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.
I know everyone is excited about this weekend’s premiere (at least here in the U.S.) of Thor, the latest superhero extravaganza from Marvel studios. At least I am, for my usual selfish reasons: I helped do some consulting (through the Science and Entertainment Exchange) for the movie. Also, there is a mystical hammer that smashes things; what’s not to like?
Unlike TRON: Legacy, where we came in after the screenplay had been drafted, on Thor we came in near the beginning. Marvel had done a lot of work on the idea, but there wasn’t yet a script. The Exchange set up a consult meeting with director Kenneth Branagh, the screenwriter, and few people on the design and production side of things, along with three scientists — Jim Hartle from USCB, Kevin Hand from JPL, and myself.
We bandied around lots of issues relating to the Thor universe and how it fit in with Marvel’s bigger plans. Once there was a script, I came in to read it and offer some more comments. Since that time, the script was re-written by the dynamic duo of Ash Miller and Zack Stentz, and I haven’t actually seen the film yet, so I can’t speak to what kind of impact we had in the end. Let’s just say that there was one thing in particular that they were planning on doing in the movie that drove all the scientists batty — I think we convinced them to fix it, but we’ll have to see. And once filming started, they recruited Caltech student Kevin Hickerson to help with the tech-gadgetry end of things. So I have high hopes. (Early reviews are very positive. And of course, Agent Coulson returns, with a larger role than in the Iron Man films. Everyone loves Agent Coulson.)
You might be wondering, where is there room for any sort of science in a comic-book movie about a Norse god in a red cape who swings a magical hammer? Well I’m glad you asked. Actually there were a couple of different things where the movie people were very interested in our input. One was constructing a coherent framework for the Marvel universe — ultimately, this story about Thor the thunder god is going to have to be compatible with Tony Stark’s Iron Man world, since the two characters are both part of the Avengers. (I also got to read the script for that, and yes — it is as great as the rumors suggest.)
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long. The thinking here is very much based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the trailer above, Thor basically gives exactly this pitch to Jane Foster.
That’s the other area where we science consultants were able to help out: Read More
Jim Kakalios of the University of Minnesota has achieved internet demi-fame — he has a YouTube video with over a million and a half views. It’s on the science of Watchmen, the movie based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel. Jim got that sweet gig because he wrote a great book called The Science of Superheroes — what better credentials could you ask for?
More recently Jim has written another book, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics. But even without superheroes in the title, everything Jim thinks about ends up being relevant to movies before too long. The new movie Source Code features a twist at the end that involves — you guessed it — quantum mechanics. Jim has applied his physicist super-powers to unraveling what it all means, and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us in this guest post.
There is an interesting discussion taking place on the internets concerning the ending of the newly released film SOURCE CODE, that suggests that the film concludes with a paradox. I believe that any such paradox can be resolved – with Physics!
This entire post is one big honkin’ SPOILER, so if you want to read about the final twist ending of a film without having seen said film – by all means, read on, MacDuff!
In SOURCE CODE, Jake Gyllenhaal plays US helicopter pilot Colter Stevens, whose consciousness is inserted into another man’s body (Sean Fentress, a school teacher in Chicago) through a procedure that requires a miracle exception from the laws of nature (involving quantum mechanics and “parabolic calculus” – by the way, there is no such thing as parabolic calculus). Thanks to some technobabble (or as Q-Bert on Futurama would describe it – weapons grade bolognium) Colter’s mind can only enter Sean’s body in the last eight minutes of Sean’s life. As Sean is sitting on a city bound Chicago commuter train, on which a bomb will explode at 7:58 AM, killing everyone aboard, the goal is for Colter to ascertain who planted the bomb. He cannot stop it from exploding, he is told, because that has already happened. He cannot affect the past, but he can bring information obtained in the past back to his present time. Learning the identity of the bomber would enable the authorities to prevent the detonation of a threatened second “dirty atomic” bomb is downtown Chicago.
While the above can be discerned from the movie trailer, what I am going to discuss next involves the actual ending of the film, and if you do not want this ending spoiled, you should stop reading now. Read More
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.
It’s guest week at XKCD, as Randall Munroe deals with a family illness. (Fortunately for the guest artists, it’s relatively easy to mimic his style.) Today’s contribution came from Bill Amend of Foxtrot fame, who gives us what might be the best Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle joke I’ve seen.
There are more.
Here is a fantastic TED talk by JJ Abrams, the guy behind many of the most interesting genre movies and TV shows in recent years (Alias, Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Fringe). It’s about the fundamental role played by mystery and the unknown in storytelling.
I’m posting it here because, as wonderful as the talk is, I disagree with it at a deep level. Yes, indeed, the concept of “mystery” is absolutely crucial to what makes a story compelling. But I think Abrams takes the idea too far, valorizing mystery for its own sake, rather than as motivation for the characters and the audience to try to solve the mystery. The reason why mysteries are interesting is because we want to figure them out! If they are simply irreducibly mysterious — if there is no sensible explanation that ultimately makes sense of all the clues — then it’s simply frustrating, not magical.
