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In Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, we see element bending, which is divided in four (water, earth, fire, air). It's easy to understand how it works: if one has a bending ability, they can control the element without touching it. However, as the series progresses and we see technological advances, things start to get complicated.

What causes me more confusion is earth: it's shown that metal bending is possible, but only because metal still has some earth impurities in it. But, earth is not an element; it's a composition of both mineral and organic materials. Also, we see lava bending (which is just hot earth), and the bending of some liquid metal-like poison (is it mercury?)

So, what on Earth are they bending? (pun intended, sorry)

What I can understand is:

  • Water is H2O (we never see oil bending, do we?)
  • Air is O2 (maybe?)
  • Fire is... not even an element, is it? It's just combustion, which as far as I know also needs oxygen
  • Earth, I imagine it has something to do with carbon, but then how do we explain the liquid metal?

It's interesting that we see the Avatar world develop technologically (so also scientifically, I assume), so that ultimately the bending abilities may have a scientific explanation.

Is there anything in canon that explains the exact elements or compounds they are manipulating?

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    I think you might be overthinking this. Besides, even with some superficial explanation, if you keep digging you'll sooner or later get to a point where things don't exactly confirm to the laws of science. Thus the term "fantasy." P.S. fire is a cloud of glowing-hot microscopic particles rising up from the main body due to heat. – Misha R Oct 14 '14 at 6:25
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    I don't think anyone has really ever fit the classical elements into the periodic table of elements in the fashion you are seeking. Just becuase they both use the same word "elements," does not mean they fit together neatly. – YLearn Oct 14 '14 at 6:41
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    See also xkcd.com/965 . They're definitly not bending the spoon though. – b_jonas Oct 14 '14 at 9:21
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    With a minor rewrite, this question could fare very well over at worldbuilding.SE, a site specifically for figuring out how you can make fantasy settings work using science, magic and handwaving. – overactor Oct 14 '14 at 10:02
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    Just for fun because this does not seem to be the intent: bending seems almost entirely to be the manipulation of Oxygen atoms in ways comfortable to the bender. Air contains 21% O2 and some CO2 which is sufficient for bending. Water is H2O bending. Earth is SiO2 bending. Metal is O- interstitial bending as that is less present in pure metals. Fire controls O2 for combustion and focus on rapid vibration of molecules to produce heat. It explains why fire benders are so focused on breathing. This is, however, all for fun and does not seem to be the author's intent (hence it is a comment). – anotherguest Oct 14 '14 at 19:01
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No. There is nothing in canon that explains scientifically what they are manipulating. The Avatar IP Bible used to define bending is very scarce on the science of bending, with good reason; this isn't a show about the science of bending.

But in the interest of answering your question I will speculate on what we have seen or been told during the course of the show.

Common to All Bending

  • All bending appears to be a form of telekinetic manipulation of the primary four Old World elements of air, earth, fire and water. I call them Old World because these elements pre-date what modern chemistry calls elements. I call it telekinesis because that is what it most appears to be to the modern viewer.

  • A bender, using an unknown and as yet unidentified genetic trait not present in every citizen is able to learn how to interact with their inner spirit energy and an elemental force and with discipline, focus and training can master this manipulation using hand, foot and body postures, positions and movements resembling modern martial arts such as tai chi or wushu.

  • Any bender who is capable of learning to bend an element can grow potentially more skilled in this with continued practice, training and their growth is dependent on their spiritual, mental and emotional fortitude. Some benders with sufficient growth can learn to manipulate the element at a more advanced level.

  • Advanced benders are capable of extending the range of their bending capacities such that: fire-benders can master lightning, water-benders can expand into ice manipulation and/or healing, earth-benders can extend their master into metal-bending.

