Jul 10 2013 10:00am

Science of Future Past: Dune (Part 1)

Dune, Pain Box

A few nights ago, I dreamt of Arrakis. Arrakis—Dune—Desert Planet. Was this the awakening of my latent prescient abilities or just a hint that it was time for Science of Future Past to explore the science and technology in Frank Herbert’s Dune?

Dune was the first epic science fiction book that I read. The Foundation series takes place against what you could justifiably call an epic backdrop, but most of that backdrop remains stationary while one or two people explore interesting ideas in the foreground. Dune on the other hand has a truly epic feel to it, and part of that comes from the extensive world-building that Herbert did.

People, organizations, noble houses, and planets have extensive and intertwining histories that are evident in the behavior and dialogue of the novel’s characters. Part of that wonderful world-building includes an extensive amount of science and technology, some of which have real life analogues in today’s world.

Let us begin where Paul begins, with the device used by the Bene Gesserit to separate true humans from animals: the box.

The Box

…she lifted a green metal cube about fifteen centimeters on a side. She turned it and Paul saw that one side was open—black and oddly frightening. No light penetrated that open blackness.

Put your right hand in the box, she said.

What’s in the box?


The mysterious box causes Paul to feel an intense burning pain, but causes him no actual harm. At the conclusion of the test, the Reverend Mother tells Paul that the box causes “Pain by nerve induction” and that “There’re those who’d give a pretty for the secret of this box.”

So let’s talk about some possibilities for the secret of the box.

From the book we know that nerve induction only affects what is in the box (the part of Paul’s arm outside the box didn’t experience pain), the pain can be varied in intensity, and the process can be stopped immediately, without lingering effect.

All of these clues together suggest that the box could operate via electromagnetic induction.

A device that worked via electromagnetic induction to cause pain would probably require physical proximity to the subject, as electromagnetic field strength falls off rapidly with distance. The outside of the box could easily be shielded to prevent the field from affecting parts of the body not in the box, and the effects of the field would disappear immediately when shut off.

Electromagnetic nerve induction is a phenomenon that has been studied extensively, especially as a non-invasive means of pain-management. Unfortunately, despite everything we know about nerves and the biochemistry of pain, how magnetic fields affect pain thresholds isn’t yet well understood.

Despite all of the research involving the effects of electromagnetic fields on biochemical reactions, I could not find any work being done on causing pain via electromagnetic fields.

Several studies have shown that electromagnetic fields can affect various biochemical processes, including cell growth, blood flow, inflammation, wound healing, and even tinnitus. The type of field and duration of exposure make a difference as well. It has also been shown that blocking the Earth’s natural magnetic field using electromagnetic shielding can cause fluctuations in the ability of mice to feel pain.

An interesting fact that is relevant to the Bene Gesserit’s use of the box is that EMFs seem to affect males and females differently. This is handy if you’re using EMFs to search for the Kwisatz Haderach.

Another study of interest showed that the biochemical effects caused by an electromagnetic field depend upon the amount of light in the room. Could this be why the Reverend Mother waited until morning to conduct the test with the box, and why she carried it out in the Lady Jessica’s morning room where there were plenty of windows?

For a great review of the effects of electromagnetic fields on your biochemistry, I recommend this 2007 paper by Del Sepia et al. If after reading that you’re still brave enough to stick your hand in the box, then you may just be the Kwisatz Haderach.

Dr. Lee Falin is a Bioinformatician, the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes ideas from scientific research articles and turns them into science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle grade and young adult readers.

Ian Tregillis
1. ITregillis
I could not find any work being done on causing pain via electromagnetic fields.

If you Google "DARPA pain ray", you get numerous hits. (Though I'm not sure if DARPA was involved in the development.) Raytheon's Active Denial System is a directed energy device intended to stimulate nerve endings in a very thin layer of the target's skin. It was briefly deployed in Afghanistan, and is now finding interest within the U.S.

Ten years ago I worked with somebody who had turned down a job working on something very similar. He described the concept as being, quote, "A real-life gom jabbar." (Though after refreshing my memory via Google, I see that the "gom jabbar" wasn't the box but the poisoned needle the Reverend Mother used to threaten Paul Atreides to keep his hand in the pain box.)
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
The "Active Denial System" was the first thing to spring to my mind also, but it doesn't quite fit. It works in the same way as a microwave oven--by exciting the water molocules in your skin. If you left it on long enough, bad things would happen--people seem to run away before the beam has been applied for very long.
The "pain box" supposedly causes no ill affects through directly stimulating the nerves.
While this isn't targetted at producing pain, this study:

discusses using lasers to stimulate nerves. One could imagine the box using a series of properly modulated lasers skipping across nerves to prevent overload.
3. wingracer
While I generally prefer a good scientific explanation for things in my fiction, Dune is full of so many meta-physic/pseudo-science fantasy that I don't see why a more fantastic explanation can't be used for the pain box.

