Holtzman effect

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The Holtzman effect[1] is a fictional scientific phenomenon in the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert, beginning with the 1965 novel Dune. The effect is never explained in detail, but it makes (among other things) defensive force shields and instantaneous space travel possible.[2]

Frank Herbert was inconsistent with the spelling of "Holtzman," resulting in the variant spellings "Holtzmann" (1976's Children of Dune)[3] and "Holzmann" (1985's Chapterhouse: Dune).[4] This may be intentional, as Herbert mutated other words and names over the several millennia the Dune series spans, such as the change of "Arrakis" to "Rakis" and "Caladan" to "Dan" beginning with Heretics of Dune (1984).[5]

According to the Legends of Dune prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (2002–2004), the Holtzman effect is named after the scientist who discovered it, Tio Holtzman (though for many of its applications, Holtzman in fact takes credit for the mathematical theories of his assistant, Norma Cenva).[6]

Holtzman devices[edit]

Holtzman shield[edit]

Gurney Halleck and Paul Atreides dueling with Holtzman shields active in the 1984 film Dune

In Terminology of the Imperium, the glossary of the novel Dune, Frank Herbert provides the following definition:

SHIELD, DEFENSIVE: the protective field produced by a Holtzman generator. This field derives from Phase One of the suspensor-nullification effect. A shield will permit entry only to objects moving at slow speeds (depending on setting, this speed ranges from six to nine centimeters per second) and can be shorted out only by a shire-sized electric field.[7]

In Dune, the technology has been adapted for reliable use in personal defensive shields which permit penetration only by objects that move below a pre-set velocity.[8] Paul Atreides notes in Dune, "In shield fighting, one moves fast on defense, slow on attack ... Attack has the sole purpose of tricking the opponent into a misstep, setting him up for the attack sinister. The shield turns the fast blow, admits the slow kindjal!" It is further noted in the same chapter that the field forms a defensive bubble about the body. There are even half shields that do not entirely cover the body. A five-layered shield-generated field called a pentashield can be used to protect small areas like doorways, but larger versions become increasingly unstable as layers are added. A pentashield is "virtually impassable to anyone not wearing a dissembler tuned to the shield codes."[9]

The interaction of a lasgun beam and a Holtzman field results in subatomic fusion and a nuclear explosion.[10] The magnitude of this blast is unpredictable; sometimes it destroys only the shielded target and gunner, sometimes the explosion is more powerful than atomics.[11] Using lasguns in a shielded environment can result in military and environmental catastrophe, though at one point in Dune Duncan Idaho deliberately allows shield/lasgun contact as a discouragement to his enemies.[2] In God Emperor of Dune (1981), The God Emperor Leto II notes 3,500 years into his reign that "Shields are banned throughout the Empire" — and it is a capital offense to possess one — to avoid such explosive interactions.[12]

The vibrations of an active shield will drive a sandworm on Arrakis into a killing frenzy, drawing them from across territorial lines to attack the shield.[13] For this reason, the native Fremen eschew them. It is noted in Children of Dune that the Fremen have developed a small shield generator known as a "pseudo-shield" to attract and madden a worm, for use as an ersatz bomb.[3]

Holtzman drive[edit]

The effect is used in this case to fold space at the quantum level, allowing the Spacing Guild's heighliner ships to instantaneously travel far distances across space without actually moving at all. However, the chaotic and seemingly non-deterministic quantum nature of "foldspace" requires at least limited prescience on the part of the human navigator; otherwise the absurdly complex mathematics involved in producing reliable physical projections of such events would only be possible with advanced computers, which are strictly prohibited because of mankind's crusade against thinking machines, the Butlerian Jihad. To this effect, the Guild produces melange-saturated Navigators who intuitively "see paths through foldspace" in this way.[2] This stumbling block is overcome several thousand years after the events of Dune when Ixian scientists develop mechanical replacements for Guild Navigators.[5]

Kevin R. Grazier analyzes the concepts of folding space and faster-than-light travel in the essay "Cosmic Origami" in The Science of Dune (2008).[14]


Hovering devices called suspensors utilize the secondary (low-drain) phase of a Holtzman field generator to nullify gravity within certain limits prescribed by relative mass and energy consumption.[15] Suspensors are used in chairs, tables, and structures that are too massive to be physically sound, among many other obvious uses. In Dune, the grotesquely obese Baron Vladimir Harkonnen utilizes suspensor belts and harnesses to buoy his flesh and allow him to walk.[16] In Dune, Jessica theorizes that suspensors, like shields, attract sandworms,[13] and while some are seen in Fremen sietch communities, none are active in the deep desert.


