The Letters Page: Episode 105
Let's "learn" about SCIENCE!
Run Time: 1:29:37
Disclaimer! We are not scientists! Like, not really! That will become increasingly clear over the course of the episode! Even still, have fun!
After a fairly standard amount of goofing around, we finally get into your questions, starting just before the 4 minute mark.
Thanks to all of our listeners, especially our Patreon supporters! Catch you next week!
- How much more advanced is science in the Sentinel Comics universe than it is here in the real world (e.g. have they gotten farther on the topic of finding out what the curvature of the universe is)? It is very advanced there. Between people like Dr. Meredith Stinson and the output of the entire nation of Mordengrad, there are people pushing back the boundaries of knowledge faster than we do here. As a general rule, they’re about 20 years ahead of us. It’s not so far ahead as to solve all of the problems that we have now and the world is still recognizable, but it’s notably more advanced. There are additional quandaries, though, like “where did all of these superpowers come from?” that winds up taking additional resources to investigate that we don’t have to deal with here. [There’s a side bit here about how “it’s not science if you don’t write it down” which devolves, inevitably, into them not counting as they’re just talking, not writing it down. Of course, this means I get called out as the “official scientist of the meta-meta-verse of Sentinel Comics”, which is pretty cool.] Like, they haven’t solved the energy crisis yet, but there are some interesting advances (Akash’Flora in Megalopolis, the Nolan Generators, etc.). They point out that neither Adam nor Christopher are scientists [no peer review because they have no peers - well, they can review each other’s work I guess.] and while they have some areas of “science” that they know more or less about, they’re not experts and are likely to get stuff wrong (and given what they know of at least some members of the audience of the podcast, it’s likely that some of us would be able to notice when they get stuff wrong), although they point out that they’re the ones creating this universe, so give them some slack. They look forward to Editors Note #30 where we all get to “Well, actually…” them on all of this stuff. As for the curvature of the universe question: in Sentinel Comics, they’ve found that the universe is actually non-Euclidean - this is important for the implications of the Multiverse and how the universe needs to connect to so many other things which means that standard curvatures don’t model it well. [They go into a metaphor of universes “stacked” on one another that breaks down when they get into the weeds of a stack of CDs is too neat, and pancakes are better as they’re 1) not so neatly stacks as CDs can be, and 2) a food which fits the general theme for metaphors on this podcast. I would posit that they missed the opportunity to use Pringles™ since they stack well and are shaped as hyperbolic paraboloids which I think fits into the non-Euclidean bit better than a flat pancake since either the positive- or negative-curvature universes would count as “non-Euclidean”, although the term gets used in different ways once people start quoting H.P. Lovecraft, so whatever.]
- We’ve gotten a lot of great explanations for where people got powers, but I have a question about Isoflux Alpha: can it only grant powers to non-powered humans? Does it occur on other worlds, like Dok'Thorath (if some of these mesons run into some ley lines there)? Could it give powers to a blue Thorathian? Can it affect somebody with powers and, if so, does it augment the existing powers or rewrite them? Does it only work on “people” or could it work on any organism? To recap information in the Southwest Sentinels episode for people: the Nolan Generators (mentioned previously) will sometimes create, as a side-effect, exotic mesons that escape into the environment. If those mesons get entangled with the energy surrounding ley lines it can sometimes create a liquid called Isoflux Alpha. That liquid, when coming into contact with a person, can sometimes cause a transformation that could give them powers. Note all the “sometimes” in there - it’s rare that the mesons get created, it’s rare that this results in Isoflux Alpha, and it’s rare that somebody encountering it will be changed. The intent of it within comics was as a convenient hand-wave for where these people are getting powers. Coming up with unique origin stories gets tedious after a while, so they wanted something that could explain why they could introduce a new powered character - they’re just another Omega (although Omegas are still meant to be rare when compared to the population). Whether somebody who already has powers could be affected by Isoflux Alpha comes down in large part to whether their physiology has been altered already (but it’s not just as simple as that, either). This is one of those “unknown quandaries” for Science in the comics - nobody in-setting knows where Isoflux Alpha is coming from in the first place and it’s pretty much impossible to do actual tests with it due to the lack of reproducibility in its effects. It doesn’t really happen on other worlds because the mesons decay before they can make it that far - in theory you might get some that make it as far as Venus or Mars, but that’s pushing it [implying that the specific kinds of mesons in question are unique to the Nolan Generator and therefore don’t occur on Dok’Thorath]. However, if you could capture some mesons (or preserve some Isoflux Alpha) you could, in theory, use it elsewhere but that would be difficult and you’d have to know what you were actually doing with it. Non-human/non-sapient organisms are fair game, but this was a contrivance for making super-powered people on Earth so they’re not using it to create powered people elsewhere.
