of science and superheroes

JuicedUpJenLuc It was a whirlwind weekend at the AAAS meeting in San Diego, where the Spousal Unit and several interdisciplinary colleagues expounded on the mysteries of the arrow of time, and Jen-Luc Piquant hobnobbed with all the coolest avatars in virtual Webspace. As for me, I moderated a spiffy panel discussion in my role as director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange: "Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes." In keeping with the Exchange philosophy of promoting an equal partnership between science and Hollywood, we had two physicists, a biologist, a film screenwriter, and two TV writers — because sure, Hollywood can learn a lot from science, but science has a lot to learn from Hollywood as well. (Like how to cuss and make it seem perfectly natural: I suspect our session set a record for the most "F" bombs dropped in a AAAS session, and the audience seemed to find it refreshing — including me. Somehow, when scientists try the same thing, they just seem like they're trying too hard. Effective cursing is its own art form; do it with panache, or don't bother.)

First up: Sid Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory University turned full-time science writer and author of Hollywood Science, among other tomes. A couple of the write-ups of the session make him out to be a typically overly-literal curmudgeonly scientist complaining about "bad science" in fictional entertainment, with the usual calls to lighten up. I'm all for scientists lightening up a bit when it come to Hollywood, but I'd never direct that criticism at Perkowitz, who I've known for years. He's okay with film and TV starting off with an unlikely premise: a man can fly! Something can move faster than light! In Hollywood, this is called a "buy" — something you ask the audience to buy into at the outset in good faith, in return for an awesome story — and most projects allow themselves one or two "buys". After that, he'd just like the writers, etc. to do their best to ensure that no scientific concepts are seriously harmed in the making of said film.

Perkowitz watched a good 120 science fiction films in his research for Hollywood Science. More than 1400 science fiction movies have been made since 1902, he says, almost all of which begin with a nugget of real science. And science plays a major role in a full 19 of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time. The results, according to Perkowitz, are often mixed in terms of how science (and scientists) is depicted. The good: Contact (duh) has one of the best depictions of an actual scientist, and a woman to boot, ably played by Jodie Foster. Perkowitz is also a fan of last year's indie film Sleep Dealer, District 9, and Moon, although he reserves highest praise for Gattaca, which not only has plausible science, but explores a genuinely relevant issue about how much of who we are is determined by genetics, and how much is determined by our environment and just sheer force of will (the choices we make and how hard we're willing to fight for what we want).

I'll join Perkowitz in singling out Apollo 13 for special praise: more than any film I've seen thus far, it captures a period in US science history perfectly and made audiences feel the full import of what it took to get astronauts to the moon. I mean, we went to the moon in a souped-up Buick, people!  And when something went horribly wrong on the Apollo 13 mission, our men were literally stranded in space. It's not like they could call AAA to bail them out.

Those astronauts figured they probably wouldn't get back safely — and yet they did, thanks to science! (Jen-Luc thinks Ed Harris is the manliest of men when he barks at his team not to panic: "Let's work the problem, people! Let's not make things worse by guessing.") My favorite scene is when Tom Hanks' character has been doing a calculation for their re-entry. Get it wrong, even a little, and they're all dead. He asks all the scientists back down on Earth to check his math, and there's this great shot of a row of nerds in white shirts, glasses, pocket protectors and the odd bad comb-over giving a series of thumbs up as their calculations match Hanks'. The message is clear: science saves lives.

Ah, but then there's teh bad: The Core takes top honors, with its ludicrous plot about drilling to the Earth's core, which has mysteriously stopped spinning, in order to detonate a nuclear device that will hopefully kick-start the core's rotation. And finally, we have teh ugly: Starship Troopers, because those giant insects not only would collapse under their own weight were real insects scaled up to that size, but they aren't the most attractive creatures from another planet (which is probably the point).02-19-alex-tse-275 But even the bad and the ugly can provide "teaching moments" and great way to engage the public in thinking about science as it relates to their lives — and hopefully inspiring them to want to learn more. 

One person who tends to agree with that is Alex Tse, one of the screenwriters for Watchmen, based on the Citizen Kane of graphic novels (created by Frank Miller Alan Moore). And he phrased it much more colorfully than Perkowitz. "I know shit about science and I'm probably the least qualified person to be on this panel," he insisted. ("Not so!" Jen-Luc protests. "He had great things to say about the inherent tension between story and science in entertainment." Indeed he did.) "But the work I'm really attracted to, and that I admire, and the work that I aspire to do, there's a plausibility in science that I think adds to a timeless quality… of a film. You have some films that are kind of ridiculous and are kind of fun and entertaining to watch but they don't have that lasting effect." (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*) It's a point I've made repeatedly whenever people ask why Hollywood even cares about scientific accuracy. They care about plausibility and willing suspension of disbelief, because if the audience gets jolted out of the moment at any point by a ludicrous plot twist, it ruins the overall experience for them. That's not entertainment.

