Thor Points

By Sean Carroll | May 16, 2011 8:37 am

Having finally seen Thor on screen, I’m happy to give it thumbs-up. It works well as a summer superhero movie, and the acting — especially Tom Hiddleston as Loki, but also Chris Hemsworth as Thor — was much better than average for this kind of fare. (See takes from Adam Frank and Kyle Munkittrick.)

Also, needless to say, it did a great job of advancing the secret atheist agenda.

And the science? I was pretty happy with how it turned out. It was made clear that all of the super-ness was ultimately based on (some hypothetical set of) laws of physics, not just magic pulled out of the air — without descending into a dreadful level of midichlorian-like overexplanation. There is one phrase used in the movie that I think is directly attributable to my input: “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” This came about from a conversation between producer Kevin Feige and me that went something like this:

KF: We need the Bifrost Bridge to provide a way for the characters to travel great distances in space in a very short period of time.

SC: Sure, you probably want to say that it makes use of wormholes.

KF: Well, we can’t call it a “wormhole.”

SC: Why not?

KF: Sounds too Nineties.

SC: I suppose … you could call it an “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” Means the same thing.

So naturally, in the finished film, Jane Foster calls it an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and someone says “what’s that?”, and she replies “it’s a wormhole.”

Jennifer pointed out afterward that, while Jane Foster’s scientist character was appealing and a good role model, they did miss a chance to make use of her love of science in the service of the story. While we see our Earth-based heroes zooming around the desert chasing atmospheric anomalies, the connection to astrophysics is never explained, nor do they really talk that much about science. In one scene Jane makes goo-goo eyes at Thor as he talks about all this apparent magic just being very advanced science. Goo-goo eyes are fine, but any real scientist in that situation would have started asking questions about spacetime and exotic matter and quantum stability and so on. It would have been great if we had seen Jane fall for Thor, not because of what he looked like without his shirt on, but because behind the gruff exterior he knew more deep physics than she did. Maybe in a sequel.

I hinted that there was one thing all the scientists warned the moviemakers not to do, and indeed they didn’t do it. In one conception, the planet of the Frost Giants was to be shaped like a disk. Not a ringworld-style band that used rotation to mimic gravity, but just a flat planet in the shape of a record (or a DVD, for you youngsters). Which is fine, if somewhat fanciful. The potential disaster was that they wanted to have a big fight scene where frost giants would fall off the edge of the planet. Pulled by … what, exactly? Total gravity Fail. Fortunately they ditched that idea, although the concept survived in less egregious form in the depiction of Asgard, which looks like a mountain that sits on top of a galaxy. That also makes no sense, but it’s so far from trying to make sense that the audience just sees it as poetic license, not a simple mistake.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment
  • Jumblepudding

    The problem I saw with midichlorians wasn’t that they were over explanation, it was that it made no bloody sense at all.

  • amphiox

    The problem I see would be, after scripting JF’s questions, how would they script Thor’s answers? (Without the audience collective rolling their eyes and going ‘here we go with the Trek-style technobabble again’).

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    How would they script Thor’s answers? Have him start to answer and get cut off mid-sentence by a giant explosion.

    “Our people discovered millennia ago that what Earth scientists call ‘dark energy’ is really —” boom!

    The potential disaster was that they wanted to have a big fight scene where frost giants would fall off the edge of the planet. Pulled by … what, exactly?

    Narrativium, one presumes.

  • http://omegaleague.com Alpha Omega

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I am a Thor fan from way back, and Asgard has to be a floating mountain — physics be damned! Imposing the laws of physics of this universe on a world of pure imagination is absurd. I look at comics, myths and fantasies as stories from other parts of the multiverse; to require that every universe have laws of physics like this one is not only boring, it doesn’t even make scientific sense!

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob

    Everyone knows a wormhole was what the crew from Stargate used to visit Thor — the Asgard general who was from a race of gray, Roswell-type aliens. But now, I’ll have to see this movie and see which Thor I like better.

  • Zathras

    That was not GENERAL Thor……He was Supreme Commander Thor (of the Asgard fleet), as he reminded Senator Kinsey. ;-)

  • starwed

    Trillian (an astrophysicist) meets Zaphod at a party… although she is unemployed. (Also, at some point in the Hitchhikers continuity, I think she goes out with Thor? I don’t remember it ending especially well.)

  • Thor’s Mamam

    Who gives a shit? It’s mythology. There should be kept a wall between that bullshit and science.