- [Letter calls them to task by doing the math on the rate of meson generation they stated in that prior episode (at around 1:44:15) and determining that it couldn’t possibly result in enough Isoflux Alpha to support the rate that they say Omegas get created (“once a month”, y’know, how often the comic comes out).] The situation here is that they carried some numbers wrong when they were doing the back-of-the-envelope calculations for that episode. Neither of them are really “math people” in addition to not being scientists. The intended rate is for this to happen roughly once a month, so if somebody wants to do the math to get the right number, they’re interested.
- What is the extent of Dr. Medico’s healing power? Like, could he regrow a limb that somebody lost long ago? He is living healing energy - he’s basically able to accelerate the body’s own recuperative process. He can even exert himself to push those limits a bit, but he is not going to be able to heal somebody beyond what the body would be able to do on its own, so no limb-regrowth (well, for people, he could probably heal a starfish or something that can regrow parts like that). If he’s looking at somebody who had an amputation a long time ago, the healing has stopped by now, so there’s nothing to speed up. Christopher tells a story of his friend who had his arm torn off in a terrible auger accident - his friend doesn’t have to work anymore since he was on the job at the time and it was somebody else’s screw up so he got a big payout, but he is also in constant pain from the phantom limb which feels like its constantly making as tight a fist as possible. Dr. Medico could do something so that the nerve endings involved no longer do that phantom limb thing, relieving the pain. It’s also possible to, say, reattach a severed finger if you get it in time and it’s a relatively clean cut - Medico could do simple reattachment work like that pretty much instantly and could do more with messier cases. Finally, and nearing the limits of what he can do, if an amputee came in and there was a fresh “donor arm” (or whatever), he could reopen the wound site and attach the new arm. So, no regrowth, but strange transplants are possible - that’s still in the realm of something that could happen with “enough healing” and Medico is made of “enough healing”. Preventing the rejection of a transplanted organ is along these lines too.
- Can he heal diseases (e.g. asthma, the common cold, or lupus)? That’s quite an eclectic collection of options, there, but ok. The common cold is something that you’ll generally get over on your own, so yeah, he can just push you on through that process. Other types of things are tricky. Auto-immune diseases in particular are difficult due to how his powers work (i.e. if he’s just speeding up your body’s immune response, what does that imply for cases where your immune system is what’s causing the problem?), but he’s “smarter” than your immune system - “he’s like if your immune system went to medical school” - and can try to work around that by tuning into specific functions. So, while some diseases he can just cure, others he would have to be hands-on with managing what’s going on.
- Can he regenerate internal organs or rejuvenate dysfunctional cells (e.g. could he start up insulin production in a diabetic person’s pancreas)? He can’t regenerate ones that are completely gone, but he can stimulate the regrowth of ones that are still partially there (for example, your liver can pretty much regenerate from a small portion remaining already, so he’s just better at that process), but he can make traditional transplants go much easier. Revitalizing defunct organs/cells like in the pancreas example is also something he can do well.
- [To get to the unasked broader question here of "what can Dr. Medico heal?"] He can probably cure cancer (depending on just how wide-spread it has gotten before he takes a look), but it’s an individual thing - he’s not developing a treatment for all cancers that could be used elsewhere. There are also people who are just so far-gone that he can’t really do much without just becoming a life-support “machine” for them which he 1) can’t keep up for forever in the first place and 2) would prevent him from helping other people. It’s the great tragedy of his character that he can’t save everyone.
