Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us

Science Behind the Fiction: How do Poké Balls work?

Contributed by
Aug 29, 2018

Pokémon was created by Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori in 1996. Originally envisioned as a video game for the Game Boy known as Pocket Monsters Red and Green, the concept has spawned the single most lucrative franchise in pop culture history, outpacing even Star Wars and bringing in almost $60 billion dollars over the last 20-plus years.

During its tenure, the mythology has evolved over eight generations to include over 700 pokémon. Despite all the changes, some primary questions have never been answered. Namely, how, precisely, do poké balls work?

Those who hold the keys to the kingdom: Nintendo, Creatures, and Game Freak, have never provided a clear answer. Intentional ambiguity aside, clues can be taken from the games, animated series’, and manga.

Careful review of these sources suggests a number of different explanations for the internal workings of poké balls. Depending on the source material, pokémon appear either to shrink or be converted to energy but there are inconsistencies, leaving the ultimate truth surrounding the capture and the internal lives of pocket monsters up in the air.

In an effort to understand the imprisoning of a diverse set of semi-sentient animals inside tiny spheres, let us take a look at the possibilities surrounding the capture of pokémon, determine where we are along this technological trajectory, and hope that we don’t commit unintentional animal cruelty along the way.

Shrinking

One of the common hypotheses surrounding the workings of poké balls is that they shrink pokémon down until they fit inside the baseball-sized spheres for easy carrying. This is supported by imagery from the manga, showing pokémon sitting comfortably inside their spheroid homes.

Considering the size of some pokémon, like Snorlax, coming in at almost seven feet and over 1,000 pounds, shrinking them down to something that can be held in the hand or clipped to a belt is a considerable feat. We’ve covered shrinking technology before and the most likely method for reducing size is minimizing the empty space within a body’s individual atoms.

The trouble is, when reducing size, you’re not actually reducing mass. Everything that makes up a Snorlax is still present, but minimized. This means all of the information has been condensed and the density increased.

You run the risk, in this scenario, of creating an incredibly dense collection of matter that might sink through the ground, pulling the trainer down with it. Without considering all of the nefarious biological problems that would accompany shrinking a living entity (decreased organ function and inability to communicate) you still have to consider the trainer’s ability to carry all of the mass of up to six pokémon, which is reduced not at all by shrinking.

Matter to Energy Conversion

Perhaps the most commonly accepted explanation for poké ball technology involves the transformation of pocket monsters from tangible matter to intangible energy. Imagery from both the animated series and the manga suggests that when pokémon encounter a poké ball they are taken in, converted from physical matter, and transformed to energy to be stored for later use.

When a poké ball is thrown, a beam of energy presents itself and envelops the intended animal. At which point, it transforms and transports. The intended pokémon is then given the chance to resist and break out or be captured.

Of all pokémon capture technologies, this is, perhaps, the most likely. Given what we know about the relationship between energy and matter via Einstein’s theories, it’s entirely possible to convert energy to matter and vice versa.

Einstein’s most famous equation outlining the relationship between energy and matter suggests that one form can be transformed to the other. This has been confirmed via atom bombs and particle accelerators. These experiments and practical experiments have confirmed that matter can be transformed into energy to incredible and terrible results.

Until now, this has only been confirmed in one direction, from matter to energy. So far, we’ve been unable to do the reverse, converting energy to matter. But our best understanding of the origin of the universe suggests it’s possible.

While our understanding of the first moments of our universe is incomplete, scientists believe it began as an infinitely dense and infinitely hot singularity. Prior to inflation, the expansion of space itself, there was no matter, just a whole lot of energy waiting to cool and become something else. If you trace all the matter in the universe back about 13.7 billion years, it becomes a small point of very snugly energy. So we know that energy and matter can move from one state to the other.

Particle physicists have been able to create minute particles and large amounts of energy by smashing things together in super-colliders, and scientists at the Imperial College London might have figured a way to convert energy to matter, closing the loop on Einstein’s theory.

The idea is to smash photons together at high speeds in such a way that they create electrons and positrons. While the idea is theoretically possible, it’s yet to be confirmed experimentally. If they were able to confirm the idea, it might make it possible to change matter to energy and then back to matter again, though doing so in an intentionally organized way will take additional steps. We’re still a ways away from being able to build superpowered animals from scratch.

Ideal Environment

Another theory making the rounds among the pokémon community is that of the ideal environment. It suggests that, once inside a poké ball, the captured pokémon is presented with a perfect environment for their enjoyment and development.

This idea is preferable to that of digitization or pokémon enslavement, with its suggestion of a comfortable lifestyle.

While there is little among official canon to support this idea, it avoids all of the uncomfortable ideas that surround shrinking or matter transformation suggested by the evidence.

Such an environment, contained inside a pocket-sized device would require Tardis-like bending of space such that the environment inside the device was larger than the device itself. That, or we’re back to shrinking.

While the idea of pokémon kicking back in bed with a good book, drinking mimosas is comforting, it’s little more than a comforting hypothesis with little supporting evidence. Recently, however, Junichi Masuda, producer for Pokémon Sun and Moon, supported this idea. “I think it’s safe to say that it’s very comfortable inside inside of a poké ball, it’s a very comfortable environment,” Masuda laughed. “Maybe the equivalent of a high-end suite room in a fancy hotel.” It gives us cause to wonder why some pokémon resist being captured. Maybe they just prefer life on the road.

For now, the interior lives of pokémon remains a mystery. If you want to do some research of your own, maybe while relaxing in bed and drinking a mimosa, a Pokémon marathon is happening on Twitch, right now.