Perhaps the box is just a prop to focus the subject's attention on his hand while the Bene Gesserit mentally projects the pain unto him.
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis

Well, the ADS might not work via direct coupling to the nerves, as the RM's pain boxy thingy apparently does, but it does use electromagnetic fields specifically to cause pain. Though, one could argue that the ADS does couple to the pain receptors (after all, there is an energy flow from the device to the receptors in the skin to the brain), albeit at very low efficiency because of the intermediate step of heating the skin to induce the pain. Other technologies might couple more efficiently, such as the laser technique, which is something I'd never run across.

It does seem strange to me to imagine that in the far future of Dune, people are still using microwave ovens...
Kit Case
5. wiredog
It does seem strange to me to imagine that in the far future of Dune, people are still using microwave ovens...
They're also using swords and knives in combat.

But Herbert does a good job of makign that necessary in that world.
Lee Falin
6. leefalin
I actually did consider mentioning the ADS, but I cut that bit out before writing the post. Here's some ADS bonus content from the original draft for those that are interested:

At first I thought of the military’s much talked about Active Denial System (1), which uses millimeter energy waves to cause the top layer of skin to heat up. If you haven’t heard of the ADS, it’s basically a fancy heat ray that costs $5 million dollars per device (on top of the $60 million dollar initial R&D cost).

Nobody knows how well the ADS works as a crowd-deterrent, because it has never actually seen real use in combat. Hopefully this decision was based on the fact that this device (which was designed as a non-lethal method of force against civilians) has been shown to cause second-degree burns (2) and can have potentially severe biological side-effects (3) which haven’t been fully studied.

More likely reasons include troublesome quirks (4) such as taking sixteen hours to turn on; an inability to work in adverse environmental conditions (such as heavy dust, fog, snow or rain); and the fact that using shiny objects for shielding can completely thwart the effects of the device.

Since direct energy weapons like the ADS can cause physical damage after long-term exposure, and don’t work by nerve induction, we have to look for another possibility.

Steven Halter
8. stevenhalter
Ian@4:Dune does have a lovely mix of tech levels in it. The various pieces fit very well also between the Butlerian Jihad and the shields.
Fake Name
9. ThePendragon
The Dune novels were great, although I have yet the read Chapterhouse. I do agree that none of the sequels I've read are as great as the original. Still, I've enjoyed them all. However, one thing I despise beyond description was the Dune feature film. That is by far the worst adaptation of a book I've ever seen, and one of the worst movies I've ever seen, period. The Sci-Fi miniseries, while significantly lower budget and technically much less impressive, was a much better adaptation.
Brian R
10. Mayhem
I agree the movie was confused and overall not the best adaptation
(weirding modules ... Really??) but it does have one of the greatest lines in SF movies with "Usul we have worm sign the likes of which God has never seen!" which always seemed to fit perfectly at that stage.

also the mini series completely ruins Alia's line of "My brother comes!"

Still, I file it under guilty pleasures, along with Flash Gordon, as a slightly less fattening diet of cheese :)
11. JournalEditor27
Great article, although you may have posted a link to a pirated copy of that scholarly article on pain perception. The journal's link is here:
12. wingracer

I wont begrudge your hatred of the movie, there is certainly plenty of reason to hate it but let me give you another perspective.

I have never read the book (GASP!). How is it possible that a scifi fanatic like me has never read them? Well, because I don't want to ruin my strange love affair with the film. As bad as the movie is, there is just something wonderfully weird about the whole thing. I absolutely love it and watch it anytime it pops up on my TV menu. Like Mayhem said, it's a guilty pleasure. I just know that if I ever do read the book, this movie I love will be ruined forever and that would be a great loss to me. There are lots of great scifi novels out there to choose from but how many movies are there that are that batsh!t crazy, weird and wonderful while still making at least a little sense (no David Lynch movies allowed) and aren't horror or slasher pics? I could probably count them on one hand, two at the most.
Fake Name
13. ThePendragon
@12 Fair enough, but I believe you are doing yourself a huge disservice as a fan of SF by not reading the book.
Lee Falin
14. leefalin
@12 and @13, I agree. The nice thing about seeing the movie first and thinking "Wow, this is pretty cool." is that when I read the book, I was left thinking, "Wow, this is even cooler than I thought."

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