Welcome to Schrödinger’s Nekomimi – the first place in the Internet to take honest, legitimate SCIENCE! and apply it to the completely useless purpose of analyzing anime. Because, as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, “physics is like sex – it can lead to practical results, but that’s not why we’re doing it”.
Today on Schrödinger’s Nekomimi: they’re cute, they’re a lot, and you gotta catch ‘em all. In almost 17 years of history, the Pokémon franchise has spawned videogames, anime series, movies, toys, and much, much more, and has changed a lot. A few things stayed constant, though: like friendship is awesome, no-one likes the grass starter, professors who study Pokémon are so oblivious of the human kind that they can’t tell whether you’re a boy or a girl at a first glance.
Pokéballs are a mysterious little device. They look amazingly simple, yet they can accomplish something that is nothing short of miraculous – storing a (sometimes much) bigger creature than they are in a small space and weight, regardless of its original size or mass. You don’t see trainers trailing 200 kg Pokéball behind them only because their Magikarp just evolved into a massive Gyarados, after all. Makes you wonder how they ended up in the hands of ragtag teenagers who escape home to enter the biggest underground animal fighting tournament ever – considering how’d they make a weapon powerful enough that USA’s entire nuclear arsenal would pale in front of it. Don’t believe me? Then fasten your seatbelts, because after the jump we’re going to do SCIENCE!
Let’s begin with the facts: Pokéballs are able to store Pokémons of any mass and size. When Pokémons enter in a Pokéball or leave it they first appear as an undefined flash of light. If I have to think of a suitable storage method for Pokémons, then, I have to suppose that what’s happening is that the little critters are turned into electromagnetic energy (some kind of radiation, like light or gamma rays) and stored inside the ball until they need to be unleashed unto the world yet again to rain death and destruction on Team Rocket. This is known to be possible via the world famous Einstein equation, E = mc2, which translated in common language means: you can transform mass (m), into energy (E), and the amount of energy you get will be equal to the mass in kilograms multiplied by A LOT (c2). As to HOW is it possible to fully turn mass into energy, well, the only way we know of today is to make matter clash into antimatter, which leads to total conversion. Unfortunately, that would mean carrying around an AntiPikachu for every Pikachu, and I don’t really see that happening. So Pokéballs somehow do it in another way. There’s no other method known to present day physics to obtain the same result – but here’s a bit of interesting insight: when the Big Bang happened, the universe used to be pure energy. Then it turned into matter and antimatter in equal parts. But now it’s almost entirely composed by matter, to our knowledge. So many believe there exists a slight asymmetry between matter and antimatter which allowed the latter to turn into energy without annihilating with the first. That’s a reassuring thought: maybe, with some tweaking around, we CAN turn matter into energy and get our working Pokéballs. This is what particle physics is all about, after all. LHC guys, we’re rooting for you. Gotta catch ‘em all Higgs bosons and stuff.
So let’s say we have a little healthy Pikachu (weighing approximately 6 kg according to Bulbapedia) and we turned it into energy and stored it into a Pokéball. How much energy do we have inside that ball? Well, that’s easy: 6 kg x (300,000,000 m/s)2 (the latter number being c, speed of light in vacuum) makes a staggering total of 5.4 x 1017 Joules. That’s 5 followed by seventeen zeros. Even if you don’t know how much energy a Joule is, it is a pretty huge number, isn’t it? To put things in perspective, that’s more or less 100 Megatons. Which is the explosive yield of the biggest hydrogen bomb ever exploded on this planet, the Tsar Bomb.
So, if some stupid Bug Catcher kid does something incredibly goofy as dropping a Pokéball from a cliff, cracking it and releasing the energy contained within without it being properly turned back into a harmless and probably dick-joke-named Metapod, the entire region of Hoenn gets rendered into radioactive ashes. Safe Pokéball handling must be a core lesson in Trainer courses.
