E&M and Electromagicians

four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell
Four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell, who is absent from “The Homunculi’s Guide.” Images from U.S. Patent Office via Google Patents.

A couple of weeks in, it still boggles me to think that “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” is out there in the world.

This is probably the most “me” story I have ever written. Not so much “write what you know” as “write what you obsess about.” One such obsession is electricity and magnetism–the physics discipline–which is often abbreviated as E&M. This discipline is heavy on the math, but the applications of the math are immediate and powerful. If you can solve this equation, then you can explain why electricity does that thing but not the other thing. Therefore, theoretically speaking, if you can set up your equations correctly, then you can tell electricity what to do, and when, and how.

To me, those equations have always felt pretty close to casting a magic spell: you can use a simple thought, a trick of your brain, to shape the world around you.

In real life, you have to actually put together your theoretical machine. But what if there was a kind of magic where having a sufficiently deep understanding of the theory was enough to make the theoretical become real?

That thought is where the magic system in “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” started. Of course, it ended up going significantly beyond “magical physics,” but I hope that it retains some grounding in those concepts.

Although the story is fictitious, I invoked a number of real-life scientists, because I am not nearly creative enough to make up laws of physics that are weirder than the ones that already exist in our universe. And also because I admire the immense amount of work that went into their discoveries, which continue to shape our existence.

So if you will indulge me, I’d like to talk a little about the scientists that I referenced in the story, who helped describe the magic physics system that we actually live in. And because I cannot resist the urge, I’m also throwing in my headcanon about what they did in the Homunculi ’verse.

In order of birth year:

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) was an incredibly influential mathematician. At 21, he published a landmark book on number theory. And he didn’t stop there. His name is attached to many, many, many concepts. These come to mind first: the Gaussian (aka “normal”) distribution in statistics, the Gaussian blur in your image processing program of choice, and not one but two of the equations in Maxwell’s Equations. The list could go on for quite a while.

While most of his work was of the theoretical variety, he applied his mathematical abilities to fields like astronomy, geography, and of course physics. In 1833, Gauss collaborated on building an early version of a telegraph. Today there is a replica of this machine at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Gauss was a bit of a jerk, though: according to a grandson, Gauss “did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did not want the name lowered” … well, he certainly lowered himself in my estimation with that sentiment.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Gauss made his name entirely in the scientific realm. But his children became well-known magicians in their own right. In particular, his daughter Therese became a famous electromagician.

Michael Faraday (1791–1867): a bookbinder’s apprentice who taught himself physics from the books that he bound, he went on to experimentally discover many fundamental principles of electromagnetism.

No slouch in the innovation department, Faraday invented useful things like the Faraday Cage, which is that metal mesh covering microwave doors. This mesh, poetically speaking, traps the electromagnetic dance that goes on inside a microwave whereby a frozen burrito gets nuked. As a result, said electromagnetic dance does not radiate outside and nuke your face.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Faraday invented the Faraday Ward, which traps electric spirits inside any mathematically defined closed surface. He also developed and formulated theories on how to store magical forces. The Farad, a unit named in his honor, describes the ability of various mediums–aether, quartz, bottle gourds and so on–to store magical energy, be they electrical or otherwise. Faraday was the first to study this quality experimentally. For this achievement, Faraday is venerated by all magicians.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879): best known for the eponymous Maxwell’s Equations. These are four foundational mathematical equations that showed that electricity, magnetism, and light are all different manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetism.

That may sound bland but it has very far-ranging implications. Maxwell’s Equations can describe (the electromagnetic component of) how an MRI images your brain, how power plants generate electricity, and how signals travel down coaxial cables to bring you this blog post.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Maxwell was an early electromagician who tried … and failed spectacularly to show that all types of magic are related to a fundamental magical force. However, in the process, he did come up with his three Maxwell’s Electromagical Equations, which state and formulate the following:

  • Gauss’s Law of Radiative Souls: Human souls produce electromagical fields. The electromagical flux across a closed surface is proportional to the amount of soul enclosed.
  • Faraday’s Law of Flux: Souls that fluctuate in time produce electromagical fields.
  • Ampère’s Law of Currents: Non-magical electromagnetic phenomena, when applied to souls, produce electromagical fields.

Note that Maxwell’s four Equations of electromagnetism also exist in the Homunculi ’verse. Any competent electromagician must master both sets.

Also note that the Gauss referenced here is Therese.

Maxwell also posited that spirits can be communicated with by means of radio waves. He was correct, though he did not live to find out. Nor did he leave any homunculi behind.