A varied use of the Holtzman effect is the glowglobe. This device is a small glowing sphere that floats gracefully above a surface like a portable, personal sun, since it is typically tuned to a yellowish color.[2] Herbert's description in the glossary of Dune reads:

GLOWGLOBE: Suspensor-buoyed illuminating device, self-powered (usually by organic batteries).[17]

The Dune Encyclopedia[edit]

The non-canon Dune Encyclopedia (1984) by Willis E. McNelly invents an extensive, alternate origin and description of the Holtzman effect.[18] In this version, it is discovered by Ibrahim Vaughn Holtzman (born 7593 B.G.):

Young Holtzman was nearly killed in a tragic accident in a racing 'thopter ... He became the first of very few persons to undergo a brain transplant: his brain was placed in a prototype axlotl tank and wired into a large host computer with an unprogrammed personality blank, on the assumption that Holtzman would imprint his own personality on the machine. The process was marred by an induced psychosis: afterwards, Holtzman suffered from intense paranoia and refused treatment. Since Holtzman's was the first brain transplant ever performed, the extent of his powers was not fully understood.[18]

The son of the planetary governor of Liesco II, Holtzman has a specialized ship constructed and "escapes" into space to "think." His mathematical genius is enhanced by the exponentially-increased mental processing made possible by his new computerized form (which also allows him to exist for nearly 7500 years). He focuses on analyzing the suspensor-nullification effect, which (as Frank Herbert established) makes interstellar travel possible. According to the Encyclopedia, this effect had been discovered 5400 years earlier but is not fully understood. Holtzman's first related discovery is an "instantaneous interstellar communication device" later called the Holtzman Wave.[18]

Until this point, interstellar travel had effected a widespread population of the universe which could no longer be controlled by the Imperial House Ceres. The development of Holtzman Wave generators gives mankind the means to easily communicate across vast distances and results in the long and "ferocious" Wars of Reunification. Holtzman himself remains in seclusion, returning to civilization five times. On his third return, over 2000 years after his original escape, he gives humanity his next related discovery: defensive shields. On his fourth return millennia later, "Holtzman 'published' his unified theory, linking the various effects into a single hierarchy of phenomena." The last intelligent machine left in existence after the Butlerian Jihad, he is apparently destroyed in 108 B.G. Knowing his ship is booby trapped with a dormant laser aimed at a defensive shield, the Jihad fleet send a volunteer to board the ship, thereby setting off the explosion which results from shield-laser interaction.[18]

According to the Encyclopedia, the three-dimensional suspensor-nullification effect is discovered thousands of years before Holtzman explored the associated phenomena; his name is eventually applied to all manifestations of the Holtzman effect.[18]

Legends of Dune[edit]

The Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Legends of Dune prequel trilogy (2002–2004) establishes that the Holtzman effect is discovered by — and named after — scientist and inventor Tio Holtzman immediately prior to the Butlerian Jihad, some 10,000 years before the events of Dune. The technology is employed for defensive force fields capable of scrambling the gel-circuitry of thinking machines, the force of sentient computers and robots who seek to enslave and exterminate mankind. Networks of towers generating the field from the surface protect entire planets from machine attacks.[6]

Residing on the planet Poritrin, Holtzman's career is on the wane, as he has not invented anything significant in several years. He comes across the work of Norma Cenva, a woman from Rossak; realizing her genius, he invites her to come work with him on Poritrin. The machines soon realize that their cymeks (human-machine hybrids) can slip through the planetary force fields to destroy the transmitters because they possess human brains, which are unaffected by the scrambler fields. Cenva has the idea to use the field as an offensive weapon, projecting it with portable transmitters to knock out machines and their installations. Holtzman later calculates that the field can be modified to prevent penetration from physical projectiles; Cenva agrees, correcting the flaws in his concept but noting that objects can still pass through the shield at a slow enough speed. The human forces start installing these new shields on their battleships and most ground forces. However, as it is still a new technology at the time, the shields tend to overheat with too much use and deactivate. As time passes, Holtzman discovers that the young dwarfish woman is much more creative than he, and after being upstaged by her twice, begins to dislike her. Eventually he takes credit for Cenva's mathematical theories, which led to many practical uses for Holtzman's original discovery, including the Holtzman Drive, Holtzman Shields, suspensors and glowglobes.[6] Cenva is also credited with the realization that hitting a Holtzman field with a lasgun beam results in a large and unpredictable explosion. Her theory is proven in the 2003 novel Dune: The Machine Crusade, when Holtzman himself is killed by the explosion from such an interaction during a slave uprising on Poritrin.[19]