- You said that there was no evidence of “Space Dad” (Captain Cosmic) actually being a dad, but if he were, could his child inherit his energy powers? I guess the more complete question is do OblivAeon shards grant power by changing the person’s biology so that it can become inherited? Captain Cosmic’s hypothetical child could theoretically inherit energy powers, but they’re not likely to be exactly the same energy powers. OblivAeon shards can give powers in a few ways - CC, Infinitor, and the similarly-powered Galactra all have this weird energy manipulation thing that happens around them, but it’s still external to them. Proletariat, on the other hand, had his body altered directly. Generally speaking, in Sentinel Comics it is “very, very, very unlikely” but possible that somebody would be born with powers. If the parents have powers, then the likelihood goes up considerably, but it’s still far from certain. We’re also looking at a “History of Sentinel Comics” timeline that, because of comic book time, hasn’t really had much opportunity to showcase this - we have a few generations of the Parsons family, and the two Iron Curtains, but that’s about it in terms of multiple generations of characters [there is another they have in mind that they tease - my guess would be Tempest as that’s been teased before. There have been references to a child of Baron Blade here and there too, but as he doesn’t have powers I don’t think it applies to this discussion]. The start-point of the RPG timeline, and introducing Daybreak in particular, is meant to kind of be a handing-off point to a new generation and we’re going to see an influx of a lot of new powered people [the player characters have to have come from somewhere] and one way for them to be there is for powered characters having children.
- What about Omegas, who have evidence of much greater biological changes? Would potential children of Omegas reflect their parents powers (like, would Mainstay’s kid be a “giant muscle baby” or Medico’s be some kind of “golden sand baby”) or are the changes due to Isoflux Alpha more chaotic than that and be more likely to result in all-new powers? Omegas are much more likely to have powered offspring than an OblivAeon shard wielder. [They make the joke about how neither Mainstay nor Medico are likely to have children as neither of them has a uterus. This prompts Christopher to consider that Medico might actually be able to form a new energy being out of his own being like in cellular mitosis, though.]
- Can we get, like, way more in-depth information on Magmarian society? Is there only one gender? How are new Magmarians born? Magmarians entire society is based around the crystals. They eat them, but they also produce them - it’s not really “waste”, but they are a result of their “biology” as part of the way they pass on “genetic” markers. They have rarely-shown-to-outsiders areas called “birthing pools” - lava pools that they submerge the crystals in to “grow” new, fully-grown Magmarians. There’s no such thing as a “baby” Magmarian and you can’t really tell how old one is just by size, it’s more down to how “flowy” their lava bodies are - the older ones are more solidified.
- Do they have a leader? Are the different “jobs” we see them have in the game due to how they’re born or do they adopt the different shapes in order to take the job? What differences are there between the different types of Magmarians? The Tunnelers, Shapers, and Defenders seem to have straightforward jobs, but what of the Shamans? The Shamans are the closest to “leaders” - they’re the ones who understand the most about the crystals. There is a kind of caste system between the different types, but it’s also kind of like an ant colony where the different types just know what their job is supposed to be. We’re also talking about them from the vantage point outside the setting - it’s even more opaque to characters in the comics as nobody really knows a whole lot about Magmaria.
- Do they have something like a religion? Are the crystals seen as something like “souls” and does this mean they have something like “ancestor worship”? Do the Shamans have some kind of special ability like the Tunnelers and Shapers seem to have? How much individuality do they have? They do have a fair amount of individuality, but they’re all working together on a subsistence basis and that takes up the majority of their time. They do have places that they seem to go for “enjoyment” as far as that can be determined, but it’s not entirely clear how that works. That’s really the whole point of them - they go about whatever it is they’re doing, but the purpose is very mysterious to outsiders. They’re not meant to be a clearly-explained people with relatable motivations, they’re supposed to be something of an enigma. The Shamans are most involved with the knowledge of the crystals - which to eat, which to use for “procreation”, which to use for building and so on - and keeping the oral history of the people. We don’t know if they have religion, but they have ceremony/traditions around how they interact with the crystals that could be construed as being like religion. They seem to be able to “hear” things from the crystals that we can’t observe. There will be more information on Magmarias in the Urban Settings book for the RPG.
