Ponies versus Physics, FIGHT!

Today we have a somewhat off-the-wall ponies question – and one that’s more about world setup than ponies themselves. Still, the “scientists trying to find an explanation” notion does pop up in a lot of settings. Given that that makes this pretty generally applicable, why not?

Lets say some people started turning into ponies in the real world or ponies just started appearing and – over the next few days – displayed their basic abilities. How would scientific explanations like “mutagen” or “biowarfare agent” hold up? How long could they be seen as natural creatures existing under normal physical laws?

In both cases, for an intellectually honest, competent, scientist… until a couple of minutes after they get a look at them.

A poor scientist might manage it for a few hours. To hold on to theories like THAT for longer than a few hours you’d need to be either utterly incompetent as a scientist or to have serious mental problems.

To start with, Mutagens – including radiation, metals and chemicals, atomic decay, retroviruses, and the uptake of random DNA fragments (whether originating from Transposons or from the environment) – are random. They get into some cells and not others, they may or may not be expressed, and they change the production of various proteins in random ways – often differently for each affected cell.

That won’t cause an existing human to turn into another creature. That’s possible in theory, but it would take a total understanding of the human body, carefully and individually tailored doses of thousands of different proteins, weeks or months for cells to multiply, migrate, and develop into new tissues, and would almost certainly go hideously wrong in the vast majority of cases. Even if it worked… it would have to include massively rewiring the victims brain. So much for most of their personality and memory.

Yes, some creatures do undergo metamorphosis – but it’s very specific, never changes them into a new kind of creature, involves all kinds of special adaptions, is only seen in much smaller and simpler organisms which already have the seed-structures for the parts they’re going to develop ready to go, they start off with the mechanisms for it built into every cell, it takes a rather long time, and has a substantial failure rate. “Mutagens” and such simply will not work outside of comic books.

Going with “Nanotech” sounds plausible for a few seconds – but these speculative nanites would have to be capable of storing all the information that goes into making a wide selection of both humans AND ponies, coordinating with each other, analyzing a human body, and basically dismantling and rebuilding it while its still alive (adding another level of even greater complexity to handle keeping it alive during all the stages of the process). If the new ponies are going to be functional, the nanites have to be capable of installing memories (of how to use their abilities at the least) and reflexes too. Even more importantly, they have to be capable of finding – from somewhere – the energy necessary to do all this from within the victim’s body without producing enough waste products or energy to kill the victim and while bypassing the immune system – in itself a formidable collection of micro-machines that normally stops such intrusions.

So these “nanites” have to be able to analyze their environment, manipulate materials, manufacture an immense variety of exotic chemicals, communicate and coordinate, store massive amounts of information, generate plenty of internal power without significant waste heat, and posses more computational power then any supercomputer that’s ever been built. All in a package the size of a bacterium.

You know, bacteria are amazingly sophisticated nanites, and they can’t do anything like this. They just don’t have room to pack all of those functions in. That neatly lets out biological agents too.

Fundamentally, if you can create “nanites” or “bioagents” that can do all of this they can do pretty much anything else (except possibly time travel and FTL) – and you’re already close enough to being God that you might as well just claim the title.

There really isn’t any way to make this kind of transformation work in reality without throwing out most of what we understand about the universe or making it an incredibly elaborate, externally-supported (via surgery, organ cloning, and so on), and seriously slow process. Once you do throw out most of what we’ve come to understand for several centuries – which is pretty awkward, since that tells us that most of our gadgets shouldn’t work and that everyone has been missing all the evidence of these forces for centuries – you’re left with “mysterious forces that, with no apparent causal link to the rest of the universe, do incredibly complex stuff in defiance of all prior observation of reality”.

Which is really just a complicated way to say “Magic!” After all… “Magic” is just a word for “a selective set of exemptions from normal physics”. It’s in disrepute with scientists because no such thing has ever been observed – but scientists LOVE new discoveries. If anything like that ever turns up… they’ll be all over it. For that matter, every even remotely sane organization on the planet would be trying to recruit ponies. New abilities means new ways to try and solve your most intractable problems – and if you don’t find them first, it means losing out to whatever you have in the way of competitors.

There would be more irrational actions too, but for any really large organization to react that way a lot of the people in it will need to be irrational. Even more importantly, people are rarely all irrational the same way – so I’d expect at least as much “we love them!” as “we hate them!” – and a lot more caution on the “we hate them!” side. Most people are cautions about new creatures with unknown capabilities anyway, and will be even more so if they think that they’re hostile.

OK, so we’re forgetting the “transformed human” part and are just going to watch ponies in action for a bit?