    It’s not interesting at all, it’s just stupid. Just let Thor fuck, kill, eat and sleep in his own delusive peace.

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob

    Hey #8, relax. It’s entertainment. It’s recreation. Nobody thinks it’s real. Have a cold glass of Romulan ale, and you’ll feel better. I’ll buy the first round.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    I’m surprised they didn’t ask Kip Thor to be a consultant….

  • Anchor

    I most certainly would NEVER exchange a perfectly legitimate and serviceable moniker of ‘wormhole’ for ‘Einstein-Rosen Bridge’ (even though they may be identical) on some idiotic and thoroughly obnoxious Hollywooded-mindless motivation by one who, by nothing more than whim masquerading as artistic wherewithal, judges such a thing exclusively by how he thinks it may strategically play according to his take on popular trend.

    PHOOEY!

    That fellow might as well wring his hands over the fact that it is hard to describe ‘curved spacetime’ in any fresh way that doesn’t suggest an injuriously dated throwback to 1920′s. Those guys habitually think their audience to be stupid (it is a real working principle in that industry to successfully “cheat the audience”, which would make every authentic historical master artist turn over in her grave) and thinks it important to set their film apart from others in an attempt to feign originality, and therefore wishes to avoid any discovered realization of a connection to an era when people were, heavens forbid, dancing the Charleston.

    Yet it is STILL curved spacetime after all these many years, even though one might twirk it out ambiguously as “warped space-time”, for example…and even THAT phrase has long since lost its glamour. Oh dear, what a horrible dillemma that would pose to such captains of the film industry.

    It may not seem to be a big problem in this partiucular instance Sean talks about, since we’re talking about a fictional comic scenario, but that is how Hollywood works: what I’d like to know is WHAT USE CAN THEY POSSIBLY HAVE for a physicist consultant to inform them about their ridiculous movie???

    This has been the chief problem of ‘Hollywood filmakers’ for fully a half century now, and nobody – neither the filmakers (who really don’t care, trust me) or the science advisors they hire (who DO care, and even often find their advice enthusiastically recieved, only to discover that the filmakers hired them only in order to be able to say they had ‘the very best’ advice, whilst barely ever heeding it) – has really ever yet truly addressed this persistent problem of scientific inaccuracy in films.

    It is a pernicious problem, and scientists who are hired by these people are easily bamboozled not only by the prospect of easy money, but by the heady idea that, just because its “only a movie” their participation really isn’t so crucial to the aims of the film-makers, and so they can slide a tad bit on their responsibility of providing authentic scientific advice.

    Of course, such advisors are extremely rarely if ever given any authentic chance to critique any footage that has already been shot…for obvious economical reasons.

    Oh yes, but a reluctance to rock the boat certainly enters the picture…if you don’t cultivate an attitude that preserves one’s position, one runs the real risk of getting canned, in which case they simply replace you with someone else who is that much more maleable…and one loses the chance to be hired by anyone else in that industry.

    In other words, take the money and run, since everyone involved seem to agree that it is, after all, “ONLY A MOVIE” and one’s hired input really doesn’t or shouldn’t have any huge impact on the output of an allegedly ‘artistic’ endeavor (since anything to do with ‘artistry’ automatically implies license to the potential extent that it potentially renders the film scientifically preposterous, the presence of hired science advisors or not), even if literally tens of millions of dollars are spent screwing the paying audience, who are deemed too stupid to notice the difference between a movie that is scientifically accurate or sincere and one that isn’t…so the latter invariably gets served to them quite unapologetically…but, oh boy, how they boast they’ve retained the best scientific advisors…which they never actually ever bother to listen to. That is not the point of you getting hired as an advisor: you are hired only so that they can say they’ve acquired your name and therefore can claim scientific legitimacy and integrity…which is a powerfgul thing to be able to SAY in that industry.

    I happen to know from personal experience.

    The history of science advisory in film is an issue that runs a good deal deeper than most suppose – for example, as it has influenced so-called “Public Outreach” efforts on the part of government and university research agency efforts intent on capitalizing on the success of the film industry, which initially often decided to hire people from the film and related advertising-promotional arena ostensibly to better “connect” with the public.

    Alas, the schemes initially were often so horribly ill-conceived and contrived they drove people (even KIDS!) away rather than inform or inspire them. Alas, it has not after 30+years appreciably improved…and in many aspects has actually become astoundingly worse.

