Science of the Discworld ~ where Magic ends? (SPOILERS)

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Science of the Discworld ~ where Magic ends? (SPOILERS)

Postby Jan Van Quirm » Sun Apr 25, 2010 12:55 pm

Science raises it's head all over this board but we haven't got a thread specifically about the Science of Discworld, even though Terry's co-written 3 novels about it. Roundworld, the focus of the books, is currently sitting on a mantelpiece in Rincewind's chambers at UU and provides an interesting experimental study environment for Ponder Stibbons and the other Wizards as well.

On DreamWorlds we have a movie forum and a thread about the James Cameron movie Avatar. As you do, we drifted onto the subject of how scientific science-fiction should be - in context with how the hell did they get floating mountains, amongst other things? :lol: Which is easy if you know the work of Roger Deanor your Yes album covers. This got us onto the subject of how much 'pure' science-fiction actually owes to fantasy over science. I think there has to be a lot of fantasy/abstract visualisation involved in the process of writing sci-fi and then Quark made this comment
Quark wrote:Magic isn't allowed as an excuse in sci-fi . :P

and this is part of what I said in reply... :twisted:
I wrote:Who says? :lol: Terry Pratchett takes his science seriously enough in Discworld to help make it 'work' more or less, and has written 3 books about science which feature the Wizards of Unseen University fiddling around with Roundworld. :wink: A feature of the second book goes back to Renaissance England where the Wizards study a man who's regarded as a magician of sorts by his neighbours. He thinks of himself as an Alchemist in fact, but he is really a scientist before science was called that. If you don't understand the science then a light bulb is 'magic'. So's a telephone - you don't need to know how they work, but you know it's to 'do with microchips and electricity', but fantastic tales in even our recent history once regarded lights not made with fire, or the ability to speak over distances as magic. All in the perception. Granted fantasy is more prone to dragging sci-fi into it rather than vice-versa, (Terry Brooks for instance in the Shannara series hints like mad of some technological Armageddon that laid waste to the world that was later 'run' by Druid and Elf magic), but it does work the other way too.

I think Asimov was one of the earliest sci-fi writers to bring 'visualisation' [into the frame](rather than fantasy to make this more comfortable for people :P ) and it's present in his various short stories including the Robot sets, but the one I was struck by was one of his famous shorts - Nightfall. Here he creates a planet where there is no such thing as true dark, because the planet has several suns and a truly mind-boggling orbit BUT, it occasionally gets a complete multiple solar eclipse roughly every 6 thousand years, which is also roughly how long most of the world's cultures last...
It's an amazing story and not too in-depth, but the human angle is very well thought through in that he doesn't get too fussy with the astronomical side of things, but concentrates on what effect 'total' darkness has on a world that has never developed sophisticated lighting - because they didn't need to - and asks how they would 'cope' with a full eclipse. They don't is the answer. People go mad and just as the suns 'go out' altogether, they see their stars for the first time and it's too much and then we find out why all that world's cultures fail every 6 thousand years... compelling stuff and he had to imagine that.

Pandora, [the planet on which Avatar is set], reminds me a lot of that story because the villains - the Earth People of course, have no conception or respect for the culture of the Na'vi and how they are part of the planet's own life.
.......the kind of thing that made the world 'work' for me [were the natural geographical and biological aspects] - the war machines and copters were the unnatural elements that didn't 'belong', so was it truly science fiction? The avatars themselves were made possible by genetic science, which is biologically based of course - also a kind of magic even now and one that has been developed all along with ethical, human elements being argued and set in place as governors of where the science should stop and natural biological imperatives should not be over-ridden lest we create monsters or become monsters in search of 'perfection'.
Part of that reining back from exciting scientific frontiers is perhaps a deep fear of the unknown that we know we have to heed at times, and is often recognised on a very human level because another remarkable and ground-breaking work of [gothic] fiction fostered a dire warning of 'going too far' with science we don't wholly understand. That book wove bold and terrible fantasy elements alongside the breaking miraculous science of the time when we had first harnessed lightning. It was written in the 19th century by the young wife of a poet called Shelley... :wink:

Science can be and is magic at times, especially in the future :lol:

Where does the magic stop and science take over so far as Discworld is concerned? Let's talk about Science versus the Magic Arts from a Discworld perspective... :twisted:
Last edited by Jan Van Quirm on Mon Apr 26, 2010 2:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Willem » Sun Apr 25, 2010 5:34 pm

I'm tired, so I'm using short sentences tonight.

First couple of books - very 'magical'
Later books - more 'scientific'.

