Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Borrowed from

I wasn’t going to use any more Agents of SHIELD examples to talk about science, but this show just keeps giving me fodder. I’m ignoring a lot of it, actually. This week, the Science Cannot Comprehend Phlebotinum trope showed up.

So without further ado, let me talk a little about what science is.

Borrowed from

S1E8, “The Well”

Skye: Maybe it’s magic.
Simmons: Or some as yet unknown scientific process.
Me: Didn’t they both just say the same thing?

I’m not saying that no scientist would ever react this way. Everyone’s different. But the way this “man of science” trope is so often enacted in media does make me a little tired.

Here’s why:

“Science” refers to a method for understanding how things work.

It doesn’t refer to how things happen–because if that were the case, if it happens in reality, it is scientific. And that’s not really a meaningful statement.

For example, red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs. There is nothing inherently scientific or unscientific about this process–it just happens. We discovered this through a scientific process, however. It may be called science, because it falls within the realm of knowledge that we’ve gained through the use of the scientific method.

On the other side of the spectrum, what does magic actually mean?

It could mean something that doesn’t happen in reality, but then it wouldn’t exist by definition. It could mean something that doesn’t happen in our reality but can happen in fiction, which is a useless definition in-universe, as the fictional characters don’t perceive themselves to be fictional.

Or it could mean something that we don’t understand (or something supposedly impossible). And if we don’t understand it, then it’s “unknown”, at least for the time being.

In that case, whether you call something an “unknown scientific process” or “magic”, you aren’t really saying anything different.

The title to this post is Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I also like the flip-side to the statement, from Girl Genius: Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science–this concept has it’s own page on TV tropes.

These statements essentially mean that the difference in whether you perceive something to be science or magic is pretty much whether or not you understand it. For instance, my computer is magic. I press a key on a keyboard, and somehow this leads to a particular letter appearing in my word document. I have no idea how this happens.

Simmons’ denial of anything thought of as “magical” being possible comes off as having a dash of Arbitrary Skepticism. A staff is emitting some kind of psychic signal that brings out the holder’s darkest memories, but it couldn’t have been emitting some kind of signal that lead the bad guys to it?

Calling something magical doesn’t address the “how” of it at all. It doesn’t mean anything. Responding with, “or it’s some unknown scientific process” doesn’t mean anything either.

But don’t just listen to me. Brain Pickings wrote a post titled What is Science? Featuring quotes on that topic from personages such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.

And they know what they’re talking about.



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2 Responses to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

  1. Psycho Gecko says:

    For all that they mess up with science, the Marvel Cinematic Universe really doesn’t like magic.

    Thor goes from being a god to a god-like being who lives a long time and whose abilities are all explained by being part of an advanced civilization that likes dramatic names and old-fashioned weapons (Wait, wasn’t that some cosplay society?). The Mandarin gets cut completely, with people justifying it by claiming he wouldn’t fit because he’s magic. Yes, he’s so magic because he’s a Chinese man with advanced education who found a crashed alien ship with 10 super-powered rings on it. Magic! And completely unlike anything going on in a TV series related to the movies, I’m sure. Geez, it’d sure stink to have a villain who appears to be using magic to fight the heroes, wouldn’t it? That’s why people could never get into movies like Thor and The Avengers, right?

    I’m all for science and rational thought, but I think they feel too much a need to explain things in comicbook technobabble rather than allow some things in a world of superheroes may just be magic. I don’t even want to think about how Marvel Cinematic would portray Dr. Strange or the Juggernaut (they’d probably go with X-3’s take on him, which is still something I’d rather not think about).

    • Marie Erving says:

      I swear I read a blog post recently that talked about how the quick and dirty “science” origin stories of comic books were fine for their time, but don’t hold up so well in a modern context. And since the movie universe is set in a modern context, it might just make more sense to call it magic and be done with it.

      But I don’t remember at all where I read this, sorry. It’d have been nice to be able to link to it.

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