Tag Archives: literal metaphor

Valentine’s Day Special: Romeo and Juliet Exterminate Hedgehogs

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.


It’s all very romantic and all, but this is a really bad idea. And not just because removing her eyes would blind Juliet; it’s a metaphor. Besides, that part doesn’t affect the hedgehogs at all.

For some reason, Wikipedia doesn’t say exactly how far away the stars’ spheres were from Verona in the 1590s. Taking Tycho Brahe’s estimate from around that time, the closest of the fixed stars was 14,000 earth-radii from the nearest hedgehog. (55.5 million miles, for those of you who don’t think in multiples of the radius of Earth.) It’s pretty close to where the orbit of Mars is now. Needless to say, this came before the 1698 expansion of the universe.

The reason why this is a bad idea is simple: Global warming. Right now, the hedgehog is classified as endangered in some countries. Having a second sun appear in the heavens, bright enough that it looks like the regular one, could drive the species extinct in short order. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so the addition of a second sun would mean that they only have half as much night to spend doing whatever it is hedgehogs do.

If there’s a second main source of light (Juliet’s eyes), then it would be doubling Earth’s black-body radiation. I swear by the Stefan-Boltzmann law that this would increase Earth’s effective temperature by a factor of the fourth root of two. Earth would have a base temperature of 134° F, not counting greenhouse effects. (Up from its current—say it with me—42.) Pre-Juliet Earth has reached temperatures as high as 136, and that took place in a location that does contain a native species of hedgehog. They can take some pretty extreme temperatures, though they’d usually sleep through it and they don’t have that option anymore. Add on another dozen or two degrees from the atmosphere keeping heat in, and Romeo’s metaphor might not completely kill all of them. But I wouldn’t count on it.

It Gets Worse. There was at least a chance that some of the hardier desert species might survive Earth’s average temperatures jumping above previous record highs. But the next thing is that, what if Juliet’s eyes, instead of streaming so brightly through the airy region, don’t? What about before they accept the stars’ entreaties, when they’re down on the surface of Earth in her head?

Back before everything Got Worse, Earth was receiving one eight-hundred-millionth of the brightness streaming from the spheres where the fairest stars aren’t. And that was apocalyptic enough. Thanks to Romeo’s hedgehog-killingly well-thought-out metaphor, her eyes are beaming out over a third of the amount of radiation that the Sun does. (One eight millionth of her luminosity equals one part in 2.21 billion of the Sun’s, if the back of this envelope is correct. If.)

And we just put that back on the hedgehogs’ home planet

According to the back of the same envelope (plugging in E= .36 times the luminosity of the Sun and 12.5 mm for the radius of an eye into this thing copied off Wikipedia: E=4πr^2σT^4, sigma is a constant), her eyes are over thirty-one million Kelvin. Because Juliet’s eyes are much smaller than the sun [citation needed], they have to be much hotter than its surface temperature to radiate a third as much energy.

According to my back-of-a-different-envelope numbers, if an eyeball at that temperature were to appear, the explosion from the heat energy alone would be almost the size of the shockwave from air being pushed away from four spontaneously appearing Olympic swimming pools. (We can wish that it had just been drops of Jupiter.) It’s a disaster—though it would probably settle the Capulet-Montague feud in favor of the people who didn’t get their house blown up—but at least it’s not a threat to the hedgehogs.

But Juliet’s eyes aren’t just that hot. Normal superheated eyeballs would cool down much too fast. These are also staying that hot, by the power of metaphor. Like Romeo said, they have to keep glowing at least long enough to fool the birds into thinking it’s daylight.  Which means that before they accept the entreaties to twinkle in the stars’ spheres, her eyes are approximately one third as destructive as having the Sun on the balcony. This will almost certainly exterminate hedgehogs.

Why would you do that? They’re adorable!

It gets worse. All that? That was based on the size of the universe in the 1590s. Today, the “spheres” where the stars twinkle are much further away, so for her eyes to be visible (let alone bright as daylight) from there, they’d have to be implausibly hot. “Hot” in human terms is actually a good thing. Hedgehogs prefer warm temperatures of 72-80° F. This is going to be completely off that chart.

The nearest star (I’m not even going to try for “fairest”) is 4.2 light-years away. Earth’s great circle has an area of 5.11*10^14 m^2, which is a lot, but at the same distance from Juliet’s eyes there’s 1.98*10^34 m^2 of area that isn’t Earth. (We can ignore the possibility of extraterrestrial hedgehogs.) So one two-point-two-billionth of the Sun’s total output equals one thirty-eight-point-eight quintillionth of the energy from Juliet’s eyes. Well, that’s not too bad. Her eyes are only seventeen and a half billion times as luminous as the sun.

So if some couple today—let’s call them Alexandra and Nick, after a couple of superheroes I’ve read about—were to accurately describe one another’s eyes this way, they’d end up with a set of eyeballs at 14.5 billion Kelvin. Come to think of it, even if it wipes out every living member of subfamily Erinaceinae, “literally hotter than a supernova” is quite a compliment.