  • Air benders, in early episodes of the series did not appear to have an extended mastery but perhaps their abilities require a significant spiritual attainment and thus lie beyond the reach of all but the most talented of benders. Zaheer learned to fly without using a flight harness and Jinora could combine the efforts of separate air-benders to create greater air effects.

enter image description here

Zaheer gains the power of true flight after he loses his "attachments" to the Earth. Jinora combines the power of the Air Novices to create a massive tornado. Both exhibit rare powers for air-benders.

Issues with Bending

Bending has not been shown to be completely consistent particularly where water-bending is concerned.

  • Water-bending has several sub-divisions within it: Ice-mastery, healing and the very rare and very powerful, blood-bending. If one is trained by the Foggy Swamp dwellers, one can manipulate plants through the water held within them.

  • While this can seem inconsistent, water is at the core of almost all of these except perhaps improved healing. The bender is simply making an extension of the bond with water and manipulating the water within plants, ice structures, and even blood which is mostly water.

Earth-bending has quite a few inherent contradictions as well.

  • Earth-benders can grab, move and telekinetically manipulate large masses of earth as long as it is: not alloyed with any heavy or extremely pure elemental metals. For instance, an earth-bender might cause a hunk of rock to move at a potential target, either by ripping it from the ground with the enhanced strength all earth-benders seem to have, or by causing the earth to be propelled right from the ground.

  • Earth-benders can cause shockwaves of earth to move toward targets or to walls to appear to block incoming attacks. Strong benders can even grab large chunks of rock and bend it toward potential targets. A hunk of earth, mud, or stone are all acceptable Earth elements to throw. There are sand-benders who have grown accustomed to manipulating loose sand in a fashion similar to how water-benders manipulate water.

  • The extended version of Earth-bending called lava-bending includes the ability to compress rock and release the compressed stone as liquid rock or lava. The stone can then be manipulated loosely in the same fashion as any other rock or as flowing water might. The lava cools quickly once the bender stops manipulating it.

  • Earth-benders who can metal-bend, a second advanced form of Earth-bending are able to manipulate any metal except pure platinum. Are there other pure metals unable to be bent effectively? Given the metallic properties of platinum, this many mean that gold and silver might also be less able to be manipulated but it has not been specified.

Why can't earth-benders manipulate platinum?

  • It was explained that platinum's elemental purity meant there was no EARTH to be manipulated by a bender. This flies in the face of the earth-bending ability which appears to be able to manipulate any kind of stone, earth or ore-bearing rock.

  • We are left to assume perhaps the earth-bender is manipulating a chemical element or compound with the stone or earth. Such common elements might be silicon or silicate minerals. Our planet is composed of over 90% silicon. If silicon is the material the earth-bending ability targets, this would be consistent with sand, clusters of earth or mud, most rocks, and certainly lava.

  • It would also explain why pure platinum would be unaffected. Recently we have seen metal-benders manipulating a liquid metal which resembles mercury. Is it pure mercury? Because if it is, then why can metal benders manipulate it? Mercury's atomic weight (200 amu) is greater than even platinum's (195 amu). Perhaps it is a mercury mixture or compound making capable of being manipulated more effectively by a metal-bender.

What metals DO earth-bender like or find easier to manipulate?

This would also imply, that metal-benders must be focused on some particular elemental aspect of metals that AREN'T platinum for them to be able to bend them. Is it the carbon in steel, is it the iron atoms in pure iron? We just don't have enough information to speculate effectively. We are never told what metal, earth-benders prefer to bend for their everyday use?

  • We do know, the metal the earth-bending police of Republic City use is ductile, strong, light enough to be carried, strong enough to hold the weight of two men. Only a few metals could meet those requirements and be available to a society at the tech level of Republic City.

enter image description here

Republic Police zipping around town manipulating fine metal wires of an unknown metal. Team Avatar surrounded by platinum-plated mech suits.

  • Since we don't see rust ever on any Republic Police officer's equipment, we have to assume it isn't pure iron. It could be steel with a strong carbon content. It could also be aluminum, since it would still be light and strong and reasonably ductile with metal-benders being available during the smelting process. Strangely enough, while earth-benders are manipulating metals, the shapes of the metals are fluid and can be altered by a skilled enough bender.

