One Magic Trick – June 19, 2011

If you could perform just one act of magic to change the workings of the physical universe, what would it be? Would you change the laws of gravity, so that humans might soar like birds? Change the chemical linkages governing human nature, so that we might live together without greed and aggression? Change all the iron atoms to gold, so we might all be rich?

Be careful what you wish for. If you change gravity, the planets might fly out of their orbits and then fall apart. If you change human nature, people might become like slugs or three-toed sloths.1 If you enrich the world with gold, the metal will surely lose its value—and soft gold makes a poor substitute for hard iron in highrises and railroads. And the Earth with a core of molten gold would be denser, with a much higher gravity acceleration.

It’s fun to think about how you might reorder the world if you had godlike powers. For myself, being a hopeless romantic with a conservative streak, I would slow down the energy release of the most fragile and energetic molecular bonds. Trinitrotoluene would not explode but instead burn with the steady flame of a wax candle. The bonds in long-chain hydrocarbons like gasoline and kerosene would release their heat slowly, like a lump of coal. Plastic explosives would burn and glow like wood embers. Cordite and gunpowder would fume like peat and dried dung.

The world would certainly be a quieter place. Hand guns, machine guns, grenades, and high-explosives would never have been invented. Soldiers who really wanted to go to war—and who doesn’t?—would be forced to use spears and swords. It takes skill to do battle with edged weapons. It also takes longer and gives the participants time to get tired and think about what they’re doing.

Without the internal combustion engine, we would all be less free in our choices of where to go today and how to get there. We would still have the steam engine, however, suitable for railroad locomotion and large automobiles, because fuel will still burn and release heat. But we would have to give up the leaf blower and the chainsaw. (Hooray!) Probably also the motorcycle. (Wait a minute! This might not be working out.)

Of course, nothing in this magic trick would change the properties of magnets and electric circuits. We would still have the electric light, the computer, and powerful motors and batteries to drive cars and motorcycles, among other things. We could generate energy as we do now with solar thermal and photovoltaics, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams, and steam plants that rely purely on heat rather than rapid combustion.

The magic trick would still allow for some explosions. Any dust that contains a particle of fuel, from coal dust to wheat flour, will explode when it reaches the correct dispersal in air. That’s why grain elevators go boom. But it is difficult to pack that energy into a small space like a bullet cartridge. So my trick still works in eliminating the explosive force of war.

It also eliminates the good that explosive force does in the world: breaking up solid rock for mines, dams, canals, and seaways; blowing obsolete buildings apart with timed charges, rather than dismantling them one floor at a time. But this loss of explosive power only means that the movements of modern civilization would take a little longer. Mines and canals would have to be cut with machines driven by steam or electric motors.

Of course, I would have to be extremely careful and specific in the phrasing of this magic trick. I would want to get all the clauses right, as it were. The slowdown in exothermic reactions would have to be precisely stated and limited to the most energetic of molecular bonds. I would not want an across-the-board slowdown, where the breakup of carbohydrates and proteins would be subject to a percentage decrease in energy output, proportional to the loss of volatility in hydrocarbons and nitrates. That would have devastating effects on metabolism, for both humans and the animals and plants that serve us. Bread and meat would no longer nourish. You would have to eat huge quantities, perhaps more than your stomach could hold or the workings of your cells could process, to get the same nutritional value. While this sounds dandy for dieters, the long-term effect would be starvation and death.

I would also have to consider whether this magic trick is supposed to take effect tomorrow, or to have been in place since the Big Bang. If the world started afresh tomorrow, then a lot of people still paying for their BMWs and SUVs would be mad when they turned the key and heard a sullen blurp rather than the roar of an engine. Western civilization would fall when ships, railroads, and trucks could no longer keep goods moving. Better to take the long route and have the trick in place from the dawn of time.

The resulting effects on civilization would not be so bad. We would return to a standard of warfare known to the Romans and Greeks, lacking the explosive power of Chinese gunpowder.2 To swords and spears, add the artillery of catapult and trebuchet, and the napalm of Greek fire. In time, the western Enlightenment would give us steam power and electricity to replace slave labor. We might end up in a Steam Punk world—except that while modern chemistry might not give us plastique, we would still have plenty of plastics and other durable synthetics like nylon and kevlar.

What about nuclear energy? The bonds being broken in fission and formed in fusion, and so releasing impressive amounts of energy, are not the covalent bonds of electron sharing that hold molecules together, but instead are the bonds holding together neutrons and protons in the atomic nucleus. My magic trick would need a big and complicated clause—essentially a whole other contract—to safely change the nuclear forces. It’s easy enough to imagine a world without the explosive power of enriched uranium and plutonium, or the heat released by turning deuterium and tritium into helium. But mess about with these forces on a grand scale, and the sun and stars go dark. Better to let Dr. Einstein and the Manhattan Project people have their place in history and contain the ill effects through political means.

But then, creating a world without explosives based on molecular bonds among carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen wouldn’t really change much. You could still get a dandy molecular explosion just by bringing hydrogen and oxygen together—look at the fuel mix of the Atlas rockets and the Space Shuttle. You could make a workable grenade out of a plug of elemental sodium and a cup of water. The human thirst for big explosions would not go unrewarded.

And with sufficient electric power and the right chemicals, you can make a high-powered laser. If you don’t like the idea of a machine gun sweeping the battlefield, imagine the original death ray. You can have it in various colors or even invisible beams of infrared and ultraviolet, so that the weapon lacks the minimal courtesy of the tracer rounds in a machine-gun spray.

No, perform an exquisitely precise magic trick to take the power of chemical explosives out of the world, and even if you get it right … not much changes. Humans are awfully clever at getting what they want by exploiting the world and the way it works. And if you try to change that in human nature … imagine life as a three-toed sloth, hanging upside down in a tree with moss growing on your fur.

1. This was the root cause of a planet’s demise, as well as the rise of an insanely aggressive colony of flesh eaters, in the movie Serenity.

2. It’s my understanding, subject to revision with better data, that the ancient Chinese did not actually use gunpowder as a military explosive until sometime in the West’s Middle Ages—somewhere between the Tang and Song dynasties—long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Before that, the Chinese used the explosive formula only for fireworks. Ah yes, and without those energetic exothermic reactions we would lose the bright sparklers and aerial displays that help us celebrate Fourth of July. We’d have to remember the American Revolution with a sword dance.