Discworld seems to be having a sort of industrial revolution where magic is replaced by (reliable) engineering: the imps in watches get replaced by clockwork for example.
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Postby Ponder Stibbons » Mon Apr 26, 2010 1:26 pm

Well, like jan said; magic is just science you dont understand. Science is just magic you do understand. Its like that in Artemis Fowl. Because there's a genius in it, theres all the sciency bits and he always tries to explain how magic works to himself and only really works it out at the end, and still not completely. i know its not like that in most otehr sci-fis, but in that, magic is really a kind of energy and like other energy, it can be trans-exchanged into light, sound, etc. energy. And it can create matter when concentrated enough.
A problem in sci-fi is that sometimes the author or director doesnt understand the science of it himself, though this obviously doesnt apply much in DW, esp. with the real scientist helping to mess around with their own version of a world with DW influences :P
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Postby Jan Van Quirm » Tue Apr 27, 2010 4:36 pm

Willem wrote:Discworld seems to be having a sort of industrial revolution where magic is replaced by (reliable) engineering: the imps in watches get replaced by clockwork for example.

You're right - no imps in the glass clock that Jeremy makes in Thief of Time (or presumably the previous one in Uberwald) but that needs a lightning strike to 'work' as the auditors come in to intervene and Lady Lejean keeps doing stuff to foul it up so there's still magic involved (without imps) in that side of things. Whereas with movable type on the printing presses in the Truth no imps were involved or in the engraving processes of course, so that's going with 'normal' industry-led invention :lol:

However - iconographs and the Disorganiser are still imp-driven (with the help of light-gorging salamanders in the iconograph's case) so maybe it's just horses for courses depending on how 'available' the technology has to be to some extent. The clacks for instance aren't magical as they're based on a kind of semaphore but Hex has hacked into the system so UU are presumably making use of 'normal' technology with a 'magical' application? :? And then there's the omniscope... :wink:
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Postby Ponder Stibbons » Wed Apr 28, 2010 12:48 pm

I didnt understand most of that becasue i havent read those books, but i see what your getting at. SOunds like the star people are returning. But here the magic just isnt being used, its not actually draining away
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Postby Jan Van Quirm » Wed Apr 28, 2010 2:41 pm

Well there you go Ponder - The Truth and Thief of Time are 'musts' on your reading list! :wink:

Actually whilst we're on the subject of clockwork, as in the glass clocks it's interesting to look at this on the assumption that they're both (the Uberwald one as well as the A-M one) unmagical so far as manufacture goes, both incredibily accurate (because of the precision engineering of the various components) and yet they both achieve a superlative 'moment' that is enough to stop time literally dead in it's tracks - is that not magical?

Or is it just plain evil? The Auditors themselves, surely are the epitome of efficient and/or pure science but they too are malevolent in their intent to manage and make life 'tidy' and predictable. And they can clothe themselves in 'matter' to become incarnate (which is in itself pretty miraculous if not magical :P ) and, for a symbiotic and amalgous community entity, they get the hang of being individuals pretty darned quickly. :roll:

So the most scientific and super-logical entity (as a collective) of Terry's multiverse also uses science in a supremely incomprehensible manner that essentially works for evil more than good unless, like Lady Lejean the auditors embrace their individuality? :lol:

I think what Terry is doing here is investigating from different angles the point at which science becomes 'art' and possibly magical as a result - but at the same time, if it continues to be applied with rational methods to use that superlative science, it starts to become flawed in interpretation and becomes inherently evil. As with the glass clock, it wasn't magical in itself but, in its perfect application it was in fact a very destructive life-threatening thing indeed... :shock:
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Postby Ponder Stibbons » Thu Apr 29, 2010 11:04 am

Well, dark holes slow down time and light and send you back in time so if you survive youll find your children are grandparents. Thats magical :wink:
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Postby poohcarrot » Thu Apr 29, 2010 11:17 am

Jan Van Quirm wrote:
I think what Terry is doing here is investigating from different angles the point at which science becomes 'art' and possibly magical as a result - but at the same time, if it continues to be applied with rational methods to use that superlative science, it starts to become flawed in interpretation and becomes inherently evil. As with the glass clock, it wasn't magical in itself but, in its perfect application it was in fact a very destructive life-threatening thing indeed... :shock:


Isn't that true of all scientific progress? In the wrong hands any invention can become a tool for evil, can't it?
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Postby Jan Van Quirm » Thu Apr 29, 2010 11:31 am

Put the penicillin DOWN! :lol:

So the auditors are all Dr. Frankenstein? :twisted:
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Postby poohcarrot » Thu Apr 29, 2010 12:50 pm

Has the whole world got access to cheap penicillin?
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Postby mystmoon » Thu Apr 29, 2010 12:54 pm

*looks suspiciously at her antibiotics* What are you suggesting?
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Postby poohcarrot » Thu Apr 29, 2010 1:15 pm

I'm suggesting that certain people might have access to penicillin, whereas certain other people might not. I don't know.