    The issue of dealing with the public in a popularly engaging way has been of consuming importance now for over the last 30 years, and it has remained a major obsession that continues to draw a great deal of attention and even drives policy, but the institutional necessity has since become so entrenched and stilted that there have become FEWER opportunities for artists, writers and producers to explore innovative, alternative, and imaginatively artistic means to improve that all-important connection with the public.

    For example, the public is greeted with a deluge of uninspired artwork and graphics: most of it is recycled repeatedly over and over: for example, just ask yourselves how many times you have seen basically the same tiresome scene of an exoplanet with every new announcement.

    It is hugely ironical that we have far more diverse data on exoplanets than there has been imaginative artistry depicting them. THAT circumstance, in my line of work, blows me away…unfortunately, in a very negative way. There should be no excuse for it.

    The great Cheseley Bonestell, acknowledged ‘dean of astronomical art’, would have been outraged at the cooky-cutter sterility of much of current astronomical artwork that has been brought to bear on such a stupendous explosion of discovery: yet we are greeted with a plethora of basically the same dreary and unimaginitive and uninspired crescent illuminated planet next to its home sun – so blandly visualized – that ANY of those depictions could interchangeably depict ANY of the new discoveries: with very few exceptions, the depictions do not at all specify one world from another. Bonestell – who also did exceptional work in the film industry – would be appalled at how bland the state of the art he inaugurated has become.

    And you know who is most responsible for thiws state of afairs? Scientists. Either the investigators themselves take on the ridiculous responsibility of conducting what the trained artist portrays (which ends up mush) or they pretend to fulfill some vital function as a ‘science advisor’ on a bozo film that has no possible hope of conveying science to the viewing public.

    Disgusting.

    I should know. I have seen this act from all the angles, intimately, as both science advisor and artist, over the last third of a century, and it is positively ludicrous. But it needn’t be…

    If we were REALLY serious about educating and inspiring the public, we would NOT be doing what we are doing, which is largely baseed on pretense. We would instead be doing what is absolutely necessary, and bringing integrity back into the picture, first of all, by treating the audience as if they were honored participants in learning and exploration…instead of cheating them with endless fantasies.

  • Matt B.

    @7. Starwed, Thor wasn’t in Hitchhiker’s, he was in Dirk Gently–The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

  • Robert S-R

    @12: Yes, he was. Reread Life, the Universe, and Everything, and pay close attention to the flying party scene. He may not be mentioned by name, but it’s definitely Thor. (And Arthur outwits him to get Trillian back. One of his Crowning Moments of Awesome/Funny.)

  • uncleMonty

    So what would happen at the edge of a discworld? I would think that as you got closer and closer to the edge of the perfectly flat disk, and gravity pulled you more and more back towards the centre, you’d perceive the disk to be sloping away from underneath you so that climbing the last little bit to the edge felt like climbing a vertical wall. Maybe someone smart could derive the perceived slope of the disk as a function of your distance from the centre? Assume the disk is one unit in radius, and negligably thick, if you like (or for bonus points give it a thickness h)

  • Robert S-R

    @14. uncleMonty: I believe any disc-shaped object large enough to hold people down by gravity would have to be spinning so fast to retain its shape as to fling people off. It would also have to be made out of some extraordinarily cohesive material to keep from breaking apart. Of course, something so strong could also be extremely dense, and perhaps not have to be so large or spin so fast. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

  • réalta fuar

    @11 Anchor You’re undoubtedly right on most of the points of your obviously heartfelt rant. I didn’t find the Einstein-Rosen substitution annoying though; to me it meant that someone actually listened to a consultant, at least once. What bothers me more, given the accuracy of your rant, is WHO gets paid for being the consulant(s)? Since the Big Name is there just to be that, I think you can make a good argument that what they’re doing is, well, not a very good thing. Any post-doc or grad student could do that job as well (except that they’re not a Big Name) and they actually, NEED the money, which is probably more than they make in a year (certainly true for the grad student). The very least that a Big Name should do is to donate (and say so publicly) their salary (or a significant fraction thereof) to some worthwhile cause. Or just subcontract what little work they actually do to a student or post-doc (probably a better solution, as the studio folks are probably always going to want their pet Big Name).
    To get back to the movie, the idea that Thor would actually KNOW or even CARE how his society’s advanced technology actually works is just DUMB. How many SEALs or SAS members could explain how a computer works to Isaac Newton? uh, zero would be a good approximation, I’d say. (though Jane should have asked questions). They could mumble a few buzzwords that would be the equivalent of Star-Trek technobabble that so many people (somewhat unreasonably, I think), detest.

