Superpowered Science

All awakened "superpowers" hinge on the manipulation of electromagnetic fields, but there are two basic ways that can manifest: electric and thermal. What follows is an introduction to those powers by Irene Ballagh, Neuronaut-in-Chief of the Hamiltonian Neuronautics Society in Washington, DC. Since thermomanipulative powers are generated in part by the same method as electrical, the description begins there and then branches out.


Of course, everything with a nervous system generates bio-electricity - electrical impulses that are passed from neuron to neuron, added and subtracted and passed on again to process information and provide instructions for your muscles about when to contract, how much force, and in what pattern. But those electrical potentials are small - tiny little pulses - and whatever the Matrix told you, not exactly designed to power batteries. There’s a big difference between a computer and a dynamo.

But the ability to generate useful electric fields is not uncommon in the animal kingdom - electric eels are the most well-known example, but it occurs in a number of different, unrelated species of fish. They can be divided into strongly-electric fish (producing voltages of 10-500 Volts) or weakly-electric (voltages less than 1 Volt), but the mechanism by which the electric discharges are produced is quite similar: a group of modified muscle cells (all muscle cells in all species can produce small electrical potentials in the same way as nerve cells) that have lost their contractile abilities, but instead are arranged in stacks (each cell resembles a small disk) and can be charged like a tiny battery. The electric organs cells are charged in parallel at rest (i.e. each cell is charged independently of its neighbours), but when stimulated by a nerve impulse from the brain, they release in series. This means that the total voltage produced in the discharge is the sum of the voltage stored by each individual cell - i.e. the more cells you have, the bigger voltage you can produce.

The fish have it easy though, being underwater, because water contains ions that can effectively carry charge, you can get effective electrical currents from quite small voltages. For the same discharge, stronger fields can be produced in sea water than fresh water, because water with dissolved salts has more ions than pure water, and thus has lower resistivity (a measure of how many ions and other charge-carrying particles are present in it). Air, on the other hand, has even less charge-carrying particles than pure water, so it is much harder to produce electrical fields in air. So human electric manipulators need to have a lot of electric cells, and probably more effective ones than do fish, with each cell individually capable of each building up a higher charge, and indeed, putative electrical organs have been noted in the torsos of electrical manipulators that appear to be the source of the intense electrical fields they are known to generate.

Human electrical manipulators also have shown themselves to be capable of using their generated electrical fields in far more imaginative and complex ways than fish, who tend to stick to either stunning prey, or using weak electrical fields like sonar to navigate in their environment. This suggests that human ‘electrics’ must have mechanisms that produce finer control of the strength and shape of the electrical fields that they create. Progress toward understanding the origin of this control is slow, limited by the unethical nature of the invasive experiments on human subjects that would be required to test any hypotheses, and a general lack of understanding of how ordinary bio-electric processes work: neuroscience is a relatively new, and highly complex science and there are still more questions than answers, even about questions as simple as ‘how does a worm crawl?’. It is perhaps unsurprising that full understanding of human superpowers is lagging behind.

The current most-favoured hypothesis of many experts in the field centers around a curious pseudo-lymphatic system that has been observed in autopsies and more recently in CT scans of energy manipulators. It resembles a network of small tubes, larger than but not entirely dissimilar to the long axons of nerve cells that transmit sensory and motor impulses between the body and the nervous system. These tubes appear to radiate out from the centrally-located electrical organ, and instances of synaptic-like contacts from true nerves onto these tubes have been reported from histological studies. A model has been suggested by which electrical discharges generated in the electric organ are funneled through these low-resistance pathways throughout the rest of the body to create a fairly uniform electrical field around the manipulator. Neural control of individual sections of the transmitting tubes could alter their resistance, altering where electricity flows through the body and thus the shape of the electrical field generated. Proponents of the theory have suggested that, like a concert pianist able to exhibit exquisite fine control of the spatial and temporal profile of activation of many individual hand and forearm muscles simultaneously, if sufficient independently controllable segments of the electrical lymphatic system were able to be precisely manipulated at the same time, such a system could perhaps allow for the feats of electric field control that have been observed by skilled manipulators.

(It should be noted that this model, while popular among many neuro-manipulator theorists in the neuroscience and bio-engineering communities, is not universally accepted, and remains a contentious issue that will likely continue to fuel debates at scientific colloquia for many decades to come.)

Thermal divided into two different types: hot and cold. Think of it like being right handed or left handed--if you're right handed, you might be able to write your name with your left, but it'd take a while, and the end results wouldn't be worth the pain. Some people are ambidextrous, but it's rare.

All thermal-type manipulators create their fields by the same method as electrics -- by means of an electro-generative organ in the torso -- and presumably channel their powers through the same pseudo-lymphatic system described above, with one important difference: a thermal manipulator's conductive pathways, rather than being straight, form tight spirals throughout the body. This means that the fields generated are more magnetic in nature.

The small physical difference in the topology of the pseudo-lymphatic system of thermal manipulators is only a recent discovery,  but calls to mind a piece of elementary electromagnetic theory, known to generations of high school physics students as the Right Hand Rule. If an electrical current is travelling straight, the associated magnetic field curls around it (just as the fingers of the right hand would curl around if the right thumb was pointing in the direction of the current flow). However, if the current is spiraling (i.e. if you wrap the conductive wire/pathway in a spiral, as we see with thermal manipulators), the magnetic field becomes the straight part. Solenoids, a basic type of electromagnet, are just wires curled tightly around a lump of iron, and they work because of this rule.

