Science of TRON

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2010 10:01 am

I don’t know about any of you, but I was extremely excited about the release of TRON: Legacy. Partly because the light cycles are cool, but also for a personal reason: this was the first movie I helped consult on as part of the early days of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. And I’ll be honest; that extremely tenuous personal connection was enough to make me feel personally invested in the success of the movie. I am shallow. Haters gonna hate, but my mind is made up. More objective reviews have ranged across the spectrum, but for many of us it was a thrilling feast of eye candy that makes for a great holiday film.

But … Science? Well, yes, a little. Dan Vergano has some of the scoop. There was a huge amount of science and technology that went into making the film, of course, but also some underlying the story. The director, Joe Kosinski, and producers, Sean Bailey and Jeff Silver, were very enthusiastic about science from the start, and always wanted to learn more. At the same time, it’s essentially a fantasy movie, not a documentary or even hard SF, and nobody was tempted to over-explain what was going on. Our consult occurred after the initial script was already in place, so it wasn’t as if we exerted a noticeable influence on the direction of the plot. What we did was help fill in the backstory. If there is a sequel, some of the ideas we talked about could end up playing a more substantial role.

Early in the movie, the Alan Bradley character waxes enthusiastic about the advances of technology, and includes a bit of technobabble about “genetic algorithms” and “quantum teleportation.” But in fact, that bit of babble is very relevant. One of the most interesting aspects of the new grid world is the existence of “Isos” — programs that arose spontaneously, rather than being constructed by a programmer. And of course one of the main conceptual hurdles in the plot is how you teleport a physical human being into the grid. We talked a lot in the consult about conservation of mass. And in the final result, the laser that miraculously disassembles Sam Flynn and transports him into the grid is equipped with canisters of raw materials (oxygen, carbon, etc.) that can be used to re-assemble people back into reality. You won’t even notice them when you watch the movie, but they’re there, and I count that as a small victory.

Realistic science that you’d be happy to show your class? No. But a decent example of how a bit of science can help add depth to a story. Scientists can play a much more substantial if they consult right at the beginning, when a script is first coming together — and hopefully we’ll start seeing the fruits of some of those consultations before too long. But every little bit helps. A movie like TRON doesn’t force you to think against your will — you can perfectly well just sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy the ride. But if you’re predisposed to thinking, there’s plenty of food for thought.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Top Posts
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  • Nullius in Verba

    I saw an animation a while back of a nano-scale 3D printer, able to construct any object you wanted by assembling it at the atomic scale. If you operated one in reverse…

    Video of nanofactory

  • joulesm

    And the Flynns went to Caltech 😉 that line in the movie totally made it for me.

  • psmith

    There were two nice insights in the Dan Vergano article:
    “It’s counterintuitive, but putting some limits on what is possible in a story helps writers,”
    “What scientists have to learn is that film and television-makers are experts too. Expert storytellers,”

    Not having seen the movie I know I must be missing some vital point, but why was it necessary to transport the body into a virtual game world? I can imagine a different scenario. Probe inserted into the brain halts the mind (analogous to the pause button on a computer). It then reads the code and data that makes up the mind and its memories. These are injected into the grid and linked to a suitable virtual body and the mind is restarted. Reverse the process on exit from the grid when the code and data are inserted back into the real body, which had presumably been kept on life support.
    I know, I have just proven that I am not an expert storyteller (and that my science is bad), but hey, why should we let the facts get in the way of a good fantasy.

  • Sean

    I think you could imagine that it’s actually easier to “teleport” the information in a body rather than copy it. Copying might be much more resource-intensive, not to mention that it might be difficult to do a non-destructive copy. Not saying that is necessarily right, but it’s plausible enough for the relevant dramatic purposes.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I read somewhere that The Dude makes a brief cameo. I’d go just for that.

  • Paul

    I approached Tron as a fantasy too, and enjoyed it a lot. However, I did wonder, if CLU and his ship and army were to make it to the portal, whether the laser device would have access to enough raw materials…

  • Daedalus B Logos

    Yeah, I noticed the “techno-babble” and how more relevant it was portrayed in relation to the movie. The first Tron movie was ‘inspiring’ but the techno-babble was just that at most times as I watched it again 28+ years later before experiencing Tron Legacy. The one mental note I made was that considering that there are two alternate digital reality movies (The Matrix). Tron Legacy seems aesthetically more realistic for this type of story. However, I am not sure about the eating sequence and the libations at the ‘end of line’ bar. These scenes do not even thematically seem relevant to building the story. Visual and auditory senses through digital reproduction would seem the fully realized senses, while taste/touch nearly absent possibly unreferenced. Finally, the ending seems to be homage to the movie Blade Runner. The human creation theme seems to result in a lovely man-created brunette women drenched in sunshine. I agree the better and more relevant the science in the story, the better it helps to tell the story and even further the suspension of disbelief for all members of the audience. Alas, science will not likely ever be in the ending. Ultimately, all Scifi ends metaphorically if it’s good, and sophomorically if it is not.