  • We see the Great Uniter, Kuvira use her metallic plates on her armor to bind, blind, and hold bandits from a distance with incredible precision. She is able to cover the eyes of her targets while they are on the move and not injuring a single person.

  • If I had to choose a metal, I would go with stainless steel as the preferred metal of choice. Durable, strong, magnetic, able to be shaped if it was thin enough, still strong enough to support a person's weight.

Fire-bending

  • As far as fire-bending is concerned we are told the fire being created comes from an extension of the heat of the bender's body amplified until a flaming short-lived orange plasma is created. Fire-benders can direct the flames with their feet, hands and skilled benders can even project it from their mouths. Powerful benders can project fire in a number of forms, can control already existing fires and intensify the intensity of a blaze.

  • A couple of fire-benders instead of manipulating fire, possibly by combining atoms energetically to cause fire/plasma to form, could instead be causing atoms to separate violently and explosively.

  • This power was first seen in the Avatar Aang saga being used by the Combustion Man. This power had a far greater range than the average fire-bender and the explosions had great destructive power. The mechanics of this power were never clearly explained.

enter image description here

Combustion Man and Pl'i, both gifted with a very rare form of fire-bending capable of creating powerful explosions at range.

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    Excellent, extensive answer! I would add that air benders seem to be the ones more likely to perform astral projection. Jinora in particular seems adept at it. The only non-air bender/non-avatar I can recall doing anything similar is Iroh, who may have managed to cross into the spirit realm physically, rather than projecting himself. – Brian S Oct 14 '14 at 13:47
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    IIRC, the creators specifically mentioned in an interview that the ability to bend isn't necessarily determine entirely by genetics. They deliberately decided not to go into the specifics of what determines weather a person can bend or not. – prototypetolyfe Oct 14 '14 at 17:26
  • For an answer that basically comes down to "we don't know," this was incredibly thorough and well-researched. +1. – Nerrolken Oct 14 '14 at 17:26
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    A note about the "rarity" of some air bending abilities: the only one that we seem to know is rare is innate flight that Zaheer develops. We know this because the show explicitly says so. Jinora's ability to combine multiple contributions from other air benders probably isn't rare. The other elemental benders are depicted doing this all the time, so I'm going to assume it's not actually a rare ability that Jinora demonstrates there. It is simply rare for air benders to do because air benders themselves are rare. – Ellesedil May 10 '16 at 18:00
  • The silicon theory has some issues as Earth-benders are seen "bending" coal which is mostly Carbon (nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen). – Josafoot May 2 '17 at 22:51
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It's a fantasy world, not our world. You shouldn't bring modern chemistry (or any other science) into it, unless the show itself does (like with electricity).

This means that there is no H2O, only water; there is no O2, only air. And in such world, bending classical elements (not chemical elements) makes sense.

