Sidepocket_Pro`s Living-Dead Journal - The Science Behind Bending AKA Why M. Night's View on Firebending is Wrong

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May 17th, 2010

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06:00 pm - The Science Behind Bending AKA Why M. Night's View on Firebending is Wrong
This is an old post that was rejected by the racebending and avatar_fans so since people have been asking here I am reposting it to my LJ.

P.S. I am not a physics major holding any degree. This is all merely based on some observations and my general knowledge of science. You have been warned.

So basically, after spending many hours watching the show just marveling over how culturally East Asian/South East Asian/Inuit the show is, I managed to get beyond this to find a very great show. I started to find characters I like, favorite episodes, ect. But then another megaton hit me...

I started to watch the entire show more closely about the art of bending. The history of it, how it works, ect. Then, combined with the Scrolls about how bending works and the Show Bible that proved this postulate...

All of the bending of elements are scientifically sound!

In fact, this is one of the few franchises besides Harry Potter and the Matrix where the fantasy elements are very grounded in reality. Ergo, it does not violate any laws of physics and everything has an easy scientific explanation, unlike such things as Star War's Lightsabers and Repulsortech.

It all starts with that the Show Bible clearly states that there is no "magic" in the world and the only fantasy elements are the creatures, bending and Spirit World. No teleporation, no ki-blasts, no magic flying, ect.

It also continued with the way Firebending is explained by Mike and Brian (which I will get to in a minute) and this whole thing is fuled by one thing: That M. Night has no idea how bending works and is doing it wrong in the movie.


There is an old saying in Science:

"You don't see things, you see light bouncing off of things"

Ergo, you don't actually see an object, what you are seeing is a representation of an object vial the light reflecting off it's surface. It's a common thing in science to expect common intuition to only be a half truth, with an ironic and often disturbing meaning behind it.

Well that is when it hit me:

"Characters don't bend elements, they bend forces that create/control said element."

This is why it's called bending. They are not magically conjuring fire, water, wind or earth. Instead they are manipulating a core aspect of that natural force to make the properties of that matter work for their bidding.

It also makes sense when you understand the history of bending. Before the current bending system, people practiced a base form called Energybending. They basically could manipulate some core aspect of the universe (Strings, Quarks, Quantums, Chi, P-Branes or what have you) to directly manipulate the matter of objects. The main use of this was to "hack" each other so they could pass down or remove skills/traits/memories and the like.

The thing about Energybending is that since you are manipulating the direct physic of that property that it's labor extensive and requires a lot of focus. Look at Katara's healing, a possible remnant of such a system where it completely drains her, she can only do so much with it and has to use another form of matter (water) to preform the energy transfer.

So naturally, bending had to evolve.

Two simple things happened:

One, is that the science of their world expanded, allowing them to understand the direct properties around them.

Two, is that because of this, they simply specialized. Instead of slowly wasting energy trying to directly manipulate one form of matter, you could waste less energy simply making minor edits to naturally occurring properties that directly influence matter.

In short, the people of Avatar end up specializing into various manipulation forms and it has served them well for so long that the old techniques of Energybending have been mostly forgotten.

So with that said, lets go into what the benders actually bend.


Bending Property: Atmospheric Pressure.

Explanation: Basically, when Aang is bending he is NOT directly move gasses around. What he is doing is increasing or decreasing the mass of other gasses so that the gasses around them move in the direction he wants.

Note how when he wants an object to move towards him, he does not simply make a "come here" gesture like a telekinetic would, but instead uses a motion simulating suction of space. What Aang is theoretically doing is removing the pressure in front of the object so the object moves forward aka wind pushing from behind.

Similar to Aang moving away objects, his arm waves and kicks remove the pressure outside of the object's range and thus the air rushes in to fill the void and have Zuko flying into a rock behind him.

Properties: Airbenders are the best in high altitudes because there is lower pressure up there so manipulating pressure is easier to do, and can create massive wind changes and turbulence. It also has less oxygen which would make the Fire Nation hard to attack. Also note the opposite, Aang has a harder time bending Air underwater since the pressure is too great. This will also come to play later in the Firebending Section about Combustion Man.


