Emotional allomancy is the power described in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels which allows an allomancer to influence another’s emotions.
This week I continue my research on the possible science behind the powers of Allomancy by tacking the toughest of the allomantic metals, pewter.
The casual observer may think that by using the term “toughest” to describe my research on pewter I’m simply making a cheap pun. After all, Kelsier tells Vin that pewter:
“...enhances your physical abilities, making you stronger, more able to resist fatigue and pain. You’ll react more quickly when burning it, and your body will be tougher.”
Making cheap puns was not my aim however. I described this pewter research as tough simply because there is practically no biochemical information on pewter in the current body of research.
The Many Faces of Pewter
As with most alloys, there are several generally accepted forms of pewter. Originally, pewter was mostly tin with a little bit of copper mixed in. Later alloys consisted of tin mixed with either antimony or lead. From the Mistborn text, we know that “Allomancer’s pewter...is an alloy of ninety-one percent tin, nine percent lead.”
This little fact from Kelsier gave me a hint as to how to proceed with my research. Since there is no known biochemical effect of pewter itself, it makes me suspect that the allomantic effects of pewter are due to some synergistic property of its component metals, tin and lead.
I’ve already discussed my hypothesis regarding the allomantic properties of tin. But what about lead? How can lead, which is a known toxin even at low levels, be responsible for enhanced strength, speed, and the ability to resist pain?
Fight or Flight
When I started thinking about biochemical reactions that lead to enhanced strength, speed, and pain tolerance, the first one that came to my mind was the so-called “fight or flight” response triggered by excess adrenaline (or epinephrine as it’s referred to in the literature) 1.
The synthesis of epinephrine2 involves several steps and intermediary molecules, but one of the well-known external regulators of epinephrine secretion is calcium 3,4. It has been suggested that lead has various effects on calcium-mediated cellular functions 5,6. While these interactions are still not completely understood, one thing we do know is that lead preferentially binds to certain receptors that are normally bound to calcium.
It could be that the genetic mutations necessary to allomantically metabolize lead allows lead to act as a sort of superagonist, leading to a vast increase of epinephrine secretion.
An alternative hypothesis involves the ability of lead to cleave tRNA molecules7. This ability could result in some type of lead-induced transcriptional regulation which may also be responsible for increased levels of epinephrine.
Once again all we can do is hypothesize, as we have no plausible method for direct experimentation on a live allomancer. It is my hope that someday in the future, rats will begin to exhibit allomantic abilities, thus making it easier to find experimental candidates.
In the meantime, here more than ever I must caution non-allomancers against eating pewter or lead. Even small amounts of lead can be extremely toxic, and can cause severe cognitive defects in small children.
In fact, one theory suggests that the phasing out of lead in paints and gasoline is at least partially responsible for the Flynn Effect8.
- Wortsman, “Role of Epinephrine in Acute Stress.”
- Borges et al., “Pharmacological Regulation of the Late Steps of Exocytosis.”
- García et al., “Calcium Signaling and Exocytosis in Adrenal Chromaffin Cells.”
- Pounds, “Effect of Lead Intoxication on Calcium Homeostasis and Calcium-mediated Cell Function.”
- Verstraeten, Aimo, and Oteiza, “Aluminium and Lead.”
- Brown et al., “Pb(II)-catalysed Cleavage of the Sugar|[ndash]|phosphate Backbone of Yeast tRNAPhe|[mdash]|implications for Lead Toxicity and Self-splicing RNA.”
Dr. Lee Falin is the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into sci-fi and fantasy short stories. You can follow him on twitter at@qdteinstein.