Tivadar Puskás (1844–1893): a Hungarian inventor who, among other things, came up with the first telephone exchange. An exchange is basically that switchboard you see in retro photographs, where you have rows and rows of operators (usually women) manually connecting phone calls. Today, these functions are carried out automatically by machines.

To be honest I wish I knew more about him. Wikipedia’s article certainly makes it look like he lived a very interesting life.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Puskás is revered as the closest thing that the homunculi have to a god. The telephone exchange opened the door to the dark world inside the wires, and Puskás gave that door a very hard kick.

Max Planck (1858–1947) is famous for being one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. While working for commercial electricity utility companies, Planck tried to calculate the energy emitted by light bulbs. That turned out to be a much more complex problem than one might imagine. Long story short, the only way Planck could make the math work was to propose that light itself existed in little “packets” of energy–indivisible units, somewhat like atoms. He was right, and today we call these packets photons. He received a Nobel Prize for this work.

The “Planck second” referenced in my story is the amount of time that it takes light to travel a certain distance (derived from a handful of other constants). It is an incredibly small amount of time–5.39 × 10 −44 s. In fact, it is, in a sense, the smallest unit of time. Below that amount of time, the concept of time itself has no meaning due to quantum mechanics.

In the framework of the Big Bang theory, by the way, it took one Planck second to go from the beginning of … everything … to the beginning of the universe as we know. We may never know what that first Planck second was like.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Planck was the first to take a stab at calculating the energy and dimensionality of the human soul. While he had no notion of the homunculi, Planck did theorize that there existed a quantum unit of the smallest amount of energy possible in a human soul. He was correct.

Kikyou Tachibana did not exist in our world, but if you will indulge me one last time …

In the Homunculi ’verse, Tachibana (1924-?) was a very successful developer of integrated circuit technologies. After selling all three of her companies, Tachibana retired early and became interested in electromagic. She joined an institution for magical studies, where she made a number of contributions to the practice before her mysterious disappearance at the age of 74* in 1998. She is, of course, best known for coining the name “homunculi” to describe telecommunications ghosts.

*Tachibana was, although no one ever knew it, the first person to figure out how to join the homunculi. Which she promptly did, out of sheer curiosity, but of course she could not return. Her homunculi have long forgotten who they used to be.

If you actually read all this way, thank you, and I hoped that was somewhat entertaining and/or educational. Oh, and may the electric gods bless you and your internet connection today.


The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

I’m so happy to say that my story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”, is out today in both audio and text form at Escape Pod!

What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message?

And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost?

Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls …

This story contains: life, death, love, sacrifice, linear algebra, electricity & magnetism, particle physics, and a very small smattering of quantum mechanics. You know, all the usual Kara obsessions.

Of note, the audio is narrated by the amazing Katherine Inskip, whom I was lucky enough to meet at Worldcon in Dublin. If she had delivered my college physics lectures, I might have gone to more of them.

As the Homunculi say: Thank you for reading. Or listening!


Story Sale Announcement

Photograph by Bucketsofsnow. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

I am super happy and mildly in disbelief to announce that I’ve sold a short story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts,” to Escape Pod. This is my first ever sale to a SFWA professional market, so, I’m kind of quietly imploding. The story features souls lurking in telephone lines and magical electromagnetism*, and will hopefully appear sometime in fall 2019.

*My research for this story consisted of pulling out my college E&M and quantum textbooks, which I somehow still have. It’s good to know that the very expensive education I received finally went to an appropriate use.


“A Remedy for Memory” live!

And there’s no remedy for memory
Your face is like a melody
It won’t leave my head …

— Lana Del Rey, “Dark Paradise”

… which is to say, my story “A Remedy for Memory” is live on Empyreome. Thank you for reading, if you do!

P.S. While you’re at it, may I suggest you try the other stories in the issue? I am personally very fond of “Oscars on the Rue Jules Verne.”


Story sale!

I am very happy to announce that “A Remedy for Memory”, a short SF story about love and memory and the perils of mixing them together, will be in the July 2017 issue of Empyreome Magazine.

I love all my children equally … said the parent of one child (and this is true, she said, in Peter Sagal’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” voice). But in all earnestness, “A Remedy for Memory” represents something special to me, not least that I don’t know when to quit. I wrote my first version of this story back in 2009, and since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I revised or completely rewrote the piece. I was going to rewrite it again–I still have the outline in my Google Docs–if there were no takers this year. But I am beyond happy that someone does want it.

As for the story sitting in my revised outline, I still plan to write it, or something like it, one day. Like I said, I don’t know when to quit.