I don’t know about you but Pokémon was my childhood.
I spent hundreds of hours on my GameBoy Colour playing Pokémon Yellow and Red almost religiously, like most of us did back then. There was something so captivating about those games, it was just so easy to get lost in the simplicity of the quest to catch them all, and earn every single one of those gym badges.
I think that’s because the Pokémon universe was so expansive and incredibly well-developed, that it just seemed to make sense… and it just worked. Except there was always one thing in the Pokémon games I never understood, and it always somewhat bothered me even as a kid.
The entire game was centered around the goal to travel the world catching all of the Pokémon using Poké Balls. But it always confused me as to how these Poké Balls actually worked. How could a Pokémon fit inside those balls that were so small? What happened when they were captured or stored inside them? And could this technology exist in the real world? With the recently announced, and as of yet untitled Pokémon game for the Nintendo Switch, I decided to delve back into the Pokémon universe and try to find the answers to some of these questions….
For those of you interested, I have a video detailing my findings on this topic which you can check out here:
The basic mechanics of how Poké Balls work are pretty simple to understand and tend to remain constant.
In a Pokémon battle, once an opposing wild Pokémon has been weakened, the Pokémon Trainer can throw a Poké Ball at it. When a Poké Ball hits the Pokémon, as long as it is not deflected, the Poké Ball will open, convert the Pokémon to a form of energy, pull it into its center, and close.
A Pokémon in this state is given a chance to struggle, to attempt to break free from the ball and escape, being instantly re-converted from energy into matter. Should a Pokémon escape a Poké Ball, the device will either be destroyed (in the games and some manga) or will return to the Trainer, who can attempt once again to catch the Pokémon. A Pokémon who does not escape the Ball will be caught.
Another awesome point surrounding the gadget is that Pokémon are fully aware of what is going on outside their Poké Balls and are able to watch from within, which is why they can burst out of their balls at will to protect their trainer.
The manga adds that capturing a Pokémon seems to sort of strip it of its more vicious nature or calm it down which is why rampaging and dangerous Pokémon can be calmed through capture. There are a number of theories as to how Poké Balls act, such as through shrinking Pokémon, but we’re going to follow the most common theory - that Pokémon are converted into energy.
This also means that this energy can be uploaded and sent digitally to other places, which explains the PCS that can be found at various locations such as the Pokémon Centres in the games.
This theory even explains Porygon’s existence. Porygon could not exist if matter and energy couldn’t be interchangeable. It is a digitally created Pokémon that, through a Poké Ball that was hooked up to the PC, is sent into the ‘real’ world. In fact this energy even has a name in the Pokémon universe - aura. Aura is a life-energy that is in all living things. What separates Pokemon from animals is their ability to manipulate aura and, most importantly-,transform themselves into pure aura energy. So let’s get into the technology that makes Poké Balls work.
Poké Balls consist of a metal shell with a locking ball around their equators
They only have one button on the front - the release button, which opens and closes the pokeball. The internals of the Poké Ball is where the technology gets interesting.
In essence Poké Balls act as incredibly advanced capacitors, structures which are able to store energy.
Capacitors use two conductors surrounding a non-conductive region to contain the energy in the form of an electric field. These 2 conductors are the red and white shells in the case of the Poké Ball, where the non-conductive region is what the inside consists of.
This non-conductive region is known as a dielectric and it can literally be anything. However, itS efficiency is measured by how well it can contain energy. Capacitors that have better dielectrics inside are capable of containing energy more effectively and increase your chance of catching a Pokémon.
This explains the different types of Poké Balls in the Pokémon Universe. Great and Ultra Balls operate as superior capacitors with better internal dielectrics inside than the standard Poké Ball. Master Balls subsequently act as perfect capacitors, meaning they have 100% capture rates. The non-conductive region is a perfect dielectric, something that took years to develop, making them exceedingly rare and expensive.
So we’ve established the basic mechanics of how Poké Balls work. But there’s still a somewhat explosive problem to deal with...
In thinking about the effect of changing Pokemon into energy we have to invoke the most famous equation in all of physics: E=mc2.
Einstein theorized that mass and energy are the same thing, just in different states. This means that yes, with the right tech we can convert a body of mass like Charizard into pure energy. But let’s see what Einstein’s equation says about that. If the amount of energy is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared, then any reasonable amount of mass you plug into the equation releases a ton of energy. For emphasis let’s take a look at Rayquaza. Rayquaza weighs 206.5kg, which means that the amount of energy he would be converted into is 206.5 x 9 x 10^16 Joules of energy. That's enough energy to blow up 27.13 x 10^7 Earths.
If a single Poké Ball is broken so as to release all that energy, everyone on earth would die. In fact, it could get even worse than that. If the energy captured from a Pokémon is compressed inside the Poké Ball, then what if it gets compressed to be microscopically small? Well that’s where an object’s Schwarzschild radius becomes apparent. An object’s Schwarzschild radius is the radius of a sphere such that if all the mass of an object were to be compressed within that sphere, the escape velocity from the surface of the sphere would equal the speed of light.
So what does this mean? It means that if a Pokémon’s energy was compressed enough it would create a black hole. Let’s take a Pokémon like Hitmonchan…..or Hitmonlee, that was always such a tough call as a kid.
These can both be used as proxies for being human sized, particularly since they are named after Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee respectively. Their Schwarzschild radii, approximately equal to that of a human, would be 5.198 times 10 to the minus 26 metres. If the Poké Ball compressed their matter beyond that point, a black hole would be formed, engulfing earth and huge parts of our solar system. But all nihilism and world ending predictions aside, let’s assume we can contain the energy. Where does that leave us? Could a Poké Ball exist in real life?
We know Pokémon alter into a red light beam as it's about to exit and enter a Poké Ball. We would have to find an efficient way to transform matter into energy, as well as a way to deconstruct and reorganize the entire atoms of a being.
One workaround could be to store Pokémon as data or energy. Data seems more feasible as it would be a case of creating original data versions of things, by compressing things down to size on an atomic level in order to preserve DNA, so to end up with a digitally stored copy of the original.
If a living thing was to be stored in a Poké Ball as energy, how would we store memory?
In other words, how would the living thing be able to spawn into matter from energy? You would need some type of super small memory chip device inside the Poke Ball that would contain all the instructions of the atom arrangement of the living thing in order to reassemble it exactly. Perhaps the answer is Biokinesis? Through Biokinesis, it is reported one can reprogram one's cells and DNA by the use of the power of mind meditation, and apparently people have actually been able to change their eye color by the simple use of Biokinesis. Perhaps biological manipulation could be the answer for shrinking Pokemon?
For Poké Balls to work in real life, we would have to invent technology to shrink physical objects or organisms to fit into PokeBalls. The good news is though that this type of technology isn't all that far fetched, since scientists in the field of Quantum entanglement were able to teleport atoms 3 meters away with 100% accuracy. According to the scientists, nothing in the laws of physics fundamentally stops the teleportation of large objects, including humans.
Perhaps a real life Poké Ball could work as portable teleporting system whereby, instead of storing living things into the Poke Ball, the living things would just teleport to another medium until it's time for them to come out. An obstacle to overcome, of course, would be to physically shrink and enlarge living things without altering their genetic makeup.
Whether the technology to create Poké Balls will become reality in our lifetime is a mystery, though we know science can be unpredictable at the best of times, but usually in the best possible way. All we can say for certain is whoever manages to develop the technology to create a Poké Ball will have to be the very best.