The Legends of Dune series also establishes that Cenva invents the theory of space folding in 177 B.G. during the Butlerian Jihad after years of working on Holtzman's original field equations. By 174 B.G. she had built a prototype space-folding ship, and soon she and industrialist Aurelius Venport establish a shipyard on the planet Kolhar to produce what would eventually be called heighliners. Within a decade, Venport puts the space-folding technology and shipyards at the disposal of the Jihad forces. Initially, foldspace travel is not completely accurate or safe; only about nine out of every ten heighliners make it to their final destination. Realizing that the spice melange amplifies her psychic and calculative abilities, Norma pioneers the use of massive concentrated doses to presciently perceive space/time. In 88 B.G. she discovers that this is the way to safely navigate foldspace, and essentially becomes the first Navigator. That same year, Norma's son Adrien Venport founds the Foldspace Shipping Company, which later becomes the Spacing Guild and eventually monopolizes space commerce, transport and interplanetary banking. Cenva's name is eventually forgotten by history, but she is more interested in improving defensive shields and developing foldspace travel to make it safer and more efficient. Her efforts help humanity defeat the thinking machines.[6]

Prelude to Dune[edit]

In 1999's Dune: House Atreides (the first novel of the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Anderson), the following is stated via epigraph:

Tio Holtzman was one of the most productive Ixian inventors on record. He often went on creative binges, locking himself up for months on end so that he could work without interruption. Sometimes upon emerging he required hospitalization, and there were constant concerns over his sanity and well-being. Holtzman died young — barely past thirty Standard Years — but the results of his efforts changed the galaxy forever. — Biographical Capsules, an Imperial filmbook[20]


  1. ^ In "Terminology of the Imperium." the glossary of the novel Dune, Frank Herbert defined the Holtzman effect itself as "the negative repelling effect of a shield generator." Interpreting this in conjunction with Herbert's definition of the defensive shield, it is unclear whether the author intended the Holtzman effect to be an original component of his suspensor-nullification effect or a phenomenon created by Holtzman's invention, the shield generator.
  2. ^ a b c d Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune.
  3. ^ a b Herbert, Frank (1976). Children of Dune.
  4. ^ Herbert, Frank (1985). Chapterhouse: Dune.
  5. ^ a b Herbert, Frank (1984). Heretics of Dune.
  6. ^ a b c d Herbert, Brian; Kevin J. Anderson (2002–2004). Legends of Dune.
  7. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium: SHIELD, DEFENSIVE". Dune.
  8. ^ Charles L. Harness uses a similar concept in his 1953 novel Flight into Yesterday; see The Paradox Men/Dome Around America Archived 2011-06-07 at the Wayback Machine Ace Double Reviews (18) by Rich Horton.
  9. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium: PENTASHIELD". Dune.
  10. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium: LASGUN". Dune.
  11. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune. Ace. pp. 145–146. ISBN 0-441-17271-7. Jessica focused her mind on lasguns, wondering. The white-hot beams of disruptive light could cut through any known substance, provided that substance was not shielded. The fact that feedback from a shield would explode both lasgun and shield did not bother the Harkonnens. Why? A lasgun/shield explosion was a dangerous variable, could be more powerful than atomics, could kill only the gunner and his shielded target.
  12. ^ Herbert, Frank (1981). God Emperor of Dune.
  13. ^ a b Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune. If only we had suspensors, Jessica thought. It'd be such a simple matter to jump down there. But perhaps suspensors are another thing to avoid in the open desert. Maybe they attract the worms the way a shield does.
  14. ^ Grazier, Kevin R. (2008). "Cosmic Origami". In Grazier, Kevin R. (ed.). The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert's Fictional Universe. Psychology of Popular Culture. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books. pp. 177–206. ISBN 1-933771-28-3.
  15. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium: SUSPENSOR". Dune.
  16. ^ In both the 1984 film Dune and the 2000 miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune, the Baron floats or levitates rather than walk on the ground himself.
  17. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium: GLOWGLOBE". Dune.
  18. ^ a b c d e McNelly, Willis E. (June 1, 1984). "HOLTZMAN, IBRAHIM VAUGHN/HOLTZMAN EFFECT". The Dune Encyclopedia. pp. 307–314. ISBN 0-425-06813-7.
  19. ^ Herbert, Brian; Kevin J. Anderson (2003). Dune: The Machine Crusade.
  20. ^ Herbert, Brian; Kevin J. Anderson (1999). Dune: House Atreides.