From Ignorance, Lead Me To Truth


The first magic spell is spoken by a 90-year-old retired Indian physicist named Suravaram Vidyasagar on 1st June 1972. It is one hundred and seventy-nine syllables long, comprising equal parts Upanishadic mantra and partial differential equation.

The effect of Vidyasagar's spell is nothing at all. He has discovered what will later be called "uum", the empty spell, which expends no mana and fails to rearrange the universe in any externally detectable way, but which then - crucially - returns to the dispatching mind and tells it so. Vidyasagar immediately notices the curious reaction to his new "differential mantra". He repeats it several times. Each time, he receives, in an almost-non-existent part of his brain, a tiny almost-thought: a thought so faint and difficult to get a grip on as to be a tiny elementary dream: "Success!"

Vidyasagar is confounded. The result is completely unexpected. Later, many will call it dumb luck. "Luck" can certainly be made to stick: future research will show his choice of wording to be at once exceedingly unlikely and exceedingly close to the ideal phrasing for the effect that it brings about, while it will become equally clear that the effects and events which follow were never Vidyasagar's intention. But "dumb"? Vidyasagar is at worst a mediocre quantum physicist, which leaves him merely two standard deviations above the global mean in raw mathematical capability. He is honest and upright, workmanlike, dedicated, competent, attentive and methodical.

After his retirement and the death of his wife, Vidyasagar has been using meditation to exercise his mind, and to keep its contents well-ordered and stable. The mantras that he has devised are lengthy mnemonic poems which map out events of his life, spiritual and ethical teachings to which he abides, stories he has learned, equations, particle interactions and gauge theories, essays and jokes, and even personalities of people he has known. Has it been working? At this point, even Vidyasagar himself is not certain. But it is a simultaneously stimulating and relaxing use of his abundant time, which has been enough to keep him at it.

"So!" he says.

An inexplicable observation. With no idea what he has discovered, or even if he has truly discovered anything, Vidyasagar follows procedure. He tries combinations. When he speaks the words too quickly or too slowly or in the wrong frame of mind, or if he skips more than a few words or rearranges phrases or loses his train of thought midway through, he receives no such acknowledgement. Some rephrasings are legitimate. Some pronunciations result in clearer and more powerful successful nothingness. He takes notes. He charts patterns. He extrapolates predictions.

He obtains a satisfactory degree of certainty about his result. Then, he seeks independent confirmation.


Suravaram Vidyasagar's son Rajesh is 59 years old and also a physicist. He collaborated with his father for decades prior to the latter's retirement, and has continued with his own very closely related work. After Suravaram explains his observations, during a long weekend of unbroken rain, Rajesh considers them for a moment and then tells him that they are trash.

Suravaram is a naturally soft-spoken individual, unperturbable. Seated at the other end of the table, his eyes widen and he stiffens noticeably; for anybody else, this would be the equivalent of throwing his glass through a window in fury. "Are you sure you've fully understood?" he asks.

Rajesh has the carefully-typed paperwork spread out in front of him on the table. He gathers it all up into a pile and shoves it away where he doesn't have to look at it. "Dad, listen to me. I remember a time... it must have been thirty or forty years ago, I can't believe how long ago... we were at the lab and some visitors had arrived and they heard we were father and son physicists. One of them was an excitable young man. He had a boneheaded collection of ideas and he couldn't help but explain it all to us. He thought he had married together science and religion. He had no grasp of physics and he was so far from correct that neither of us had the faintest idea where to begin to explain how or why he was wrong. He thought matter was simply a hardened form of energy. He thought that that meant something. That it was useful."

"It was a party," recalls Suravaram. "Dr. Mishra's retirement party. Or perhaps Dr. Khurana's. We were encouraged to bring our families."

"But I distinctly remember that after we had got rid of him, you turned to me and said, 'That was your first fool.' My first quantum idiot. And you had run into a few of them by then, but later quantum theory began to gain traction and publicity and nobody understood it and it happened more often, to me and to you. Letters and telephone calls and visits from crazy people, friends of friends and often strangers. And after a while it got that I could tell who they were from just a sentence. Just one sentence. And now I read this..." Rajesh lets the fragment hang.

Suravaram regards him with only the faintest irritation in his expression.

"How do you think you would react?" Rajesh asks him. "A man comes to you and claims that spoken mantras have literal power. You'd dismiss the claim out of hand, wouldn't you?"

