The Physics of Imaginary Things

By Sean Carroll | December 26, 2006 1:10 pm

Quadruple digits! Yes, this is our 1000th post here at Cosmic Variance. In honor of which we will — well, nothing special. But I will indulge in some shameless pluggery.

Physics of the Buffyverse Today, you see, is the official publication date of The Physics of the Buffyverse, by the blogosphere’s own Jennifer Ouellette. I’m not going to offer a proper review of the book, because (1) I’ve only had a chance to skim it thus far, and (2) the author bakes me scones, which is a conflict of interest if ever I’ve seen one. But you could do a lot worse than buying a few copies for yourself and all your friends, let me assure you.

The construction of the title — The [field of academic inquiry] of [product of human imagination] — is by now well-known, inspired in large part by Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek. (In addition to the Physics, we’ve learned about the Ethics, the Art, the Computers, the Religions, and the Metaphysics of Star Trek, as well as corresponding studies of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.) And as long as it’s been in circulation, the idea of subjecting TV shows or fantasy genres to scientific investigation has been the target of scoffing from curmudgeonly old folks who are taking a temporary break from chasing kids out of their yards. After all, they will tell you, how can you learn anything about science by studying fiction? Science is all about the real world! It has nothing to say about fake worlds that someone just made up.

Balderdash, of course. Neither physics, nor any other science, is some list of facts and theories to be committed to memory. There are a bunch of established pieces of knowledge that are worth remembering, no doubt about that, but much more important is the process by which that knowledge is acquired. And that process is just as applicable to imaginary worlds as it is to the real one. Any respectable universe, whether we find it out there or make it up ourselves, will be subject to certain internal rules of behavior. (When it comes to fiction, those rules are occasionally sacrificed for the sake of the plot, whereas in the real world they’re a bit more immutable.) Learning how to discover those rules, from the standpoint of an observer rather than one of the creators, is nothing more or less than learning how science is done.

I’ve long thought that video games would be a great way to teach the scientific method to kids. They’re playing them anyway — why not think of it as collecting data? The other day Seed’s Daily Zeitgeist linked to this gravity game.

Gravity Game

Your job is to give initial conditions (position and velocity) to a little test body, which then moves around under the gravitational field of various heavier bodies, with the goal being to survive for as long as possible without colliding with one of the planets. But the “laws of gravity” certainly aren’t the ones that Newton came up with, as a bit of experimentation shows; for one thing, orbits around just one planet don’t describe conic sections, they decay in spirals. So what are the laws? Does the strength of gravity obey something other than the familiar inverse-square law? Or is there dissipation? Are energy and angular momentum conserved? Even better, is there some definition of “energy” and “angular momentum” such that they are conserved? What about those boundary conditions at the edges of the box? They are in some sense reflective, but the magnitude of momentum certainly isn’t conserved — what’s the rule? We know in this case that there certainly are hard-and-fast rules, as the programmers put them into the code. I would love to see kids in science classes using a game like this as a miniature “laboratory,” in which they designed experiments to test different hypotheses they came up with.

Somewhat more complex is N, the ninja game from metanet.

Ninja game

Here the physics is substantially richer. You are a tiny ninja, whose job is to jump around and avoid threats while doing what it takes to open a door and escape within a specified time limit. But, being a ninja, you have unusual powers — including the ability to alter your center-of-mass momentum in midair by sheer force of will. So: is the trajectory of the ninja uniquely defined by its initial data? Are there any conserved quantities? Are the laws of motion isotropic — are the rules governing left-right motion the same as those governing up-down motion? Can the ability to stick to walls be described in terms of a coefficient of friction? You can be killed by smashing into a wall or floor too quickly — but the allowed velocity depends on the angle of impact. So what quantity is to be calculated to determine whether a landing is safe or not?

You get the point. Those of us who have become enchanted by science see the world as a giant puzzle, and our “job” is to unravel its secrets. The universe is a giant video game that a few of us get to play all the time. Yet somehow we manage to give everyone else the impression that it’s all about pulleys and inclined planes. If we can enlist the help of some imaginary characters — whether Spock or Spike — in illustrating the excitement of science, we’ll have achieved something very real indeed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words
  • spyder

    After all, they will tell you, how can you learn anything about science by studying fiction? Science is all about the real world! It has nothing to say about fake worlds that someone just made up.

    When Berube can spend two days and 20,000+ words deconstructing 2001, a Space Odyssey, a book on the physics of a vampire slayer is certainly well within the norm of non-fictional efforts in examining and describing our culture.

    As for the games, there are indeed numerous ongoing efforts in all the academic disciplines to develop vidgames that provide substantial educational opportunities for our future k-12 generations. The early researches are quite illuminating, particularly games that use “expert” system code to facilitate the learning of grammar and syntax, as well as geographical relationships of world and national histories. Can the physics and chemistry of climate change be far behind???

  • rillian

    I agree it’s fun to figure these things out. Here’s a more robust example.