And you know, they really do think science is cool, and have tons of respect for scientists, despite long-standing stereotypes of mad scientists, geeks and nerds. "One thing I've learned is that you're not a scientist until you wear glasses and have a pipe," joked Jim Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes. He even brought along a prop pipe to drive the point home. Kakalios has been using comic book superheroes in his classes for years to illustrate fundamental concepts in physics. And Watchmen offers plenty of grist for that particular mill.

For instance, Dr. Manhattan (or "Big Blue," as Jen-Luc prefers to call him) is an excellent framework for discussing difficult concepts like electron diffraction, his ability to pass through walls is a great segue into quantum tunneling, and his telltale blue hue can be attributed to leakage from high-energy electrons via Cerenkov radiation, according to Kakalios. Also? That full-frontal CGI nudity favored by the good doctor sends another positive message: "Physicists are very secure in their sexuality." Sharp observers might notice that, apart from his initial re-materialization after his accident, Dr. Manhattan starts out wearing some semblance of clothing, and over time wears less and less. Over lunch after the panel, Tse mentioned that this was deliberate: it was a direct consequence of Dr. Manhattan's growing isolation from humanity. Basically, the less human he became, the less he cared about trivial concerns like clothing and nakedness or shame. So, it wasn't, like, gratuitous or anything. That nudity was thoroughly Justified By The Plot.

Kakalios was the technical consultant on Watchmen, a match made by the Exchange while the program was still in its pilot phase, and he made the most out of his experience, even producing a YouTube video, "The Science of Watchmen," explaining some of the physics concepts underlying the film. Not only did it garner him an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award, but more than 1.5 million people have viewed it so far. "If I taught 500 students a semester, two semesters a year, for 15 centuries, I wouldn't reach that many people n demonstrating electron diffraction," he says.

It's tough to argue with the numbers. Perkowitz compared the box office for An Inconvenient Truth ($49 million worldwide, one of the top-grossing documentary films to date) to that for The Day After Tomorrow ($544 million worldwide). The scientific community cringed at the way the latter depicted climate change — global warming never seemed so exciting, with enormous catastrophic changes happening in mere hours! — but it certainly created a sense or urgency in audiences that the documentary failed to achieve. It got people "thinking and talking about global warming, and that was a good thing," Perkowitz insisted, even if the science wasn't up to par. People don't mind if certain narrative liberties are taken, but they are savvy enough to know when the science is totally bogus — and they don't like it. "The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch," said Perkowitz.

Sometimes the issues having nothing to do with science. Tse's biggest beef with Watchmen — despite being one of the people who wrote the script — is when Dan (a.k.a. Night Hawk) breaks into supergenius Adrian's corporate office and hacks into his computer with just a few meager attempts to guess his password. "Adrian is the f*&#-ing smartest guy in the world, and Dan goes in and types the password and he's in," Tse gripes. See, even the screenwriter can't win sometimes. You can't please everyone — not even Hitler, who had his own gripe about the deletion of the giant squid from the film version (expressed in NSFW subtitles, because Hitler is quite the potty mouth).

Heroes writers Aron Coleite and Joe Pokaski know this better than anyone: they've been involved with the series since its inception, and have worked on each of the 76 episodes so far. Along with well-deserved praise, they've also endured their share of scorn and fan dissatisfaction with the creative direction the series took in later seasons. If that weren't enough, they have to deal with scientists nerd-gassing about all the scientific liberties taken in the plot. "We know a lot of this stuff is inaccurate," Coleite admitted, "but we try to make it seem plausible. We spend hours in a stinking room arguing about invisibility. We really do think long and hard about how to explain stuff like whether clothes are visible on an invisible person, or if anything the person touches also becomes invisible." See? Hollywood is not as glamorous as it seems. And even when they come up with a solution, it doesn't always get explicitly stated on-screen. "We're demonstrating it visually. We don't bother people with saying 'It's an invisible field around them that distorts light and that's why Claude is wearing clothes."

Kakalios said something similar about his Watchmen experience: even if the underlying science never made it on-screen, the filmmakers still wanted to know every last detail, because getting even the tiniest thing wrong would ruin the illusion they were trying to create. His favorite scene in Iron Man, for instance was when Tony Stark uses the correct soldering tool — and in the right way! — in his lab while building his superhero armored suit. "So you're not thinking about Robert Downey Jr. playing a role, you're thinking about Tony Stark making an Iron Man suit."