We’ll ignore the fact that their bones seem to be capable of stretching, and that they can pick up things with their hooves, store items somewhere around their bodies with no apparent sign of where, show massive resistance to injury, and so on for now. A lot of that COULD be explained physically, even if the explanation would need to be pretty convoluted. Lets just look at some of the more blatant pony capabilities.

Pegasi, with very tiny wings for their size, can easily hover in the air in enclosed areas, without even creating much of a disturbance. They can stand and walk on clouds, move them about, and can produce massive amounts of rain and even lightning from clouds that aren’t much bigger then they are.

Where are they getting their lift? For that matter… a cloud isn’t even an OBJECT. It’s am ill-delineated region where temperature and humidity conditions are sufficient to cause some of the water in the air to condense as tiny droplets. A nice dense cloud contains about half a gram of water per cubic meter (although some have been seen with up to six times that). A 20-ounce bottle of drinking water would suffice to make more than a thousand cubic meters of normal cloud (not very big by cloud standards, but impressive enough when brought down to ground level). Lightning is the result of a charge differential generated across several thousand feet of altitude.

So… after watching a Pegasus Pony for a few minutes we can say goodby to Newtons Second and Third Law of Motion (and, for that matter, to Conservation of Momentum, Conservation of Mass-Energy, and most of the rules about Electromagnetism), just to start.

The clouds can be moved or molded, dissipate or bounce as required, and provide traction. When a Pegasus gets to them they have clearly defined edges too. So we need to throw out most of the rules about gases, and about how small clouds should be see-through patches of mist, and more. As soon as we see a Pegasus pulling an aerial cart or executing one of those high-speed sharp turns they like to make even more physics goes out the window.

Honestly, this goes on and on. “Physics” isn’t something that happens in distant laboratories. It’s the UNIVERSE. There are demonstrations of its principles all around you if you look – and those blasted Pegasus Ponies are… just ignoring it.

Unicorn telekinesis creates quite a lot of the same problems for any scientist that sees it all by itself – and that’s not even counting more advanced spells and effects or the way that they’ve been known to burst into flames without hurting themselves.

Earth ponies… well, they might be able to pass for a little while. Applebucking, manipulating items with their tails, bouncing (much larger and heavier) buffalo away, and dragging a train for miles should still set off some serious warning bells in a scientists mind, but they don’t INSTANTLY say “I get to ignore the “laws of physics” whenever I want to!” the way that Pegasi and Unicorn antics do.

Unless, of course, they’re watching Pinkie Pie or Cheese Sandwich or some other “party pony”, or Maud Pie tossing boulders, or Big Macintosh towing a house, or watch the super-strong kids from Crusaders of the Lost Mark (the one lifting the seesaw by one end in his teeth and the girl lifting a building to retrieve a ball) ignore leverage and structural requirements. Those will sort of give things away.

As for Celestia and Luna. They takes us into things like casual and reliable time travel (think about speed of light delay versus the instant response to Celestia wanting to move the sun), dreams escaping into reality, and so on – right on top of all the existing problems with Pegasi, Unicorns, and Earth Ponies.

Now a genuine scientist will keep on studying whatever laws this mysterious new force obeys, and trying to come up with a good theory – but it certainly resembles a lot of the depictions of “magic”, so there’s no reason not to use the word.

Ponies make a good example for the “supernatural/psychic/unnatural monstrous beings on modern earth” genre simply because many of their abilities are blatantly obvious – but many or most “aliens”, “mythical creatures”, and “monsters” will give away their supernatural nature to an observant scientist almost as quickly. Scientists do not simply ignore apparently inexplicable observations. They discard their disproven theories and start trying to figure out what is going on. If you want irrationality… stick with the cult leaders and such. They’re good at it.

4 Responses

  1. A very good answer, even if that is the self-evident one for any instance of “how would scientists react if magical creatures started showing up.” It’s because of that that I prefer to look more at issues of trying to extrapolate internal logic and self-consistency on other (that is, fantasy) worlds, since in this world it’s pretty easy to intuit how things function (even if understanding the underlying principles still presents plenty of boundaries to push).

    Interestingly enough, we have a new instance of that with MLP’s fifth season finale. Whereas season two’s It’s About Time showed time travel (accomplished via Star-Swirl’s spell) as functioning as per a causal loop, the fifth season two-parter, The Cutie Re-Mark showed time travel as being able to change the future dramatically if the past were altered (something that shouldn’t be possible in a causal loop).