    I think it’s supposed to be Newtonian dynamics, modulo the boundary effects. The lack on energy conservation looks like it’s just a bad integration scheme. Look at the scattering when the planets “collide”. There’s a random increase in their kinetic energy, just like what you get from a fixed-timestep integration scheme. The non-conic-section orbits can also be explained this way.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    I think TV-physics is great. One of my favorites was when PBS use to air re-runs of the 60’s Julius Sumner Miller, I couldn’t find anything on it except clips:

  • Eugene

    I blame you for my complete lack of productivity thanks to the gravity game.

    (By the way, they cheated : I put my little particle in orbit around single body in Level 1, and they ended the level with a timer, else I would have racked up an infinite number of points…)

  • Aaron F.

    Wow… this gravity game is WAY too addictive. ^_^ In the n = 1, 2, and 3 levels, I like to put the atom into orbit around a reasonably large body that’s pretty far away from the other ones; the timer tends to run out before perturbations from the other bodies really kick in. In the heavier levels, I’ve had surprisingly good success with just dropping the particle in places that look like Lagrange points, which can slow down the action long enough to run down the timer, but I haven’t come up with a consistently good strategy…

  • Jim Kakalios

    Well, of course I’m biased, but I would argue that we ONLY and EXCLUSIVELY use fiction when teaching physics. The reason that so many students are turned off by standard introductory physics classes is that the fiction we use is terribly dull.

    You drop a mass from a tower – but ignore air resistance. A fiction. You shoot an arrow from a cliff 200 meters above ground, at an angle of 37.5 degrees with the horizontal, and want to know the time before the projectile strikes the ground. A fiction. No one in recorded hiostory has ever cared how long it takes the arrow to reach the ground. I’ve been doing professional physics for over 20 years, man and boy, and I’ve NEVER needed to use this in the lab (perhaps because my lab is in the sub-basement?).

    Students always complain: When am I ever going to use this in my real life? Surprisingly enough, when in my classes I use superhero examples to explicate physics principles, those same students NEVER wonder when they will use this information in the real life. The all must have plans, post-graduation, that involve spandex and capes. And knowing how many mad scientists there are out there (you may call them String Theorists, but this is not the time for semantics), I’d have to say this is a good thing.

    But as I say, I’m biased. In addition to blurbing Jennifer’s book, I’ve written one of my own (The Physics of Superheroes – who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of shameless plugs?).

    Seriously, I’ve done many many interviewws with print, radio and TV. I’ve spoken with VERY intelligent people who want to know how air bags save lives, but preface the conversation with statements such as: I’m a Dummy. I won’t get it.

    So, if you start talking about Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and explain how Newton’s second law explains why she died despite the fact that Spidey caught her in his webbing as she fell from the top fo the George Washington Bridge, and that the reason was that the time available to stop her was too short, so the necessary force ot arrest her momentum was too large AND this is what airbags do (increase the time available for braking, in addition to spreading the force over a larger area) well, this they get!

    Because these students, and reporters and readers of books about Buffy will not become scientists or engineers. But they will be citizens and voters the rest of their lives. So any little bit we can do can only help.

    Face front, True Believer!

  • Paul Schmit

    Jim, what a funny coincidence. My father mentioned that he received your book for Christmas…he’s an EE and loves to sit around and keep his mind active by learning, or RElearning, new concepts (and he used to be a big comic book buff), so he was excited to get it. I wound up with Lisa Randall’s book (which I’ve been meaning to purchase for some time now anyway), but I’ll have to take a look at your book the next time I make a trip back home for “shits and giggles.” Small world…

  • Scott

    Are we better off reading science-fiction by people like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke who were knowledgeable about science?

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  • Jim Kakalios

    Scott asked:

    Are we better off reading science-fiction by people like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke who were knowledgeable about science?

    I would say, Yes. Provided you have a sense of what parts are correct science and which parts are fiction, then its a painless way to learn.

    The comic book writers and pulp fiction writers from the 30’s through the 60’s were vast storehouses of trivia and arcana (not sure what the difference is, actually). They would use all sorts of obscure facts as the plot points or McGuffins around which the story would be constructed. Consequently, in a natural way, the reader would be exposed to “strange but true”facts that would not ordinarily come up in everyday conversation, or their classrooms, for that matter.

    But more to the point, reading Silver Age comic books from the 50’s and 60’s would be a great way to learn how to think like a scientist. The superhero would be challenged by the villain, or ensnared in some sort of death trap, and would have to find a clever and novel use of their superpowers in order to outwit the villain. We know the rules – powers, vulnerabilities, etc., and we’re not allowed to cheat (the Flash can’t escape from a giant block of ice in which he in entombed by Captain Cold (who, by the way, was not a real Captain) using heat vision, but he *could* vibrate back and forth and high frequency, transferring his kinetic energy to the ice, melting it.

    Which is the same spirit of scientific research. We know the rules, (E and M, QM), we have a unique problem (high Tc superconductivity) and we have to come up with a novel (or else it won’t be publishable) solution. and we’re not allowed to cheat (no extra dimensions without experimental proof!).

    You’d be surprised, though perhaps not, by the number of individuals at comic book conventions who work in high tech industries and are huge fans of real science.

    Excelsior (after all, today IS Stan Lee’s birthday!).

    Now I have to go rewatch the trailer for next summers Fantastic Four film.



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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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