Bending Property: Electromagnetism

Explanation: Anyone can be a water bender in real life. Here is a trick that I love to show kids who are fans of the show:

Take a comb. Now run it through your hair really fast for about five to ten minutes. Then turn on your sink's water and hold the comb near the water flow but not enough so that they touch.

The water flow will actually BEND towards the comb! CONGRATULATIONS YOU GRADUATED FROM THE SCHOOL OF PAKKU! Why do you ask?

Because what you did was electromagnetically charge the comb by using the friction of the comb through you hair. This is also theoretically how the Water Benders manipulate water. Not by combing their hair, but by creating electromagnetic fields and currents that redirect the electron flow of the atoms in water and thus moving volumes of water. This is further supported that only in the North and South pole water freezes, they do not affect the state of the water but only it's electron flow.

Considering that the Water Tribes learned Water Bending from the moon, which bends water due to electromagnetic gravitational pull of the tides, this is one of the strongest sciences behind any of the bending on the show.

Lightning Redirection: It also is why I was not surprised that in the second season, Iroh's method of redirection of lightning was based on him studying the methods of water bending. Since Water Bending movements and philosophy is about controlling electric currents and fields, it makes sense that redirecting a high voltage electric current could only be possible by using Water Bending techniques.


Bending Property: Atomic Structure and Mass

Explanation: Earthbenders rearrange the electrons in Atoms so that their structure changes. They seem to only do this to solid structures, but theoretically a master Earth bender could use this to change a property's element. Also, no wonder a scientist would be an Earth Kingdom native since they would also be potential master alchemists.

When one bends earth, they never bend earth into odd shaped structures. All structures that earth benders build on the show are structures that would be natural to said property. Rocks come out in slabs and chunks, not into perfectly round circles or trapezoids. Hell even when Toph sandbends (sandbending has a special note since sand can be manipulated by electrostatic properties and thus why it's also part waterbending movements) the map of Ba Sing Se, all the buildings and statues are rough geometric outlines instead of highly detailed smooth figures.

Metal Bending: Metal is a refined element. When you refine basic elements into a compound (NOT A MIXTURE) you get this unnatural property. Earthbenders seem to only be able to bend base solid elements so when they become refined compounds, the Earthbender cannot "lock" onto the individual elements and thus cannot bend the material. Hence why it's no surprise that Toph can metal bend because of the unrefined particles inherited in refined compounds and ironically, ULTRA SOUND is how one detects unrefined particles in a solid compound.

This also explains why Earth Benders NEED to be directly connected to the element they are manipulating and, much like how Gekkos can manipulate electrons in atoms to stick onto flat surfaces, Earthbenders can adhere to walls.


Bending Property: Thermodynamics

Firebenders manipulate Thermodynamics. They can basically transfer heat from one source to another. The way a firebender creates fire is by drawing and/or magnifying their local heat source to high temperatures. This can be their own body heat (which will exhaust them) or from external heat sources like other people's body temperature, atmospheric temperature, the sun, comets, ect.

By super-heating the air around them, it rapidly oxidizes the other air particles (mainly nitrogen, methane and other compounds) and uses the surrounding oxygen as a fuel source. This is very different than "Pyrokinesis" which is what M. Night and fans claim...who are very wrong. Pyrokinesis would mean that the Firebenders can literally conjure fire when ever they please. They would not be affected by water, temperature or low oxygen/air pressure and thus they would not have to use a passing low orbiting comet as a large heat source to overpower the Air Nomads. In fact, if they were Pyrokinetic, they would be virtually unstoppable compared to the rest of the bending arts and would violate all the physics rules that are in said arts.

This is proof because a pyrokinetic would be able to keep fire in a sustained environment without worry of the fire dissipating/snuffing out and would be able to form it into various shapes ala Voldemort in the Order of the Phoenix movie. They would also be totally immune to any kind of burning (aka no Zuko's scar) and would directly produce it from their bodies. If you watch the show, fire has a air of separation between the bender and the user, because the fire is created externally from the user's self. The fire, unless it hits an object also dissipates once it reaches a certain distance just like real fire does in air. Meaning they simply create fire naturally rather than directly manipulating the element.