"I would," says Suravaram, softly, "unless that man was a competent physicist with a strong track record of rigour. And he was my father."

"A strong track record of what? Is there a Vidyasagar particle? A Vidyasagar equation? If I go to a man in the street, or even a random quantum physicist, and I ask them what the name Suravaram Vidyasagar means to them, what will they say? What have you done?"

"It is fair to say," says Suravaram, "that I have relatively few important results to my name."

"You spent your whole life investigating phenomena which nobody else had investigated because nobody else thought they were important, and what did you find? That they weren't important! You collected leftovers off the ground, tidying up where others had already been, because you never had the skills or the intellect that you needed to build something really significant from scratch. And now you're at the very bottom end of your lifetime, looking back at your accomplishments, and there's not enough to them, and you know you'll never live long enough to see the real advances in computing hardware and particle accelerator technology. You're worried you're going to miss the real thing when it really happens. This is the threshold. Everything's going to happen, for real, starting now, and you're not going to be part of it. So what I think has happened is that in desperation, you've invented a whole new alternate science that you can be the king of."

"It's not a science," says Suravaram. "It's not a theory or even a hypothesis. Or even a claim. It is nothing, so far. It is just an observation that I cannot be certain is repeatable."

"You're seriously suggesting that the recitation of mantras can have a physical or measurable effect. What you're suggesting overthrows--"

"I am not," says Suravaram. "I am asserting nothing. Least of all about physics. It could be a psychological effect or a biological effect. I don't know yet. You are reading things that I have not written. You are having an argument, but it's with somebody who isn't me."

"You're blurring the line between science and, and magic--"

"I am not. I just want you to repeat my experiment."

Rajesh glares at his father and then at the paperwork. "... No."

For a long moment there's no sound except roaring rain. Suravaram stands up and stalks around the room, inspecting trinkets on shelves. He should be using his cane, but hates to do so in front of people who knew him before he needed it. He reaches a window, and stares out of it into the vertical water.

"I am a scientist," he says. "Since before you were born, I have never not been a scientist. I am not disappointed with my life. I am proud of my limited accomplishments, because they were obtained rigorously and with great care. It's true that there is no Vidyasagar particle. But you are also a scientist. And your name is also Vidyasagar. So?"

Suravaram turns around, pausing for just long enough that his son feels like he should respond, but then interrupts him: "And you are also much nearer the end of your scientific career than the start of it. And you are also, very soon, going to miss a great deal of the future. So? I think it's you. You're arguing with yourself."

"I'm not frightened of my lack of accomplishment," says Rajesh.

"No," says Suravaram.

"I'm not frightened of upsetting all of physics," says Rajesh.

"No," says Suravaram. "You're frightened of making a fool of yourself. Just like I am."

Rajesh fidgets. He fumbles for the piece of paper with his father's first mantra on it. "I... I suppose I could try reading the words out loud--"

"No," says Suravaram. "It must be honest. You must make an honest effort. You must believe the words you're saying, and follow through the mantra in your mind without losing your train of thought, or it will not work."

Rajesh looks into his father's eyes and says, "But I don't believe it. Not a word of it."

And the rain keeps pouring.


Suravaram Vidyasagar dies less than a year later, believing that "uum" and whatever else it signified is dying with him, if it has ever been real. Rajesh Vidyasagar reluctantly revisits his father's work soon after this, predominantly in order to obtain closure. It works first time.

Before the end of 1973 he has discovered a second spell, "eset", which emits small amounts of mana into the world and records the echoes bouncing back off nearby thaumically-aligned materials and architecture. Before the end of the following year, he has devised a third spell, "kafanu", and an arrangement of static materials - almost a tonne of mostly tungsten - that allow him to move a physical object with words alone. Rajesh Vidyasagar thereby becomes the world's first mage.

Much later, once Suravaram's historical significance has been recognised, a popular myth is widely reported, that his final words were "I do not know what I have begun."


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Discussion (26)

2011-10-11 20:49:11 by BlackMage:

I read Sufficiently Advanced Technology, and it was the last story posted. I refreshed, and a new story was waiting for me. Sam, what a nice present! :)

I think it's interesting how Suravaram is exceedingly methodical. He doesn't understand what is going on, so he studies it and studies it and tries to be as objective as possible. He tells his son it is an 'observation', and when his son jumps to the conclusion of magic he shoots him down very quickly. Be quiet boy, and be sensible about this! Someone being sensible about 'magic' is probably more realistic than hand-waving it as prayers or being outside the scope of science. Look forward to seeing more of this!

