The Science of Oz

While there have been attempts to explain the science in series like Star Trek and Star Wars, and even something called The Science of Discworld (although I believe that actually is more about the science of OUR world, using a Discworld plot as a background), I don’t know that there’s been any comprehensive effort to look at the science in the Oz books. Perhaps this is because they’re fairy tales written in the early twentieth century, so they don’t come off as too scientifically valid today, but I get the impression that L. Frank Baum did try to incorporate as many scientific discoveries of his own time as he could. He even made a foray into science fiction with The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, although that fell into the common trap of using a principle that we know exists but don’t fully understand to explain his devices. Back then it was electricity, but later materials have done much the same with radiation, black holes, dark matter, and so forth. Bits of what we now call science fiction that made their way into the Oz books themselves include:

  • The idea that walking on air is possible in the underground Vegetable Kingdom because the attraction of gravity is weaker near the center of the Earth. This is a good example of an actual fact being used to support pure fantasy.
  • Tik-Tok, sometimes considered the first robot in literature, although that’s not actually true. Still, he was an early example of mechanical man with an actual personality, and it would be interesting to look at how much of him is scientifically grounded and how much just imaginary. One complaint I’ve seen about him is that, while he needs to be wound in order to operate, it doesn’t appear to take a whole lot of force to wind him to the point where he’s ready to go for hours.

  • The Square-Meal Tablets, sort of the follow-up to similar food substitute pills in The Master Key, but without the statement that they’re electrically charged. These pills provide the nutritional equivalent of a three-course meal, but nobody seems to like them much. Even the Shaggy Man, who extols their virtues in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, is back to his customary apples in Tik-Tok. And when their inventor, Professor Wogglebug, tries to get his students to eat them instead of food, they throw him into a lake.
  • Speaking of pills, I’m not sure there’s any scientific background to the Education Pills, but they might still be interesting to examine in that light.
  • The Horners‘ use of radium for decorative and medical purposes, from a book written before the element’s harmful effects were known. Also, in Glinda, the title character claims that Gaulau is “more wonderful than even radium.”
  • The tube through the Earth in Tik-Tok. I have to wonder if Shaggy’s observation that the acceleration due to gravity is enough to avoid getting stuck at the center of the planet is accurate. This is especially curious in light of Quox, who controls his own speed and has his claws scraping against the side of the Tube, yet has no problem reaching the other side. Another interesting item involving the Tube is that, according to the plaque on it, it was “Burrowed and built by Hiergargo the Magician, In the Year of the World 1 9 6 2 5 4 7 8 For his own exclusive uses.” Based on what I know of epochs and such, when the world was about twenty million years old, it still wasn’t cool enough for life to survive. How old DID people think the world was in Baum’s time? Or are we to believe that “Year of the World” doesn’t actually mean how many years it had been since the planet came into existence?
  • Queen Coo-ee-oh’s submerging island, with its fleet of magical submarines.

You could find even more material by delving into Baum’s non-Oz fantasies (John Dough and the Cherub has a flying machine, synthetic diamonds, and an anti-gravity device) or the post-Baum Oz books, but this is enough to start with. This isn’t something I would be fit to work on, but I have to wonder if anyone would be interested in expounding upon these ideas.

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16 Responses to The Science of Oz

  1. vilajunkie says:

    The Science of Discworld, as you said, isn’t really a nonfiction book about the scientific principles of Discworld. Heck, it’s not even even about the scientific principles of our world (Roundworld, according to the Science book). It’s a fictional account of the Unseen University wizards (after The Last Continent, but I don’t know if it was after or before The Last Hero) creating a world like ours in another dimension. Using magic, not science, of course, but the wizard doing all the physical work of creating the world is Ponder Stibbons, who’s the head of the High Energy Magic Department (high energy magic being the magical equivalent to quantum physics, not that there’s much difference). Ridcully is naturally the driving force behind the decision-making, but he’s not so much driving as recklessly careening down a one-lane mountainous highway at top speeds. ;) The elves get involved somehow, supplying the antagonistic side of the story. Oh, and the God of Evolution is there, of course. The Science of Discworld is actually three volumes, not one, and as far as I know, it’s from a different leg of the Trousers of Time than the main Discworld series.

    You forgot that even though Nick Chopper was made of enchanted tin, he’s one of the first examples of a cyborg. Well, he’s a cyborg while he’s part-tin and part-flesh, but I don’t know what you call a robot with a soul and human intelligence rather than gears and artificial intelligence like Tik-Tok. Maybe Nick is the Ubermensch (roughly “superman”) that Nietzche talked about; a human mind, soul, and heart that transcends the fleshy body.

    • Nathan says:

      Nick is made of metal, but doesn’t appear to be mechanical in any way. I’m not sure whether the idea of artificial body parts functioning like the original ones had been used much before Baum.

      • vilajunkie says:

        I think there are some fairy tales using the motif, but I can’t think of any good examples at the moment. Right now the only thing I can think of is “The Nightingale”, but that was both the case of a purely mechanical bird imitating a real one and a modern, literary fairy tale. The one about the statue of a golden prince with a living heart is more likely, but I think that was Oscar Wilde or Hans Christian Andersen (again, a literary fairy tale not much older than Baum’s stories).

      • The fairy tale “The Girl without Hands” (Grimm) is one example of a girl being given silver hands after hers are cut off. I recall reading about other tales of “cyborgs” stretching back as far as Greek Mythology, but I can’t recall what any of them were. I know, not helpful.

        That said, this is a great post! Very interesting.

      • Nathan says:

        Did her silver hands function like normal ones, though?

      • I’d always interpreted it that they did (fairy tales and magic and all that), but I don’t recall if it said in the tale one way or the other.

      • Nathan says:

        I guess the real test of cybernetics is whether you can control them with your brain, like you can your muscles.

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  3. Tarl says:

    Interesting post. I’ve got some science-related issues with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You can check those out here: http://hiddenhistoryofoz.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/scienceofozpart1/. The science answers are a little bit limited, and I don’t have answers for all of the questions, but I had fun researching them. The most disappointing answer of all was that the Wizard’s balloon did not have enough lifting power (based on the dimensions given in the book) to lift more than 20 pounds. That is barely enough to carry Toto, let alone the Wizard and Dorothy, too. And snapping a rope? Not a chance.
    I’ve got another Science of Oz (sort of) post started, but it has gotten dusty on the shelf. I might have to dust it off and find an feline anesthesiologist who could tell me how much opium it would take to knock out a large male lion. I’m doing research on that right now.

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