Of course, this is just the beginning. There’s more than amazing new nuclear physics in a Pokéball. You see, all that energy is contained in a very tiny space. A Pokéball is approximately the size of a baseball, so I guess assuming a radius of 4 cm is fine. That makes for a volume of 2.68×10-4 m3. Total energy density (Energy/Volume) is therefore 2×1021 J/m3. Why am I interested in energy density? Well, because, weird as it may sound, radiation possesses a “temperature” – as long as it is thermal radiation at least. Without going too much into detail (those of you who had a basic course in quantum mechanics will probably know about the black body problem – otherwise, it isn’t really important), thermal radiation is the kind of radiation that a body emits when it’s at a certain temperature. For example, your body is at 37 °C (310 K – Kelvins are the “absolute” temperature unit, and the one we need here), so it emits infrared thermal radiation – that’s what those nifty predator-like military displays will detect if you did something really bad and you got SWATs chasing you in the dark. The Sun is at 6000 °C (6273 K) and it emits visible light – mostly yellow. Hotter stars will emit blue light and ultraviolet. If a cold body is hit by hot thermal radiation, it will absorb it at least partially and heat up. It’s more complicated than this, of course, but yeah. So what is the temperature of the Pikachu radiation? Well, according to Boltzmann formula, which says T = (au)1/4, with a a constant (equal to c/4σ, c speed of light and σ Stefan-Boltzmann constant), and u the density, we get a temperature of 1.28 billions of Kelvins – or of Celsius degrees, that’s almost the same. So, to be still cool enough to be held by a human hand, instead of turning it into plasma by mere proximity, a Pokéball must either be able to reflect all that radiation inside itself so perfectly it never absorbs a tiny fraction of it, or be made of the best thermal insulator ever. Still, it might surprise you to know that such temperatures are not so distant from what scientists deal with – in fact, LHC managed to get one thousand times as much.
Of course that was on an atomic scale, inside a vacuum created by what probably is the hugest scientific apparatus ever built by man, and for an imperceptible fraction of a second, not for days inside a ball that fits in a kids’ belt. But still.
Finally, pressure. Did you think that holding that much energy inside a small, solid object would be easier only because it’s something immaterial as electromagnetic radiation? Hah, better luck next time. Of course it isn’t. Radiation exerts pressure like a gas would do – as proved by the experiment in which light makes this small contraption go round.
So a Pokéball is really a sealed high-pressure container holding out against a force that tries its best to tear it apart and raze entire regions. How much pressure? Simple: energy density, divided by 3. Which is something around 7×1020 Pa, or 7×1015 atmospheres. That’s something around ten thousand billions more than your common gas tank. Definitely impressive.
So why did the Pokémon world not self-destroy itself in a nuclear craze, as all its countries, including crazy tyrannies and dictatorships, could have such high firepower ready to be accessed – literally, as easy to get as stealing candy from kids – and such amazing materials for building heavily armored tanks? Well, maybe there is an answer: because they didn’t need to. Almost all wars are pushed by scarcity of energy or resources. But being able to turn matter into energy is basically the final solution. You simply don’t get better than that. It’s the best form of energy possible, better than nuclear fission, and fusion, and anything really. The ultimate clean dream. With such a technology, the world could know endless prosperity and a new age of peace, where wars over measly oil reserves are a thing of the past and where climate change is not even an issue. But there’s a dark downside to this. Suppose the Pokéball technology works only on Pokémons: this means that extracting energy from them means, basically, killing them. Every device in the world runs on dead cute animals. Even those nice incubators which heal your team in Poké-centers, in a twisted form of energy cannibalism, feed off unlucky critters who were chosen for the ultimate sacrifice. By rough calculations, if the Pokémon world consumes as much as our current industrial civilization does, it means that something like 6000 kg of Pokémons must be used every year. That means 1000 Pikachus, or 15 Wailords (considering Japan’s love for whale hunt for the sake of science, I think I know how this is going to end). So every time you look in awe at the idyllic peace and harmony permeating the children-friendly utopia that the Pokémon world is, ask yourself…
…are you ok with THE PRICE PAID FOR IT?