2011-10-11 20:59:22 by qntm:

One of the things I'm trying to get better at is going deeper into characters instead of having them just be people who act in order to move the plot along. Character, personality and motivation are things that I've never really put as much effort into as I have writing fluid action sequences or descriptive stuff, the latter of which I was working on during Fine Structure. In particular, writing the actions of a character whose personality and motivations are already very clear from previous work - let's say, fan fiction of any kind, James Bond or Jim Kirk - is a lot easier than constructing the personality and motivations from the ground up in a way which is internally consistent, meaningful and of course worth reading. These last two chapters have been (in part) exercises in this kind of thing. I'm not 100% certain that it's working, but they've been difficult to write, so maybe that's something.


Something I noticed while watching Aaron Sorkin's work on The West Wing - and something which is conspicuously absent from the later seasons in which he was absent - is a specific structure that he tends to give to smaller plots that are running to completion within the course of a given episode. He'll set up some events or conflicts early in the episode, and it won't be clear exactly what X character is going to do about it, or why he/she is doing it. Suspense builds. Then, towards the end of the episode, a subtle extra twist fact is revealed, which casts what went before in a slightly different light, and suddenly you're looking at the conflict in a whole new way, and the conflict is resolved in a third way which you most likely didn't even see coming. It's a really neat little trick and although I didn't have the full "rest of the episode" to pad this one out, I think that what unfolds here is kind of similar: Rajesh accuses his father of trying to upheave all of science as his final act as a physicist, when in fact he is more afraid of himself attempting the same.

2011-10-11 21:25:47 by Tom:

I just want to say, I quite like that his son is a physicist called Rajesh. Sneaky big bang theory reference, or coincidence?

2011-10-11 21:26:36 by qntm:

Coincidence. I don't watch that show. I've heard it's only funny if you're not a geek.

2011-10-12 07:11:40 by MHD:

This is the best magic system I have ever read a story about.
I am so envious of your abilities as a science fiction writer.

This would be awesome to convert to a role playing system.

2011-10-12 17:24:28 by YarKramer:

I haven't watched it myself, but Wil Wheaton plays an evil version of himself from time to time on that show, and he's as geeky as anyone else as far as I can tell, so I dunno. Maybe it's just the fact that "geek" isn't a specific target-audience the way "flowering plant" isn't a species.

Hm. Pretty much everything else I could say has been said by others, for the most part. I liked the bit about his mythical last words; that's some nice worldbuilding stuff there.

2011-10-12 17:43:53 by Dirdle:

I've read fantasy stories that concern spaceships, but I can't remember reading sci-fi about magic before. Actual say-words, cast-spell type magic. It works really well! Nice one!

2011-10-12 20:59:50 by FortPwnall:

This story is awesome. I just want to mention something about "uum", the empty spell. As anyone who has studied basic set theory would know, your entire 'world' is built up from the empty set ∅ and various sets of the empty set {∅}, {{∅}}, {{∅},∅} etc. It's cool to think magic might work in a similar way, although I'm probably off-track here with regards to Sam's ideas.

As for being used in a roleplaying system: Whenever we play Dungeons & Dragons, our group tries to explain magic in a semi-logical way (like fireball spells vibrating the air molecules). I think this magic system could actually make a pretty cool RPG system - probably with a modern setting with a system-focus on mages. It would probably have a bit of a niche audience due to the complexity of the magic though, but the niche is certainly big enough if our group is anything to go by.

2011-10-12 21:01:48 by FortPwnall:

Wow, the negative square-root of negative one works in the captcha as well, surprising tidbit I only noticed now. Was going to complain your captcha box wasn't completely correct but you caught me out. Nice one! :D

2011-10-12 21:15:25 by KREddie:

Whenever I read your work I enter a rollercoaster of mixed feelings of astonishment and envy. I am proud to say that, ever since I found your amazing texts, you are my definition of a role model!

2011-10-13 15:45:33 by Adam:

What was Suravaram trying to achieve when he first cast "uum"? Did he expect something else to happen, or nothing - what confounded him about the effect? Understand about it being a meditation aid, but how finely directed was it? Also, if the result was a tiny almost-thought, why and how did he even notice its coming-into-existence in the first place?

2011-10-14 02:29:51 by Joe:

Hey Sam, I just want to say I'm loving this series, please keep up the excellent writing.

