‘The Powers That Be’
New Scientist, September 1999
Almost as soon as humanity gained supernatural abilities, there followed the desire to understand them. How did they work? Where did these abilities – which so often defy our understanding of not only nature, but physics – come from? Why is the power a person manifests seemingly random?
Such questions have troubled scientists for years and have never been satisfactorily answered. Despite decades of research and tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in funding, the ability to understand how our powers function, and to replicate them artificially, continues to elude, with scientists seemingly no closer to finding the answers to fundamental questions now than they were forty years ago.
How do our abilities function? It is universally accepted that all people develop a single power which first manifests at puberty, but a rarely acknowledged addendum to this fact is that one “power” may in fact consist of several super-natural attributes. Take, for example, someone able to move at super-human speeds. To do so they must also logically possess not only the ability to move incredibly fast, but an unnatural bodily resilience (to avoid being incinerated by air friction and so they can stop without being killed by their own momentum), and accelerated cognitive processing (to navigate their surroundings at super speeds). Does that mean therefore that a speedster in fact has three abilities? Likewise, take those able to shoot lightning from their hands - a feat which if replicated by science would likely leave the caster deafened and severely burnt. Yet electromancers do this without suffering burns and without creating the momentous explosions of sound associated with naturally occurring lightning. Do they therefore possess some limited form of sonic absorption and thermal resistance?
From where do our powers draw their energy? Observationally they seem to rely on an individual’s bodily stores to function and continued power use will, like any activity, eventually tire the user out. On the other hand, many of the extraordinary abilities demonstrated in the world today logically require so much energy as to render the explanation of an intrinsic fuel source impossible, leading some scientists to suggest that the energy is drawn not from ourselves but from molecular bonds, sub-atomic instability, or the very fabric of the universe itself.
Why do people develop the abilities that they do? Comprehensive surveys spanning decades and continents have found no pattern from race, location, diet, childhood, association or even family – despite popular belief, children are no more likely to possess the powers of their parents than any other ability. Powers do not appear to follow phenotypical patterns. The child whose father who can turn his body to fire and mother who can turn her body to ice will not have the ability to turn themselves into steam. Nor are they associated with someone’s mental or physical characteristics. A small and sickly man is just as likely to have super-strength as a body-builder. Powers appear in essence to manifest completely randomly – a conclusion which is as unpalatable to scientists as it should be to the natural world.
However while a complete understanding of the fundamentals remains elusive, certain discoveries have been made and certain developments recognised – despite perhaps their unquantifiable causes. The rise of the ‘anti-path’ for example – an individual with the specific ability to counter telepaths but without telepathic abilities of their own – is a development limited only to the last twenty years. Prior to 1978 there are no records of anyone demonstrating antipathic abilities, meaning today’s anti-paths are exclusively born several years after the Aurora Nirvanas. What does this mean? Some claim it shows that antipathy requires lifelong exposure to whatever effects the Aurora left behind, while others like Professor Jordan Rothwell of Cambridge University have speculated that anti‑paths have developed as a reaction to telepathy – a sort of societal immune response but on a randomised, individual level. Such theories, however, create more questions than they answer.
The inevitable conclusion about our powers is simple – we don’t know. We don’t understand. Despite their omnipresence in our lives, despite their everyday use and despite their impact on the world, we are no closer to understanding the science behind our abilities than we were in 1963. Powers offer us many challenges and many more opportunities; but not, it seems, the chance to understand.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).