Not-so-Magical Crystals (Part 1)

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing for quite some time–discussing the relationship between science and fantasy in my book series. I realize that the magic system for Renatus could have been completely conjured from my imagination with no connection to reality whatsoever (as long as the rules and behaviors were consistent). But the scientific side of my brain screeches and shrinks away in horror at the very thought. Ironic, I know, since it has no trouble inventing entirely fictional people and their adventures. Fortunately, there is a way to make the two halves of my brain play nice together, and blending science and fantasy together is how I’ve managed.

Just how are science and fantasy blended in Records of the Ohanzee? That’s what I’ll be addressing in this series of posts. For those of you who haven’t read my full author bio (you can read it here if you’re so inclined), here’s the short version: My background is not in writing, or English, or even in the arts at all. I have a BS in chemistry and an MS in organic chemistry with with a secondary focus on x-ray crystallography, which is the study of the three-dimensional atomic and molecular structure of crystals. What this means is that crystals and molecular behavior is something I’m knowledgeable about, but I am by no means an expert on the subject. It’s funny–I went to college to become an expert in chemistry, and yet what I really learned was that no matter how much I know, there are always ten more things I am completely ignorant of. aka The more things I know, the more I am aware of the things I don’t know. That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.

But I digress.

Part of the idea for the way crystals work in the story came as a result of my mind wandering while I ran experiments and waited for machines to output data. For the first part of this Not-so Magical Crystals series, I want to talk about the concept of crystal data storage. The behavior of crystals in the series is actually based on real properties of materials that have then been taken one step (or two or three or so) past reality.

In the series, a machine was used to secretly store books related to science and technology on a set of six crystals in order to prevent the knowledge from being lost when the physical books are destroyed. Along with the books, the crystals were programmed with the description of a person who was prophesized to one day save the world from ruin. When that foreseen person touches the crystals, the stone will glow.

Ordinary rock, or an entire library? I let my imagination decide.

But the idea of storing information on crystals is far from a product of my imagination. As a matter of fact, the technology was in the headlines earlier this year when a research group from the University of Southampton published the results of their work. Using their process, up to 360 terabytes of data can be stored on a single fused quartz disc. Fused quartz, also known as fused silica, is a man-made material. Ironically, even though the mainstream news reports describe the discs as “memory crystals,” fuzed quartz is an amorphous material (glass)–not crystalline at all.

The data stored on these fused quartz discs is stable for 100 million years (give or take a couple thousand ^_-). Compared to current forms of storage like CD/DVD (10 years) and magnetic tapes (20 years), that’s a HUGE improvement. I’m not going to go into the technical details of how this is achieved, but if you’d like to read more here are a couple of resources. I highly recommend link #1. It’s a video of a presentation on the topic given by  Peter Kazansky, the lead scientist in the group at Univ of Southampton.

  1. (video)
  2. (article)

So did I have the foresight to dream up this cool technology years before it came into being? Don’t I wish. It’s totally been done before in both fiction (Robert Heinlein to name just one author) and in reality. Crystal data storage is a technology that has been researched for decades in one form or another (long before 2005 when Nerissa and co started adventuring in my head). Researchers have been looking into numerous procedures and materials for data storage including flexible storage devices, polymer-based devices, and actual crystalline materials.

So the idea of having information stored on the crystals with each of the books in the Records of the Ohanzee series sprang from today’s cutting edge technology.

  • Like the real-life counterparts, the crystals in the story look like ordinary quartz. There’s no way to tell that there is anything special about them just by looking.
  • But there are distinct deviations that venture solidly into the fantasy realm.
    • The machine required to read and write to the crystals in real life is far more complicated than what is/will be portrayed in the story.
    • Natural quartz crystals have lots of flaws, inclusions, and impurities (even if you can’t see them) that would adversely affect using one for data storage.
    • And it just isn’t possible to make a crystal glow in response to a person’s touch. But that sure would be cool, wouldn’t it?

I hope you enjoyed this little venture into the place where science and fantasy meet. Feel free to leave questions and comments and I’ll answer them as best I can. (Remember, just a scientist with a runaway imagination here! ^_-) Stay tuned next week for the second part of the series: real life spectroscopy techniques and how crystals interact with energy that passes through them.


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