If that were to be the case, then surely that would be evil.
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Postby raisindot » Thu Apr 29, 2010 2:56 pm

Jan Van Quirm wrote:Or is it just plain evil? The Auditors themselves, surely are the epitome of efficient and/or pure science but they too are malevolent in their intent to manage and make life 'tidy' and predictable...
So the most scientific and super-logical entity (as a collective) of Terry's multiverse also uses science in a supremely incomprehensible manner that essentially works for evil more than good unless, like Lady Lejean the auditors embrace their individuality? :lol:


I must disagree, oh sneaky and nasty one. :wink:

You're equating science itself (the discovery of the laws and processes that make the universe work) to the moralistic merits of applying scientific discoveries to achieve specific ends. Science itself has no inherent morality; that's a human thing. E=mc[2] exists as a logical, scientific concept. The equation can be used in applications for the common good or for destructive purposes.

Or, let's take Pooh's pencillin obsession. Science discovered that glorified mold could kill baterial infections. Using penicillin to end the clap and other diseases in humans and other higher order animals may be considered a morally righteous application, but to an alien entity that considers all life to be of equal value, penicillin could be considered to be a morally evil invention because it kills the bacteria that are doing nothing other than doing what all life does: consume and multiply.

And certainly scientists are not purely logical, nor do tmost believe a perfectly logical world without emotion, confusion or interpsonal relationships is the ideal world, even if they way they dress and act suggests otherwise. :D

Besides, the auditors aren't really scientists. Even though PTerry compares them to accountants, they're much more akin to obsessive housecleaners. Their ideal of a "clean home" is one free of the soil of emotion, creativity, and organic activity. The methods they use to achieve this are the equivalent of using a mop, duster, and Lysol.

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Postby Jan Van Quirm » Thu Apr 29, 2010 8:42 pm

This is just a debate no right or wrong as such. Science is science is science, not 'art' so maybe it's in the definition, because art is not a science because it has blurred edges and values that defy belief and/or definition.

I brought up penicillin - it's just a mould that can fight/cure infections. I'm not allergic to it so I'm fine with it. For people who are allergic they aren't fine with it presumably. :?

Back to art as 'magic' not science :roll: Using art art as an example and the enchanting allure of owning the work of an internationally-rated artist why is the Mona Lisa the best piece of art ever and conversely why is Picasso's Guernica the best piece of art ever...? :P Which one would fetch most at auction? Who would be able to afford either painting - if they're priceless, do they have any real value at all? Can't define art you see although the auditors/accountants would certainly be able to give you market indications for a given time presumably and base it on who might be able to afford either painting but then would they want to buy either of those paintings? Maybe the people who could afford a Picasso or a Da Vinci prefer Andy Warhol or Beryl Cook( a successful artist in her lifetime and now conveniently dead so very collectable of course... :twisted:

Back to Discworld again - why is the glass clock scientific because it's clockwork but can stop Time (the concept/Goddess) when the History Monks procrastinators are magic (because they're worked instinctively on the basis of skill and interpretation) and for a while can't beat the science of of clockwork? :shock:

Going to lie down now.... :lol:
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Postby raisindot » Fri Apr 30, 2010 11:47 am

Jan Van Quirm wrote:Back to art as 'magic' not science :roll: Using art art as an example and the enchanting allure of owning the work of an internationally-rated artist why is the Mona Lisa the best piece of art ever and conversely why is Picasso's Guernica the best piece of art ever...?


The difference between singular artistic and scientific accomplishments is that the latter can be achieved by anyone and the former can't.

Einstein may have been the first to "discover" E=Mc2 and relativity, but, eventually, someone would have made these discoveries (indeed, several others had deduced some parts of this theories, but he was the first to see and publish the 'big picture.'). Darwin only published "The Origin of Species" when it became clear that someone else was about to publish his own work with similar theories.

Whereas, if Da Vinci and Picasso had died as infants or Mozart never had the world's worst stage father, the world would never have had "The Mona Lisa,"
"Guernica" and "Don Giovanni." :o

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