  • Mark P

    There is probably a calculable limit to the flattening due to spin of a planet-sized object formed of known natural materials. I suspect it would fragment long before it could be characterized as disc shaped. Thus a disc world would be either artificial or based on materials which are not currently known to exist in nature.

  • tim

    FYI I don’t meant to downplay Sean’s creative contribution, but in the movie Deja Vu with Denzel Washington, the scientists described the time-machine as an Einstein-Rosen bridge that they discovered (in orbit or something).

  • Jesse M.

    Only problem with an “Einstein-Rosen bridge” is that, unlike with a traversable wormhole propped open by exotic matter, nothing traveling at a speed less than or equal to the speed of light can possibly make it from one end of the Einstein-Rosen bridge to the other before it pinches off into a pair of singularities which anyone inside will fall into! This is easiest to understand if you learn about Kruskal diagrams, then look at the animations and diagrams on this page. I’m sure Sean knew this and figured it wasn’t that important, but personally I’d rather they use made-up technobabble than real technical terms which clearly don’t make sense in the context they appear!

  • Baby Bones

    Hi!

    I read Roger Ebert’s blog yesterday, and he has two posts on it trashing Thor.

    He said on it,

    “The story might perhaps be adequate for an animated film for children, with Thor, Odin and the others played by piglets. In the arena of movies about comic book superheroes, it is a desolate vastation.”

    I love Roger Ebert. He loves movies and he’s a kinder, gentler reviewer than a lot of critics are. But man, he really didn’t like Thor.

    Although I haven’t seen the film, an Avengers fan I know was mildly disappointed, saying that Thor’s character was boring. That makes me think that the problem is Thor’s character is limited by the god’s nature; to wit, all Norse gods are like Vikings and Vikings are only like Vikings. Their characters don’t develop. Hammers get wielded. There are battle cries, and muscles and blond hair abound. So I won’t be queuing for it anytime soon, I think.

    But regarding his grasp of the technical help you may have given, I think he might have gotten one part wrong and another right.

    1. He wrongly, imo, asserted that Portman’s astrophysicist wouldn’t get far in astrophysics.

    I made a post that tried to correct that view, based on what he said since I hadn’t seen the movie. Astrophysicists that do experiments in the Antarctic or Andes have to be rugged adventurers. So her character would not be out of place among people crazy enough to spend six months in the Antarctic.

    2. Regarding the Einstein-Rosen bridge, he seemed to get that right: “Asgardians hurtle across intergalactic light-years and land in New Mexico without a hair out of place.”

    Still, to me, his words sound kinda snarky. Go read the entry. Don’t you think?

    And I pointed out that YOU had helped the producers on that point.

    My temerity of mentioning this, of course, is that I am interested in bringing great minds into bitter, self-defeating flame-wars. Heh heh…

    Movie Critic: That Rainbow Bridge thing wasn’t very realistic. No wind, no whooshing noise, no whatever… light show sfx? Where’s the zappy bolts of light?

    Enraged Cosmologist: Not realistic? Oh really? If Norse gods can control the fabric of space time, they can wrap you, and your computer, into their toilet tissue! They could stretch out that aisle-seat butt of yours so much that that would be thin enough to be stuffed into String Theory’s tiniest dimension!

  • Charon

    …fall off the edge of the planet. Pulled by … what, exactly?

    The Great A’Tuin?

  • DougB

    I waited through all of the credits to see an attribution or credit to Sean as “Science Advisor” or some such. Did I miss it? If not, I’d boycott the movie, except that I already saw it. (Just kidding, go see it). But there was an interesting scene at the end of the credits with Samuel Jackson and …. .

  • Belizean

    What Jesse M. said (#19).

    Knowing that an Einstein-Rosen bridge is not traversable really made me wince when I saw that scene.

    Geesh, Sean, I thought that your role was to help them get the science right. Not to give in to their foolish perception of “wormhole” being dated by suggesting a truly dated and inaccurate term like “Einstein-Rosen bridge”. Showing a little spine might have been nice.

  • emma

    i think any girl scientist would have fall for Thor just for his mighty body.

  • Phil

    I loved the movie. I think the science stuff should serve not to make the film real or even realisic, but to help keep the viewer in a state of disbelief and not go , WTF did a 4 year old write this? Which is what I think in many Hollywood movies. I didnt think that in Thor I thoroughly enjoyed it , was along for the ride all the way and everyone I saw with agreed, much better than Iron Man.

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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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