It is not surprising, then, that the observation of spiraling in the pseudolymphatic system has led to several theories of thermal manipulation involving magnetic fields.  Indeed, artificial magnetic fields can be successfully used to trap atoms and manipulate them to either add or subtract energy. By increasing the strength of the magnetic trap and decreasing its area, atoms can be compressed and their average kinetic energy increased (recall Boyle’s law about the  inverse relationship between the pressure and temperature of a gas). Conversely, if the strength of the magnetic field is gradually and fractionally lowered, only the most energetic of atoms contained will be able to overcome its force and escape, thus lowering the average kinetic energy (and thus temperature) of the atoms remaining.

Here's where the explanation becomes more hypothetical, as you might've guessed, and contentious in such a way as to reduce more than one scientific meeting to fisticuffs.

There is evidence, namely the presence of large amounts of infrared radiation (clearly observable via IR camera) in the presence of a thermal manipulator's activity, for which the presence of magnetic fields does not provide sufficient explanation, as detractors of the magnetic theories are happy to point out. This suggests a secondary, auxiliary, or perhaps simply intertwined ability to manipulate photon streams, as we see with laser heating and cooling. It should be noted, however, in a frequent retort of the so-callled ‘Magnetist’ camp that there is as yet no convincing explanation of the physiological origin of this radiation in humans who exhibit thermal control of this kind.

Some brave, if equivocating, middle-wayers have ventured to point out that the manipulation-by-laser explanation is extremely compatible with that of the magnetic field, for which we do have an origin. A magnetic trap of sorts to hold the atoms intended for manipulation in a given workspace would be extremely helpful and allow for greater precision and focus, as exhibited by the vast majority of thermal manipulators.

Laser heating is no foreign concept: we've all seen energy transfer in physical science courses at a basic level, and so our understanding is somewhat intuitive. Atoms can absorb photons, taking on the energy (and momentum) possessed by that photon – think of a black surface absorbing the sun’s heat on a hot day. This is how the hot type thermal manipulators work, generating the magnetic field and, perhaps, the photon streams to add to the target atom's current kinetic energy.

Laser cooling is a relatively new field, but works in quite a similar way. When an atom absorbs a photon, it spits out an identical one. The angle of collision decides which direction this new photon is, for lack of a better term, spat: if it is spat in one direction, the original atom has absorbed all the energy from the photon, and therefore has double its original momentum.

If the identical photon is spat back in the direction from whence it came, however, the target atom will give up its momentum to the photon -- which, of course, leads to less kinetic energy, and cooling. The process by which this angle is accomplished is a matter of sophisticated quantum mechanical theory with highly complex mathematics not easily reduced to simple metaphors (or so your poor science communicators charged with forming explanations are assured by the laser cooling experts) and whether lab-based super-cooling experiments with light traps can be compared to the real world biophysical wonders achieved by thermomanipulators is still a classic (or was that clich├ęd?) debate in scientific circles.

However, light trapping and cooling of gas atoms can be repeated over and over to double, quadruple, etc., etc., the difference in momentum in a given target atom. (Which, again, would make a magnetic trap holding the atoms to be manipulated in a small area quite handy.) With a proviso that we are rushing into metaphors unsanctioned by naturally cautious quantum mechanic theorists, we will fearlessly forge ahead with our own analogies. If these IR photons observed during thermal manipulation are indeed being absorbed by the affected atoms, some combination of the energy that the photon has, and the angle of the collision (whether they're going head on or not) can either send the atom off with extra energy, or stop it in its tracks, thereby either heating or cooling. Indeed, the visualization techniques for thermal manipulators tend toward simple examples of either adding or detracting from a given object's momentum.

Baseball is a very popular one for awakened parents when adolescent offspring begin to manifest thermal manipulation capabilities. When you swing the bat at a ball full on, going for the home run, you're adding energy to the ball, transferring the bat's momentum to it. When you bunt, you absorb the ball's momentum into the bat, slowing it. If you’ve ever happened to catch an accomplished slugger floundering over a bunt attempt in a close game, you’ll have an appreciation for the idea that hitting and bunting are different realms, and skill in one is no guarantee of proficiency in the other, and the same most definitely appears to be true of thermal manipulation.

If the laser explanation is accurate, the baseball metaphor is not wholly appropriate (but it would hardly be the first time a scientist has over-stretched an obsession with America’s national pastime in such a way. [Yes, we are looking at you, Stephen Jay Gould.]), and it does still serve as a useful visualization technique for young or second-spurt awakened working on control. It's also useful for those who wish to stretch their capabilities in the opposite direction to that which is naturally intuitive: for someone who naturally works with the hot side of things to develop basic cold capabilities and vice versa. As previously expressed, there are awakened electromagnetic manipulators who are capable of doing both at a high level, but they are extremely rare. These abilities are somewhat beyond the scope of this introductory explanation, however.

Irene Ballagh, Neuronaut-in-Chief
Hamiltonian Neuronautics Society
(Previously the Hamiltonian Society for Mesmerical Studies)
Washington, DC