    Presumably, the explanation is found within the episode: Starlight altered Star-Swirl’s spell, and used it in conjunction with the Cutie Map. These allowed her to travel much further back, and to change history, neither of which were possible via the original spell.

    That’s still interesting to consider though, since time travel is usually thought of as functioning a certain way “on its own,” regardless of what method is used to move through time in the first place. E.g. if you can’t alter history, due to any “changes” being causal loops, then that should be because that’s how the universe functions, not because you’re traveling through time in a manner that only allows that.

    Of course, that’s clearly not the case in Equestria (and might not be the case anywhere, since all time travel is theoretical). My guess would be that Star-Swirl’s original spell included a “this spell always creates a causal loop, so that you can’t muck up history” clause as a safeguard, and that Starlight disabled that. The Cutie Map presumably functioned as a power source so that the spell could send her back years, rather than a week.

    (Plus there was the whole thing with the spell somehow being keyed so that Twilight and Starlight were apparently outside of the timeline, hence why they were able to keep “trying again” without running into themselves on their previous attempts.)

    • Hmm… Evidently I had this reply about ready to post, got interrupted or something, and never got back to it. Sorry about that!

      Ah time travel… I must admit that I have had a lot of fun in appropriate settings in maneuvering the players into looping themselves without realizing it. The moment when they realize that they just set up their own prior adventures, or arranged for each others pasts, or rescued and planted the ancestors of the group that was so inexplicably helpful later on, is always a lot of fun.

      Of course for that to work properly you’ve got to have a very large, long-term, campaign (otherwise the players tend to catch on too fast), work on subtly steering the players (so that their actions will be at least vaguely compatible with later history), make a habit of tying loose facts back into the game (thus making it look like you brilliantly had it all plotted out in advance), and be good at narrating exactly why whatever results you get “inevitably” led to the history the players are used to (fortunately the players will usually start helping out with this once they catch on).

      Thus for example, I once threw in a throwaway fact; a newly-encountered species of helpful humanoid insect-folk in a quasi-oriental realm sold the characters supplies to help out on a great quest – but let one character have a bunch of stuff free due to some “ancient debt”.

      As it happened, that character was a semi-immortal professional familiar, who drew a lot of his power and skills from a symbiotic relationship with another character – but when something happened to that character, said familiar simply picked another companion, dropped the abilities associated with the prior companion and added some new ones.

      Some time later the players opted to take a break from the main campaign. They’d been looking at the campaign history and wanted to play a few adventures set shortly after the great cataclysm thousands of years before – exploring the wilderness and building new civilizations rather than negotiating a world full of ancient ones.

      Most of them made new characters of course, but Richard was quite content with the semi-regular rewrites of his professional familiar – and had the lifespan, so he simply played a younger version. with a note that – if he got killed – presumably someone would bring him back over the next few thousand years.

      In the course of exploring a network of interstellar gates, the group stumbled across, and rescued from a most unsuitable planet, some stranded swarms of intelligent insects who could re-design their forms to meet their current challenges. After some consideration of their racial nature, they decided to plant them on the continent with proto-oriental cultures that seemed compatible.

      I had quite a laugh before they caught on and started counting up the number of ways they’d looped themselves or arranged for their own adventures later.

      That’s the most “realistic” way to do it of course. After all, to the best of our current understanding, the math underlying time travel in the real universe seems to allow it, but inevitably results in closed causal loops.

      Those aren’t a lot of fun in games though, which is why I usually go for more elaborate models (Hm. A possible article there, at least as soon as the Champions players finish their current attempt to rewrite the history of a galaxy).

      More seriously… there are a myriad stories and games out there (Cybergeneration is the first one that comes to mind, but there are plenty more) where – thanks to the authors having no scientific background and doing no research – all the “scientists” and “experts” are totally ignorant of their topics. As in “in Cybergeneration no one at the C.D.C. understands what a virus is or the basics of how the immune system operates” ignorant. Personally I find that REALLY annoying – but then I tend to be pretty technical and to fuss a lot over consistency. Given that my games usually involve quite a lot of “putting all the clues together” and “figuring out how things are being done”, inconsistencies can really mess things up. For those running more straightforward cinematic adventures it’s a lot less important.

  2. […] physics or assumptions is completely pointless. This is sort of belaboring the point from the first Ponies Versus Physics article, but people keep asking and I rather like calculations, so why […]

  3. […] Ponies Versus Physics: How long could people turning into ponies – or pony abilities on their own – pass under scientific rationalizations? Mutagens, Nanotech, Bioagents, and Impossible Pony Powers. Commentary: Equestrian Time Travel, Experts In Ignorance. […]

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