Without a Summer: The science behind glamour

One of the questions I get asked most often is “How does Glamour work?” Since Without a Summer is launching tomorrow, I thought it probably made sense to answer that question in more detail than in my FAQ.

The definition of glamour, according to the OED, is “Magic, enchantment, spell” and it was a word strongly associated with Faeries in early England. In the deep story, or the change point in the Glamourist Histories, Faerie and the mortal world never separated so everyone just interbred. That means that everyone has the second sight to varying degree, just like some people have better eyesight or are better painters. What the second sight allows them to do is manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum so they can literally paint with light.

And here’s where we get into my secret that there’s science in my fantasy novels.

Since glamourists can manipulate the full spectrum, that means they can manipulate invisible light too, like microwaves and UV. The farther out to the ends of the spectrum the more difficult it is to manipulate and the faster it degrades.

If you aren’t familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum, here’s a quick video to explain how it works.

What this means is that it’s possible to manipulate heat as well via microwaves. The trouble is that microwaves are incredibly difficult and fairly deadly to work for long periods. They take more energy than just building a fire. Cold on the other hand, well, there’s no real way to get that except from a coldmonger.

Remember in my post about the Year Without a Summer, I alluded to coldmongers and said that I would talk about the science behind glamour in more detail later. A coldmonger is using a complicated weave to create a thermodynamic transfer, much the way a refrigerator works. You take heat from one area and move it to another. Clearly, there weren’t actual coldmongers in the Regency, but there are also things that I did not make up.

For instance, take this passage.

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette KowalWhile there was no perfect metaphor for glamour, in this regard it was most like needlework. Each thread or fold of light which had been pulled from the ether had to be tied off to remain in place. To undo it, they had needed to unpick each knot. Indeed, even tearing the building down would do nothing to remove the glamour, which would remain in place until it gradually faded back into the ether. Jane had seen follies in which the remnants of glamurals still haunted the air where the original walls had once been. Nothing save a direct lightning strike would speed the process. It would be lovely if someone would invent a pair of scissors that worked on glamour, but as it stood, everything had to be removed by hand.

The word “Ether” has been used so much in Steampunk that it sounds like something made up, but it is in fact, completely real. The OED defines the ether as:

Physics – A substance of great elasticity and subtlety, which permeates not only space, but also the interstices between matter on the earth; the medium through which the waves of light are propagated. Also the medium through which radio waves and electromagnetic radiations are propagated.

Albert Einstein’s 1920 paper, “Ether and the Theory of Relativity” goes into more specifics about how ether and the electromagnetic spectrum are connected.

This dualism still confronts us in unextenuated form in the theory of Hertz, where matter appears not only as the bearer of velocities, kinetic energy, and mechanical pressures, but also as the bearer of electromagnetic fields. Since such fields also occur in vacuo – i.e. in free ether-the ether also appears as bearer of electromagnetic fields. The ether appears indistinguishable in its functions from ordinary matter. Within matter it takes part in the motion of matter and in empty space it has everywhere a velocity; so that the ether has a definitely assigned velocity throughout the whole of space. There is no fundamental difference between Hertz’s ether and ponderable matter (which in part subsists in the ether).

So how does this relate to glamour? More science — I did warn you that I got science in my fantasy novel, right?

Bear with me because this gets into quantum mechanics, though in the Regency they didn’t have that language yet, still many of the concepts were already in place in Isaac Newton’s study of “opticks.” In fact, all of the books that I refer to in the Glamourist Histories are real texts that were available in the Regency.

The physicist Edward Purcell explains that there is a discrepancy between the amount of light coming out of the ether into the human eye and causes the amount of energy we generate. Here’s the original equation if you are feeling brave, or as Discover magazine explains in language I can actually understand, “there is much more electromagnetic energy in your eye at any one moment from the infrared radiation you’re emitting yourself, than the pittance of visible light you get from the outside world.” It should not be dark when we close our eyes.

And for certain individuals, who are carrying a modification of the gene that governs vision, it’s not.

These are called achromats and basically they have the ability to see the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as the ether. Using older words, they have the second sight. It’s estimated that only one in ten thousand individuals carry this mutation.  Because of my efforts to not use anachronisms, I went with the period correct word — glamourist.

The biggest difference between my version of the Regency and the real world is that in my version, everyone carries that modified gene.

As for achromats in the real world? They can’t do as much manipulation of the electromagnectic spectrum as I have the glamourists in my novels doing, but then, I’m extrapolating a world in which there would have been much more development of the science because it wasn’t an ability that just belonged to a very few individuals.

In theory, though, everything I have them doing is possible. As physicist Phil Plait says, “But because they’re both waves, light and sound have a frequency and an amplitude. If you’re clever – and we humans are – you can convert one to the other…”

And you thought I was writing fantasy. Sorry. It’s science, all the way down.

I didn’t make up glamourists.

You can check to see if you are carrying this gene by closing your eyes. If you see spots of color, particularly a field of blue stars, then chances are you’re an achromat and capable of being a modern day glamourist.

And here, my friends, is video of a real achromat experimenting with manipulating the ether to create a rudimentary “glamour.”

I’m indebted to the Dr. Heinrick Scholes (yes, that Herr Scholes) for his help in understanding achromats and their relationship to the ether. His website is fascinating and I encourage you to visit it.
Edited to add: Since it is no longer April Fool’s Day, it only seems fair to tell you that this was a prank. While all of the quotes that I used are real, ether was discredited back in the 1800s, which is what Einstein’s paper is actually about. 

What is true is that my coldmongers are manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum but achromats don’t have that ability at all. They can see more of the color yellow, in theory.

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16 thoughts on “Without a Summer: The science behind glamour”

  1. Kassie Jennings

    Oh drat! I closed my eyes and all I saw was darkness; I guess I’m not an achromat! Herr Schole’s website is fascinating, though, and I really admire your ability to seamlessly blend fact and fiction!

  2. So how much of this did you know/have available, and how much did you have to put together in…honor of Herr Scholes?

    1. I was familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum and the fact that sound, sight, and scent can all be described as waveforms. I also knew about the theory of ether and the period study of opticks.

      Everything else, and the links, I put together for this post to in honor of Herr Scholes.

  3. Michael Jennings

    Three cheers for Science!

    I thought the root might be in EM science, at the vast majority of effects are light based. I also think that it is interesting that we threw out ether as a scientific theory and now we have dark mater and dark energy. While from what I remember of the properties of ether are vague at best every once in a while I’ll read a dark mater/energy article and go hmm this seems familiar.

  4. Excellently done – despite not buying the quotes about ‘ether,’ you had me going for a lot of it.

  5. Terrell Sanders

    I got suspicious during the part about ether, but alas, I did not figure it out until I followed the link for the achromats. Sigh. Nice one, Mary.

  6. I can understand glamourist manipulation of the elecromagnetic spectrum, but since sound is simply pressure waves in the air, it would seem to me to require a different talent to manipulate sound.

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