bit of a silly notion and a rather limiting definition of the magical. It's kind of like saying that fantasy can only have dragons, a human hero, and an epic war to be stopped or it isn't fantasy.


Hard systems, like Sanderson's, are just as magical, but they do lack a great deal of the wonder and mystery that is found in softer works. Sanderson is a good example due to his philosophy on writing magic systems. There is a great deal of the scientific to them as they have hows and whys rather than "Its magic. It just is."


Personally, I prefer softer, more mysterious systems. Even if they are harder to write well.


Funny thing is, Lovecraft seemed to go the other way, where science and magic were similar more because of all the unknown and malevolent stuff in the universe. You'd have monsters that flew to earth in the ether, a race of time-traveling aliens, cultists who try to raise Cthulhu, and a family that uses a magic book to knock up someone's daughter with the spawn of an evil alien monster.


Science is a way of looking at the world, not a system of beliefs, so it can be applied to a variety of settings. In our world, we have stuff like gravity, evolution, atoms, germs, and so on. In Lovecraft, outer space has ether instead of a vacuum (which was a common belief back then), and all sorts of malevolent monsters and/or aliens that science risked uncovering. In some fantasy settings, you have magic as another force in the world to be explored and explained (and the physicists are rather sensitive about gravity still).


I can understand people liking the mystery of a less well-explained magic. It's the same for horror, too. The lack of exact knowledge helps to engage a reader's mind and make the possibilities (or fear) seem grander. If it's just something mundane, where magic is harnessed casually by anyone to do something basic like make table salt, that tends to put a damper on it. I think that's part of the reason people tend to go for more fantastical (and grander) superpowers, even if ones like "spontaneous jello creation" would be so much better for a lot of people.


I personally prefer a well-organized, systematic type of magic. "Mysterious" magic can work, but often, I find it leads to there being internal consistencies between the way things works in separate instances of magic, and as soon as there are internal consistencies, it destroys my suspension of belief.


Also, having systematic magic doesn't stop characters from coming up with brilliantly creative ways to use it; in fact, I find that's when real creativity and genius shines.