This explains many things. For one thing, it explains why Firebenders can heat up objects without creating flame such as when Iroh burns the Earth Mercenary with his shackle...he was simply transferring one heat source (body temperature/air) to the metal shackle and since most metals are perfect heat conductors they burn very easily. This also explains why their weaknesses is lack of heat sources (Eclipses/Night/Rain/ect) and also why the Boiling Rock's prison's Freeze Chambers are so damaging to Fire Benders. They remove all the available heat sources and thus they cannot bend any thermal around them.

Lightning Generation: While the exact nature of how lightning created is unknown, what is known is that it involves either super heating or super cooling of the air, something a thermal energy manipulator like a Fire Bender can do. It also involves water vapor and it involves ionization of air particles. The theory is that Firebenders can either super heat or super cool (maybe both, very rapidly) the air around them to ionize the air around them, thus forming an electric current. The current then can be aimed by directing the electromagnetic flow to the target depending via the one with the most positive charge.

Combustion Man: His abilities are based on that he can superheat air to such an degree that no other firebender has reached. He also seem to only be able to do this at one specific concentrated location in space as oppose to a wide area. He simply super heats air particles so much that he causes them to expand rapidly creating his infamous explosions. Such a high level of expansion means that even someone as powerful as Aang cannot create air pressure strong enough to deflect it and thus Aang can only doge it. Maybe in the Avatar state he could, who knows!


The point is not only to show how much thought was put into the bending (consciously or subconsciously who knows) but also how M. Night is simply getting it wrong. With this kind of logic layout, all his statements about bending and in particular Fire Bending are all wrong!

There is no need to make the bending more "grounded", it already is very scientifically grounded! There is no reason, with the way firebending is in this framework, to gimp them by only using existing sources. They manipulate the properties that control elements, NOT magically the element them self's which seems to be the case in the film. It also shows that the Martial Art forms from the original were prefect (Tai-Chi = Current Flow, Baqua = Push and Pull, Hun Gar = Rooted Geometric, Northern Shaolin = Kenetic Energetic) and thus M. Night has no idea what he is doing with the forms. His claim of trying to ground things such as the bending, culture, ect has no basis since most of the show is pretty grounded and thought out anyhow.

In short, if M. Night cant take five minutes like I did to figure this out...and that he is obviously knows no basic can we trust him to get any other aspect of the show he is adapting right?

Current Mood: contemplativelogical reasoning

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 22nd, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
This was awesome to read, I love how you showed that there really is science behind it all. I can't believe no one else has commented, this blew my mind is a great way. Thank you!

linked here from a comment in a racebending post. also your last link has a misspelled url
[User Picture]
Date:July 22nd, 2010 04:50 pm (UTC)
This was amazing!!
[User Picture]
Date:July 22nd, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
holy shit, mind blown
[User Picture]
Date:July 23rd, 2010 02:55 am (UTC)
Oh my god this is freaking amazing. LINKING EVERYWHERE
Date:July 23rd, 2010 09:12 am (UTC)

science - not really

first of all, "bends water due to electromagnetic gravitational pull of the tides"
this statement is completely wrong, please remove it ;)
Electromagnetism and gravity are completely separate phenomena, so there is no such thing as "electromagnetic gravitational pull".
(For the record, tides are caused by gravity. Moon's magnetic field is too weak to even come into play.)

Other than that, interesting stuff. I recently watched the Avatar series for the first time, and it's nice to see that the creators put some thought into how their flavour of magic really works.
But the fact is that while the system probably doesn't violate physics too much, it still has a long way to be grounded in reality. This is "kids' science", it might make sense with elementary-school-level knowledge of physics, but it crumbles when you try to go any deeper.
I don't think i'll dive into details, because it would make this post boring. But a few tidbits:
- Pressure is not a "core aspect". It is a combination of temperature, volume and mass, so you'd have to manipulate some of those. (Basically you're saying that Aang is moving pieces of air around through moving other pieces of air around.)
- You don't rearrange electrons in an atom to change its structure. It simply doesn't work that way.
- The compound vs. element distinction doesn't work too well, because most things you can find in earth are actually compounds. Maybe it's the other way around, metals (iron, for example) are much closer to pure elements.
The whole earthbending part is especially weak.
And the strongest one is, interestingly, firebending. I'm not entirely sure about burning thin air this way, but you could definitely get interesting results by manipulating heat.