  • psmith

    Yes, agreed that the actual mechanism chosen has better dramatic impact (nod to expert storytellers and science).
    On re-reading my earlier comment I realise I have discovered a law even deeper than that of the Conservation of Mass, that is the Conservation of Mind. Some hasty mathematics shows that this is the holy grail of physics, the Grand Unifying Theory. In private correspondence with Dorkins he has reluctantly conceded the law of the Conservation of Mind but robustly asserts that this can never amount to a proof of the God Hypothesis. Sadly, my parish priest informs me that in certain circles the law of The Conservation of Mind has been well known for a great number of years so I cannot claim copyright or patents. This would have been a novel extension of copyright law!

  • Joseph G

    The idea of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer seems to be increasingly common in sci-fi (in this sense, the original Tron was decades ahead of its time), and also one that holds a lot of interest to me as far as existential questions go.
    For one thing, if the “uploading” process is destructive, is your consciousness actually preserved? To your uploaded copy, it certain would feel that way, as they’d have all your memories, but what makes us think there’d be any continuity there? What makes us think that it’s not simply a case of “Original is dead, copy simply thinks it’s made the transition because of the memories”?
    To put it another way, if you were uploading yourself, and the copying process was non-destructive, and someone handed you a gun and told you to shoot yourself in the head afterwards, would you do it?

  • réalta fuar

    Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the original Tron one of the most laughable movies ever made and have no intention of ever seeing the new one (and the trailers reinforced that even more). I’d have been happy to take the bucks for consulting as long as they promised not to put my name anywhere close to it….The “Moriarty” episodes of TNG are by far the best that’s ever been done on anything close to the subject.

  • Sean

    Just to be clear, there are no bucks for this kind of consulting — just the fun of helping out.

  • psmith

    @10, you say
    “if you were uploading yourself, and the copying process was non-destructive, and someone handed you a gun and told you to shoot yourself in the head afterwards, would you do it?”
    That would imply two consciousness with two sets of memories, a clear violation of the law of Conservation of Mind.
    No, the mind would have to be suspended during the upload process and then resumed in its new incarnation. Sufferers of petit mal routinely experience the suspension of consciousness.

  • Joseph G

    @#11 réalta fuar: Certainly it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, particularly the original one. My (2 year old) cell phone is several orders of magnitude more powerful then the computer that was used to create graphics for the film (a modified PDP-10 mainframe). Its several hundred kilobits of magnetic core memory took up enough space to house half a dozen refrigerators, at least 😛

    @#13 psmith: Fascinating. So you’re saying that there’s some principle preventing the copying of a working brain? That in order to be “uploaded” that your body would cease to be conscious?

  • psmith

    @14, “there’s some principle preventing the copying of a working brain?”
    Er, no, there’s some principle preventing the copying of a working mind, remembering always the spirit of light hearted fantasy that characterises the post and comments. :)

    But there is a serious intent behind my fantasy. People in the physical sciences find it difficult to accept that the mind can be more than the brain, understandably, because (so far) it cannot be demonstrated in a laboratory setting. But in the computer world we routinely take an abstract creation (the program we have created) and marry it to a physical thing (the computer) to create a unique working entity which is more than the computer. I know that is an extremely crude analogy but it is at least suggestive.

  • Joseph G

    @#15 psmith: Ah, I see. My presumption sort of being that a sufficiently perfect simulation of a brain will yield a mind, but of course we have no way of knowing this. Still, it seems reasonable (to me) to assume that consciousness is an emergent property of a working brain. The alternative sounds rather spiritual-ish to me, and while I have no problem with this in principle (in fact, that would be a wonderful discovery), it seems that we humans have a habit of relegating something we can’t understand or explain to the realm of the supernatural. Then we find out it has a natural explanation, but we go ahead and put the next thing we don’t understand in the supernatural box anyway (I’m thinking comets, lightning, and sleep paralysis, for example, in roughly that order).
    I’m not saying that that’s what you’re doing, but the impulse is understandable. The whole idea of mind-uploading still gives me the heebie-jeebies, much as the geek part of me would love to see that :)

  • shiva

    I am a fan of the original TRON and am looking forward to the new edition. Thanks for the hard work Sean!

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  • Joseph G
  • Joseph G

    I think they revoked my image posting ability :(

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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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