- Would you describe Magmaria as a city, with buildings, homes, businesses, etc. or more like an anthill? What is life in Magmaria like? It’s a city, but a city that’s a lot like an anthill. There are central gathering places, building places, gathering places, and there are also individual homes. There’s no day/night cycle and there isn’t an understandable family structure. It’s also very hot there. It would seem like “all work and no play” except that the work seems to be something that the Magmarians enjoy doing. They are a reclusive, alien people sharing our planet and it’s a dangerous place, just by virtue of how different they are rather than any malice on their part.
- Would recordings of Argent Adept’s music or NightMist and Harpy casting spells hold any power? No - like, with NightMist and Harpy you’d be able to hear the words they say and so could use them as reference/practice materials for that part of it, but there’s more to magic than just the words [pretty good bit here at around 48 minutes in where Adam says some nonsense as an example, but Trevor adds in some sound effects like he’s summoned some terribly things through a portal or something]. Argent Adept is better - his music is already supposed to be this otherworldly stuff, so while a recording might not have power in itself, you could probably use such a recording as part of some other process used to open something up. All that being said, any of these people could probably make a recording that has power if they set out to specifically do that.
- Would this kind of thing, mixing magic and technology, count as “alchemy” or does that imply chemistry as the science element? Not really… Maybe the process of making a suitable recording device to get this to work might be alchemical, but this is kind of getting the closest to [Vancian-style] wizardry that we’ve seen in the setting. This is closer to “magic” than “technology”, though.
- How advanced is virtual reality tech in the RPG setting? It’s very advanced. You can make a virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from reality. You can make an environment that is completely immersive.
- Would a ritual that’s performed in a simulation have real-world effects? If you’re capable of doing the ritual in the first place it probably comes down to needing “components”. If the ritual needs you to, say, draw a chalk circle around you, a virtual piece of chalk isn’t going to cut it. It also depends on whether we’re dealing with Ready Player One or The Matrix in terms of interface - in the former you’re still making physical actions/saying things and could perform the actions necessary to complete the ritual while in the latter it’s all in your brain and is unlikely to ever work.
- A lot of magic systems require some kind of “price” to be paid, even if only in terms of “exertion” - could this sort of technological interface for magic offset that cost by drawing from, say, the normal power grid? Would Megalopolis be better for this due to Akash’Flora being involved now? No, it’s a metaphysical thing not just as simple as “more electricity”. They disagree on whether this means that a computer or a robot could do magic at all - Christopher thinks it’s possible, just much more difficult. Like, Omnitron-X can’t do magic, but something of similar sophistication (“Omnitron-X can experience loss” which is an indicator that there’s enough “person” there to get at what magic would require) that was designed with this purpose in mind might be able to pull it off. Like, if this Omnitron-like being did a ritual and sacrificed Unity to power it, that could work. Staying away from the question of whether “souls” exist in the setting, at the very least there is something there that we can call a soul as shorthand - “loss” being a feeling you have when you lose a piece of this “soul”. You’d have to create this kind of “soul” thing with AI before the robot could do magic. Does Omnitron-X have this “soul” or is it just programmed to act like it experiences loss? We’re in the weeds again, here, so definitely maybe.
- Editors Note #15 said that air can’t pass through portals, only solids - how dense does something have to be before it can pass through? They were unspecific when they said “only solids” - if you had a garden hose and sprayed it at an open portal, the water could go through. Air that’s in a container (like a compressor or your lungs) goes through just fine as well. What’s happening is that when a portal is opened it’s creating this excited area between them that acts like a barrier and free-flowing air just doesn’t have sufficient momentum to pierce it. If you hooked up a tank of compressed air to a hose and put the nozzle right up to the barrier, that could probably generate enough force to get it through.
- In the Tempest episode, you said that egg-bearing Maerynians can absorb genetic material from other Maerynians (or perhaps other lifeforms) - to make it more clear, can it be from other lifeforms? Yes.
- If so, what do they absorb? Is it preferentially grabbing protein-encoding genes or does it just take things in indiscriminately? Specifically the genes used in the “construction of a being” - so it’s not grabbing “junk DNA” that’s not useful for making stuff, like proteins. The parent Maerynian has enough information, generally, to produce the child on its own, but it needs additional information from other sources to supplement that. They have an extreme biologically-enforced diversity in that everything they come in contact with becomes part of their genetic “language” from then on.