in conclusion, interesting stuff, but please don't go around telling people that this is science ;)
(and please don't take this in the "i'm smart and you're dumb" sense - i am trying to provide helpful (perhaps?) information, not call names or whatever)

...of course, by walking away from an explanation that works at least partially and running head-on into fairy tale territory, M.N.S. shows off his amazing reasoning skills...
[User Picture]
Date:July 23rd, 2010 09:17 pm (UTC)

Re: science - not really

You must have missed the big bold warning at the top.

I will follow your tips but of course, when you look at it deeper it falls apart. No fiction series follows science exactly otherwise they would not be ficition. I mean, I thought that was obvious, with the most obvious one being how could humans "bend" in the first place. :D

I think the compound VS element is that what you are looking for is unrefined materials which exist in all forms of metal. You use ultrasound (or good eye) to find them. Because remember, they don't bend the metal element, they bend the actually elements inside compounds that make up "earth".

The whole point is that the "magic" system does not destroy physics or science at its base level. It was thought out, it was balanced, it was good the way it was.

Therefor, there is no need to change it for "the better" and M. Night had no idea how the original system worked. Hence, I think we can all agree with your last sentence.

I'll edit this post later so it will try to make more sense. =P
Date:July 27th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)

Re: science - not really

nah, i saw the warning, it was just the "electromagnetic gravity" part that figuratively got me off my chair ;)

I agree that the explanations don't have to be perfect. It's just that i am used to science-fiction genre, where you often pick one or more things that "just work because i said so" and build logically on top of those. That would be the case with bending here.

Some food for thought:
The main issue with all explanations in Avatar is that the creators built the show the other way around - they created the world and the "magic" and the myths, and then looked for an explanation that wouldn't break science. And the truth is that the traditional division of four elements doesn't map well to today's scientific understanding.
Take firebending, for example. If you had the ability to manipulate heat, you could easily create fire. But you could also put out fires, freeze water, play with gases by manipulating the pressure, help sick people by removing fever, or kill somebody by frying their brain inside their skull. If you were good enough, you could make a "warm spot" inside the freeze chamber and supercool part of its wall to make it fragile and break out.
Similarly for waterbending and electromagnetism (you can see that this would be much more suitable for creating lightning) and probably the other elements too.

Now just to be clear: i'm not saying that there *should* be a good scientific explanation. A good story trumps science any day. Scientific believability only earns bonus points.
But it means that from where i'm standing, the explanation feels somewhat tacked-on and fragile.

So, um, thanks for listening, i guess ;)
[User Picture]
Date:July 28th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)

Re: science - not really

I know they do not map well, that is not the point. It maps in the same way Chemistry is a sequel to Alchemy. In fact, AlChemy is where we get the word Chemistry from.

The key is, which is what I think proved my view, is Combustion Man. In the Avatar world, they are in a psudo-middle ages/Renaissance age, meaning there is science but they only scratched the surface. I say if you give the universe the same amount of time span that we are in, they would be able to learn how to do the things you mentioned above.

It's kind of like how we did not realize germs caused disease until about 150 years ago.
[User Picture]
Date:July 24th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)

Good post, man. :D

(PS: Love your icon.)
[User Picture]
From:Brandon Manley
Date:November 25th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
I'm with sidepocket on this. I think the benders have barely scratched the surface of what they are truly capable of. I also think they are moving at a snails pace with it. All the experimenting that went on in the original and it only spanned a year? They had the old lady with the blood-bending, Toph with the metal-bending, combustion dude, Iroh and his lightning, Azula (somehow) was the only fire-bender to make blue fire, and the only thing that carried over so far is metal-bending, and lightning. (I have only seen 3 episodes of the new show.)

There should have been more experimentation...

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