This isn’t just jousting with words — it has consequences for how stories are told. That’s why I chose Star Trek as my one movie to complain about in our Comic-Con panel last summer (as much as I enjoyed the movie overall). The dangerous planet-killing substance in that case was “red matter.” Shiny, red, and ominous-looking, red matter is not anything known to modern science. Which is fine; modern science doesn’t know about warp drive or Vulcans, either, but they work well in this particular fictional context. The problem is that red matter wasn’t associated with any sensible properties even within this fictional world. We never knew where it came from, why it did what it did, how it would react to different circumstances, etc. (Why did it have to be deposited in the exact middle of a planet, rather than just splashed on the surface?) It was simply “mysterious.” But this particular bit of mystery didn’t make it more compelling — it prevented the audience from engaging with the menace that the red matter presented. If we knew something about it, we wouldn’t just be going “okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha”; we’d be following along as Kirk and Spock tried to defuse the danger, understanding what might and might not do the trick. Not all mystery is good storytelling — sometimes a bit of understanding helps grab the attention.
Just to draw the distinctions even more carefully, let me come out in favor of ambiguity as opposed to mystery. The end of Inception is quite famously amenable to more than one interpretation. (To go back further, ask whether Deckard was a replicant.) This drives people crazy, trying to figure out which one is “right,” an impulse I think is misguided. It’s okay to accept that we don’t know all the answers! But in theses cases we understand quite well the space of all possible answers. There is no black box whose operation is simply mysterious. We don’t need to know all the final answers once and for all; but it’s better storytelling if we understand what the answers could be, and that they make sense to us.
Hopefully it’s not too hard to read between the lines here, and see the consequences for science as well as for movies. There are those who argue that science destroys the magic of the world by figuring things out. That’s exactly backwards — the scientific quest to solve the world’s puzzles is one of the things that makes the story of our lives so interesting.
Those of you who haven’t already seen it should check out the November issue of Discover, which features an article by a well-known science writer about physicists playing poker. This is not completely egregious, as big moneywinners like Michael Binger and Marcel Vonk are card-carrying (as it were) Ph.D. physicists. Vonk on the relative merits of hypothetically winning the Nobel Prize or the World Series of Poker: “I would choose to win the Nobel Prize. But, it’s close.”
Of course there’s always much more to a good story than can be squeezed into a print magazine. So if you want the background scoop, see Cocktail Party Physics. Where, unfortunately, I’m (accurately) quoted as saying something in an old blog post that really isn’t true:
“Texas Hold ‘Em is so popular because it manages to accurately hit the mark between ‘enough information to devise a consistently winning strategy’ and ‘not enough information to do much more than guess.’ The charm in such games is that there is no perfect strategy, in the sense that there is no algorithm guaranteed to win in the long run against any other algorithm. The best poker players are able to use different algorithms against different opponents as the situation warrants.”
Two out of three sentences there are correct (which wouldn’t be such a bad average at a poker table, but is pretty lame in writing). The first sentence is right; what makes Hold ‘Em such a popular poker variant is that you know enough to do more than guess, but not enough to easily reduce the problem to a simple algorithm. But the second sentence is wrong, as written, at least under the perfectly reasonable reading that “win” includes “or tie.” One of John Nash’s major contributions to game theory was to prove, under reasonable assumptions, the existence of dominant strategies. Here, it’s not the opponents that are being dominated — it’s the other strategies a player might contemplate using. And “dominate” doesn’t mean “beat under any circumstances”; it just means “there is no alternative strategy that does better against every possible opponent strategy.” Since the rules of poker (integrated over all seats at the table etc.) are the same for every player, every player has the same dominant strategy — which means that there exists a strategy such that, if everyone used it, their expected returns would all be equal, and none of them could unilaterally change their strategy to improve on that expectation. Texas Hold ‘Em is sufficiently complex that the dominant strategy certainly isn’t known in closed form, but it does exist.
What I was clumsily aiming for in that sentence was the correct sentiment expressed in the last sentence. While a dominant strategy is in some sense “least bad” against the complete set of possible opponent’s strategies, it’s certainly not guaranteed to be the best against every specific opponent. If you know that your opponent deviates from dominant strategy in some particular way (not folding enough to re-raises pre-flop, for example), you will make the most money by choosing to deviate from dominant strategy yourself, in such a way as to take advantage of your opponent’s weakness. That’s the idea behind exploitative strategies, as advocated by Chris Ferguson in Jennifer’s blog post. Good poker is all about being exploitative. Any surprise that it’s a popular game among politicians?
Imagine, if you will, 40,000 people whipped into a mad frenzy. The chants of “burn him” are deafening. They surround a 50 foot high marionette (the world’s largest), which is moaning and struggling and crying. The giant puppet, named “Old Man Gloom”, represents all of the troubles of the past year. Through fire the gathered masses seek deliverance. There are dancers with torches. The old man screams out in despair. Suddenly he is aflame, his eyes glowing from within. Soon there is a five story pillar of fire; the heat washes over the thousands of people gathered around. And then, in a blizzard of fireworks, the marionette vaporizes to nothing but a pile of embers. This is Zozobra. He burned two hours ago. A Santa Fe tradition for the past 85 years, the event marks the beginning of Fiestas de Santa Fe, which has run continuously since 1712.
There is something communal and primal about Zozobra. It feels purifying and freeing; the sorrows of the city have been dispelled. And I can bike to it from my house, which is a lot more convenient than Black Rock City. It is uniquely Santa Fe.