- How do they have weather control powers? Is it something they’re just sensitive to? How many of them does it take to create the storm around Plavu’Col? There is variation within the population - some are better at it than others, and there’s even variation with what individuals are good at [Tempest is particularly good with lightning]. It’s not a thing that they “learn” - while they certainly practice to get better, it’s innate to their physiology. It’s more like learning to breathe or learning to talk than its like learning to ride a bicycle. It only takes a few of them to create the hurricane - but it takes a number of them to keep it in one place and to maintain its size. The storm callers take it in shifts to keep it up, but it’s more like a monitoring activity - it’s not strenuous unless something unusual is going on (another storm coming in that they have to deal with, opening a part of the storm to let people in, etc.).
- Does M’kk do something special to the rain so that it only heals his teammates [citing “Cleansing Downpour”]? He’s ionizing the rain and his allies so that they mesh better, but it’s also somewhat just a narrative thing - it’s refreshing. “Healing” in the game is not always dealing with literal wounds.
- What exactly happens when Voss gene-binds something? He corrupts their DNA in such a way that it ensures that they are enslaved to him - his knowledge of genetics is way beyond anything we know. As part of the point is to have them be more effective soldiers for him, he also augments and perverts their powers in the process as well. He’s not trying to make these monstrosities in the process, that’s just kind of a side effect and he doesn’t care since they’re effective in the way he wanted.
- How do Prociters see/manipulate ley lines? Is it like Maerynians and weather? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. To be clear, there’s only one Prociter left and his name is Tarogath. Think of it like if you were able to see the ultraviolet part of the light spectrum - they can see the “ley line spectrum”.
- Is there way to tell what power a pink-skinned Thorathian has? No, they will almost always have some kind of dual nature to them, but it’s not readily apparent. Voss’s power is actually rather unimpressive (he shoots two different kinds of energy from his fists, whoop-de-doo) considering how much trouble he causes everybody. Sky-Scraper’s is more notable.
- How much does the influx of tech from aliens impact the lives of the average person and scientists? Is it largely kept out of the hands of the populace by the military/heroes? There’s been enough that’s come in over the years that it’s almost impossible to keep it out of people’s hands. Scientists get a lot of access to it, which is part of the explanation for why they’re more advanced than us. The government does try to restrict what it can (although they’re often the ones who pass things on to the scientists in the first place as that’s kind of a controlled release). A lot of “accidental” usage we see is when it winds up giving somebody powers.
- Since space exploration is farther along as well, do we still have various nation-level agencies or do we just have one large group for the planet? Certain nations have had their own agencies, but by the RPG time we have G.L.O.B.A.L. which isn’t so much a space agency, but something like a diplomatic corps for the planet, both internally and on the galactic stage. If some new alien showed up and said “take me to your leader”, G.L.O.B.A.L. would send somebody to say that we don’t have a leader and to explain the situation. NASA still exists, but there are a lot of private groups too (Wagner Mars Base is a private institution, for example).
- So, we’ve got a Mars base, but how far further out have human gone? Depends on who you want to count - Golden Age Captain Cosmic has traveled to the edge of space and was lost there. But in terms of organized/traditional space missions we probably haven’t gone past Mars. I mean, we have heroes on Dok'Thorath occasionally, but it’s not like we’ve set up a space station in orbit there.
- Are there colonies on planets besides Wagner Mars Base? No other “colonies” - mainly because we’ve found that so many other planets out there already have people on them. Maybe in the future, but nothing yet. There is a Chinese research station in orbit around Venus as a fairly recent thing, but that’s about the extent of another “permanent” location.
- Have astronauts traveled beyond our solar system? Not on purpose. There are definitely some Cosmic Tales stories in the ’70s or something where somebody gets pulled through a portal or wormhole or something, but there haven’t been any organized missions out that far.
- Aside from the Maerynians and Lifeline, do any aliens live on Earth? There are a number of Bloodsworn gladiators that got stuck here after OblivAeon.