From overseas.

2011-10-14 05:31:58 by Cory:

Adam, here's an attempt at an answer. Suravaram composed these mantras as a way to meditate--focused relaxation--but he didn't want to just "relaxed in a focused way", he wanted to focus on things he found meaningful. So he composed these mantras, and one of them (the first "uum") "felt weird". So he reworked it and paid attention to the effect it had.

The "tiny almost thought" is comparable to the sense that a mathematical structure is deeper than the words you're reading, but you can't quite say "Oh, this is an example of [important theorem or structure]!", or if that isn't a relevant example, when you hear a song and you get a vague sense that it sounds like a song you know, but every time you try to play tune in your head it comes out wrong.

In both cases, somewhere in your head there's some "almost thought"--some brain activity that doesn't quite collect into something coherent enough to even *try* to put words to. The effect of "uum" is the same.

2011-10-14 09:19:27 by Naleh:

I imagined that the "almost thought" was discernible because, although faint, it was very external and mechanical in nature - quite unlike what one would expect from one's own thoughts. If that even makes any sense.

Also, he was in a focused state and quite likely to notice anything out of the ordinary.

2011-10-15 04:19:57 by martin:

Just a quick note to let you know how much I'm enjoying this story; Excellent characters s far

2011-10-19 05:29:11 by Aegeus:

In an RPG, it's not important how you invent a spell or the exact method of how it works, just what that allows you to do: "I can cast a fireball for X points of mana" or "This spell requires Y material components," or in this story, "I can cast 'Telekinesis' with a ton of tungsten and an hour to arrange it." However, this system seems focused on the idea of "metamagic": Magic that analyzes or modifies other magic. That might have interesting mechanical potential, if you could disrupt spells or make small modifications on a spell to get past your enemy's defenses. This system also seems to rely heavily on preparation and physical equipment. Rajesh is a newbie mage and needs to spend months carefully organizing tungsten widgets to lift objects. Laura is an expert and what she carries on her wrist would fill a room for a lesser mage.

So there's a few interesting ideas, but I'm not sure how well they translate mechanically. It won't be very useful on a dungeon crawl if you have to spend a week doing calculus to cast a Fireball.

2011-10-19 08:32:02 by qntm:

Good job this isn't an RPG, then.

2011-10-19 14:13:07 by Aegeus:

It isn't, but a few people were asking how it would work as one.

2011-10-21 04:16:35 by tadrinth:

I guess they don't teach physicists about blinding. A better way to run the experiment is to say, "Hey, can you do me a favor and meditate upon this for a few minutes?" without telling them what it's supposed to do. Better yet, get a couple of people, write down the mantra that works and another mantra that looks similar but doesn't work on two pieces of paper, give each person a paper at random, have them meditate, and ask them if they noticed anything.

2011-10-22 18:01:03 by john:

The rules for thaumaturgy and artifacts in White Wolf Game Studio's Exalted game might be adapted relatively easily into a model of this magic system.

2011-10-24 17:47:06 by Bjartr:

I have a soft spot for analyzed magic (Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality anyone?) and am thoroughly enjoying these too.

2011-11-03 13:58:29 by Jonn:

Wait, James Randi stated his paranormal challenge in 1968. This was discovered in the 70s. What happened to him?

2011-11-07 23:47:02 by mlah:

I don't think you could do the experiment without explaining what it is. From the sound of it the mantra isn't just a set of words like alakazm that work every time you say them. It seems like the exact mantra is not only likely specific to each person but needs a certain mindset as you say it, for example Rajesh needs to believe in the mantra for it to work.

2011-11-08 03:41:02 by Mike:

Maybe not necessarily differing by person...

2012-01-19 13:39:34 by ignacio:

I think it's genius that the first spell discovered is the "identity" spell.

2012-12-07 20:08:06 by Nicholas:

tadrinth: "I guess they don't teach physicists about blinding. A better [...]"

That likely should have been how to test it if he had any remote expectation of being taken seriously. But he didn't - he was instead trying as best as possible to recreate the phenomenon by changing a single parameter - the person performing the action. He was trying to disprove a hypothesis that he already doubted, and didn't want to fail the failure test by introducing unrelated variables.

(Also, as was later posted, it doesn't appear that double-blinding would have worked, given that there appears to be at least some level of knowledge/expectation/belief involved for effects to occur, though he wouldn't have known that at the time.)