Juliet’s eyes would be glowing a bit more brightly than the rest of the galaxy combined. If transported to Verona, this would kill off every array and prickle of hedgehogs on Earth, as a side effect of making there not be an Earth. But it’ll have a Goldilocks zone with a radius of four light-years, so it might make some other planets more habitable. We’d better hurry up and launch some hedgehogs into space just in case. (Not to be confused with hedgehog space, which is not actually a fit habitat for any three-dimensional hedgehogs.)

And finally, for the good of everyone’s favorite spiny species, can we please stick with “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”?

P.S. Happy Birthday!



Alchemists’ Duel

Alchemists’ duels are weird.

Part of it makes about as much sense as duels usually do, with two people throwing alchemy at each other for whatever reason. The particular details of alchemists’ duels are more unique.

For one thing, both participants have easy access to Elixer of Life. So no duel ever actually ends with anyone dying, which means alchemists are more willing than, say, wizards, to fight duels at the drop of a conical hat. Sometimes they do it just for bragging rights.

I have no idea what caused the one I saw. Maybe Aceso accidentally insulted Heptamegistus (yes, silly names are traditional), more likely he just wanted the boost in reputation from having beaten her, but for whatever reason he challenged her to a duel and she agreed. They scheduled it for thirteen days later, and started preparing.

I asked someone who seemed to know what was going on, and apparently thirteen days is standard. Some of the more powerful mixtures take precisely a fortnight to prepare, and they don’t want those being used around spectators. (It has to be a fortnight and not just fourteen days. Most of the people I asked didn’t know the difference either, but they all pointed out that they weren’t alchemists.)

Heptamegistus publicly bragged that he had found a way to brew the Evil Tomato Juice Of Powerful Power in less than a fortnight. While the people constructing the arena started moving the stands farther back to keep them out of the blast radius, reporters asked Aceso if she was worried about facing someone armed with that. She didn’t even change her expression, just said that he was probably lying about the fortnight and had more likely started preparing it before challenging her.

The former underdog kept going, claiming that he would use more and more powerful and dangerous abilities. Every time he escalated, it was obvious that he was getting more and more stressed, but Aceso continued being aggressively calm. Now the interviewers were asking Heptamegistus whether he really thought it was a good idea to challenge the Aceso to a duel, and did he really think he could win this. Aceso continued not reacting, and commented that she wouldn’t have to use any alchemy at all because her opponent’s nerves would lose him the match.

With three days to go, Heptamegistus said he had an idea and disappeared. He was hardly seen at all after that, but when he came out on the day of the duel he looked prepared. He was still shaking, but he told the interviewers that he had created a potion that would give him nerves of steel, and with the firepower he was bringing he could leave a giant smoking crater where Aceso used to be. It would take her weeks to recover.

I had made sure to read up on what the point of these duels was. Apparently, ever since the formula for Elixer of Life became public domain these duels hadn’t been duels so much as games. The winner would be whoever was left standing, but the real point was to win with style. The crowd was expecting fireworks and lightning, at minimum.

The contestants walked on to the arena. The audience had to strain to see them; normally they would have been nearer but for this duel their normal distance might be too close.

Both duelists were checked by the officiating wizards for any traces of preexisting alchemy, and walked up to their assigned cauldrons. Duels could either end in seconds if one had prepared something the other was unready for, or go on for hours or even days as they improvised with the ingredients they brought. The arenas had to be entirely made of alchemically boring aluminum, and had been ever since an incident where a duelist vaporized the wood floor with a single drop of dragonfire.

Both drew out their allotted single chalice of previously prepared liquids, and Heptamegistus drank. Aceso poured hers out in front of her, and it was pure water.
Her opponent froze with the glass to his lips, and the ground rang when he fell.

At the post-match interviews, the first time someone asked Aceso what she had done to Heptamegistus she answered that she had done nothing at all; but he was in no pain and would be back to normal any minute. She had simply arranged for him to drink an excessively literal potion.

It turns out steel wires aren’t that great at correctly transmitting electrical impulses for the nervous system. It works better with actual nerves. So Heptamegistus was receiving no information from any sensory organs, and could send no instructions to his limbs to move them. He would stay conscious but paralyzed and insensate until the Elixer of Life brought him back to normal.

Without that elixer, Heptamegistus would have been basically flayed alive from the inside—the sciatic nerve, for example, is roughly the size of an epee blade and perilously close to several arteries, and thinner nerves would be sharper and more numerous—but with it he’d just spend a few minutes unable to see, hear, feel, or move. He later reported this as having been the worst few minutes of his life, trying to mix potions but not knowing whether his body was obeying his commands, or even if he was still alive.

The audience, thoroughly impressed with Aceso, decided to tell Heptamegistus that he had fought on bravely even after Aceso hit him with a compound that took away his senses. It’d be less embarrassing for him than the truth, and it’s not like he could know the difference.

And after that, nobody challenged Aceso for a very long time.