- How much does the average person know of space beyond our solar system? Not that much beyond maybe the events that occurred as part of hero adventures and major science stuff. It’s not like there have been any scientific studies done by humans on Dok’Thorath. Information about Vognild Prime might make it into school curricula in the future, but maybe not until they start to integrate more with the rest of the world. Maybe some specific courses might include it at upper levels before then (it’s a new “nation” on the planet, so it might be useful to discuss them and their culture), but even then, short of getting Tempest’s input, information on them is in short supply.
- Baron Blade can create robots that can convincingly pass as him, but how common are robots in everyday life? Does that change after the Aldred Industries debacle that created Omnitron? Omnitron was responsible for setting back robotics as a field in a lot of everyday life. People don’t trust them so anyplace that would require public interaction is hindered by that sentiment. They still get used, but in more out-of-sight places. Omnitron was long enough ago at this point that it’s not so present in everybody’s memory either, though. There will be some material in the RPG core book specifically about some new robot stuff.
- Are there equivalents of the Bunker suit used for other hazardous jobs (firefighting, etc.)? Kind of. I mean, the Bunker suit is extraordinarily expensive, even compared to other military hardware, but there are certainly simpler exo-suits used in other fields, but a lot of cases where a suit would be helpful it’d be even more helpful to send in a robot/drone when it’s practical.
- How much more of the ocean floor has been explored? Are there research facilities under the ocean? Have they created artificial islands? Well, we have artificial islands in our world, so there are some of those. The Ruins of Atlantis is actually now a research station. More of the depths have been explored, but still far from all of it.
- Are there uses of genetics/bioengineering to make more intelligent animals (talking dolphins or apes, stuff like that)? It’s considered unethical. If we recognize that some of these animals have some fairly high degree of intelligence already, messing with that is not good. Mad scientists may have, sure, but it really is a villain thing.
- Does Sky-Scraper increase her mass when she increases in size (otherwise she’d just be a big fluffy cloud by the time she got huge)? Yes, that’s a safe assumption.
- How does her body deal with the stresses involved in being that much bigger [the square/cube law is a problem - as she gets scaled up, if her bones/tendons are the same materials they’re still as breakable while having much stronger forces applied to them]? Along with the size/mass change, she’s also somehow increasing density to the point that things are being reinforced - however her power works, it’s such that her body is changing to adapt to those changes. Her power isn’t just changing size, but being able to survive changing size.
- Moving around as her huge form should take more energy, so how does she get enough to operate like that? She’s very energy efficient - she requires fewer calories at her normal size than you’d expect, so that while she does need more while huge, it’s not more than she’s capable of taking in. She requires even less energy while tiny, but she’s not really capable of ingesting enough food at that size to fuel her huge size.
- Doesn’t she cause infrastructure damage stomping around when huge? How does she even get moving while so big, let alone run? Much like the bones question, she’s built to be able to change size, so her muscles adapt to the size requirements as well. She does need to move in an over-exaggerated manner while that big, though, and isn’t really that fast while that size. Keep in mind that the really absurdly tall (like 50 feet tall) version you seem to be talking about here is Extremist, which was only really around for the OblivAeon event. That was powered by tech from Luminary, and definitely comes at a cost.
- So, if everything about her scales up, we run into the square-cube law again as the metabolic action in her cells generate heat at a rate higher than the increased surface area of her skin can dissipate, right? How does she deal with that? It’s the Thorathian biology working around problems like that. Sure, when she’s really big it’s a problem all around, but she’s only doing the Extremist thing to take on OblivAeon. The costs to her own health (which were considerable, she’s out of commission for a while after the event) are tiny compared to the possible destruction of the Multiverse.
- Does she avoid hypothermia when tiny (for the same reasons as the heating problem above)? Same answer, her biology adapts for it. In Extremist, she’s going that tiny so she can get into relatively warm environments (i.e. inside a foe’s bloodstream).
- Did any real-life scientists have an impact in-story? Did Tachyon ever watch Carl Sagan on TV? Did Parse feature in any Learn to Code comics? No prominent appearances, but cameos that the artists drop in happen occasionally. Pop-culture references have been in comics for forever. The Parse example would be one of those non-canonical/promotional things they’ve talked about in the past that have also always been around. Most of the time for those kinds of things some activist organization will license the characters to use in a publication as a kind of P.S.A. on their topic.