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I will answer this. When you know that bending is genetic in your blood. The energy that flows in your body the only thing that you must have is a good soul that is possible for this. That means you must have enough genetic energy in your body for that element. and a right soul. That is why Zuko's firebending power was like it was gone. But you have learned that it was his change in his destiny that make this. that means tht his soul took an other oposision. That is why he most learn from the dragons to learn the powers again. It was his hearth. becouse your soul lives in your hearth you knows. it lives in your hearth and controls your body with your mind. that is why the lion turtle can give the bending power to people. And Aang can clean bending away. from Ozai. Ozai has his bending power in his blood but his soul has no conection anymore. And i believe that every one has all the 4 elements in his blood. but the soul has chocen your must genetic element that the lion turtle has learned your old begin parents souls. and the one learns to one other. The lions turtle gave the guidece from your soul to your boddy to tace the element. You know when Bolin is a lava bender that is becouse he is like 80% earthbender and 20% firebender and mako has 80% firebending and 20% an earthbender that is why he can bend lightning. You know that the firenation roal family has a quart decendent of the earthkingdom long!!!!!!!!!!!!! ago..... And that is why they can bend lightning. You will ask what has lighting bend to do whith earth i will ask you what has lightning bending to do with fire this will tell you. https://earthscience.stackexchange.com/questions/580/why-does-lightning-strike-from-the-ground-up. And i will tell you some thing. In islamic tradition when the prophet Mohammed converted people to Islam he did his hand to his face and his hand to his breast and then say's some thing. that looks like the style of Avatar Aang. I think it means it will clean your soul from the bad. and on that time he cant band. the color that we saw wasn't fysic it was spiritual. when you are living there you can't see such a thing. it was only his spirit. when a blue spirit tough the other blue spirit the blue becomes red. The figure of the spirit our soul is not the soul it self. becouse the soul you can't never see that . And a spirit in the spirit world is not a soul ore a god. you saw Avatar Korra and you knows that a spirit has an beginning and an end. and a soul is internal. the spirits has a soul to. nd when you are bending an soul. it will not die it will only return to his source (Devine) And a spirit can die. only Raava and Vaatu will not die still when the judjemant die comes then they will die. and will truely be reborn. There are three kinds of spirits. spirits that are animals. spirits that has a free will. and spirits that are always good spirits like raava than will never change. A spirit manifest him self in forms. but you can't see his true form. The spirits that are animals they can't realy think. It is not like he has a body form of an animal hey he is an animal spirit. no that isn't true. And when you want to get a spirit you most find a whey to condemn your self and than use magick. The Avatar is an exeption. That is why Unalaq was condemned.

What i want to say is that bending of elements is a form of energy bending. I mean everything what to do with what has to do with earth everything what has to do whit fire everything what has to do with air. And Avatar has the ability to do all becouse of Raava. People are saying that the past avatar's spirits are gone. nuty what you saw was only the copy of them and theyr live. becouse they are in the avatar world. Wan has an other spirit than Korra Korra has an other spirit than Aang Aang has on other spirit than Roku and Roku has on other spirit than Kyoushi. it is not realy an reincarnation. it is only that Raava has the knowlege of theyr lives. When Korra dies Raava has no pain. only Korra has pain. And when you die you will go back to Devine and you will return to the spirit world for your temporary paradice ore your temorary hell just like where Iroh was ore the fog of the lost souls our every where else and they are whaiting for the day of judgment. the end of the world. i think Raava is looks like and Arg Angel Gabriel the most mighty Angel and Vaatu is Saatan. And conseived Unalaq. The Arch angel Gabriel brought peace becouse he has a revelation of God and brought it to the prophets. And brings people to the law the order and brings peace. But Vaatu the Saatan Change people the meand and is manipulating them to take the revelations for theyr lust power and politics. and that is why the world will go in darkness and gaos.

Bending is a from of energy bending. just like what The combustion people did.

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    A little more editing might improve this. The paragraphs are very long... – Molag Bal May 10 '16 at 13:56
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    Welcome to SFF! This looks like a solid answer. Try to break your paragraphs into smaller, more digestible chunks. – Skooba May 10 '16 at 14:03
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There is no "midi-chlorian" explanation given about the bending arts. There is never a point where it is articulated that it is H2O a waterbender is bending, or that it's O2 that an airbender is bending. The four elements being bent are simply the four Old World classical elements. The closest we get to a near scientific explanation is the explanation for how waterbenders learned to waterbend (something akin to the gravitational effect of the moon), and how metalbenders can bend most metals, but certain extremely pures metals are unaffected by their abilities (they bend the impurities still present in the metals). That's the most specific I've seen the two shows being about the nuts and bolts of bending.

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Maybe there is like some kind of force, that the benders can tap into that allows them to bend. I don't know that's just an idea. I am baffled by this too.

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