"We always try to stay true to scientific accuracy, while occasionally diverging for emotion or story-telling," said Pokaski. "We have enormous respect for scientists and if the science seems off, the audience is going to tune out." It's quite the balancing act on Heroes, with characters who can fly, read minds, heal spontaneously, control time, and be invisible, yet the writers try to remain somewhat consistent with their bending of the science. That said, "We absolutely bastardize science terms to the point where your toes would curl," Coleite declared. There are good reasons for this. For starters, the story will always win out over the science because this is entertainment, folks — it's all about telling a good, convincing story. It's about compelling characters, and authentic emotions. And that means that often, certain liberties must be taken. The science need not pass peer review; it just needs to be good enough to be plausible and rope in the viewer.

The premise behind Heroes, for those who don't follow such things, is that a small subset of otherwise ordinary people spontaneously develop special abilities: flying, telepathy, quick healing, walking through walls, manipulating space-time, and so forth. The explanation offered is a sudden mutation in their genetic code; they are the next step in human evolution. Our last (but far from least) panelist, Nicole King, is an evolutionary biologist at UC-Berkeley, who had one burning question: what's the mechanism by which this happens? The show doesn't offer an explanation. "We try to have everything based in emotion," Pokaski said. Their
background isn't so much in science, as in science fiction, and more
often than not, leaving something to the imagination works better than
spelling everything out when it comes to science fiction. "The more you try to explain, the sillier it
sounds," he said.02-19-coleite-pokaski-320

That didn't stop King from investigating a few possibilities, most notably the means by which single-celled organisms developed "super traits" that led to them evolving into higher life forms: animals and people. I rarely write about this subject, so it was fascinating to hear about the concept of "hopeful monsters," which Wikipedia describes as "a colloquial term used in evolutionary biology to describe an event of instantaneous speciation… which contributes positively to the production of new major evolutionary groups."

The Heroes are hopeful monsters; doesn't that make Evil Sylar, from Season 1, a bit more likeable? King used the example of butterfly species. Some species are poisonous, so predators avoid them based on, say, their coloring or wing patterns. Another species spontaneously adopts said coloring and patterning — even though it isn't poisonous — as a means of evading said predators.

The term was coined by geneticist Richard Goldschmidt in The Material Basis of Evolution as a means of explaining how nature managed to bridge the gaping chasm between microevolution and macroevolution. He didn't think small gradual changes over time — a more common understanding of genetic mutation — was sufficient to account for evolutionary leaps forward. In fine scientific tradition, his colleagues ridiculed this idea, although by 1977, Stephen Jay Gould was arguing that Goldschmidt may have been onto something. By then, regulatory genes had been discovered, which seemed to support some of the earlier scientist's ideas. Not all of them, though. From the brief reading I've been doing, this is an issue still under debate, because other advances in our understanding of the human genome appear to undermine the Hopeful Monster model. (Apparently, while macromutations do occur in the wild, and in human diseases based in genetics, they tend to be "removed by natural selection.")

A Boing-Boing write up summed up another of King's key points best:

[King] brought up a really interesting point about the intersection between evolution and sci-fi. Evolution, as you know, is driven by random mutations in DNA, and most of those mutations have no visible impact at all. DNA changes, but nothing important happens to the overall organism.

Other changes in DNA lead to negative impacts—for instance, the mutations that lead to cancer. Finally, and luckily, some mutations are beneficial. But, King reminded me, they're very seldom only beneficial. The same innovative mutations that make an organism stronger are usually also associated with at least one biological trade-off. You may gain, but you also lose. And whether the mutation gets counted as "successful" depends a lot on how the benefits and detriments balance out. Think about what that could mean for, say, the X-men? Should Warren Worthington III be dealing with the osteoporosis that must surely go along with his light, flight-ready bone structure?

The question of how much of who we are is genetically determined, and how much is a factor of environment and the choices/decisions we make, underlies the entire story arc of Heroes, which explores the question of destiny versus free will when it comes to our identity, our abilities — and our future. It's a theme in Watchmen as well: our flawed tragic heroes struggle with whether they can change the catastrophic future, or whether the nuclear blast that devastates humanity at the end is, frankly, inevitable.

That's the true power of science fiction: not only can it entertain and inspire the next generation of scientists, but it provides a compelling framework in which to explore how science fits into our culture at large, and the inevitable ethical/philosophical questions that accompany major breakthroughs in research. 

12 thoughts on “of science and superheroes”

  1. Apollo 13 isn’t about science or scientists. It’s about pilots and engineers. The guys wielding their slide-rules aren’t scientists, nor are they doing science. They’re doing calculations using what they know about physics. But knowing some well-established physics isn’t science, and it doesn’t make one a scientist. In this case the science was done decades, or even centuries, earlier. The science was the episode in history where someone, somewhere, figured out the physics which the engineers later put to expert use to save the crew of Apollo 13.

  2. So that explains why I can’t convince people I’m a real scientist: contact lenses and an aversion to lung cancer.

  3. A book suggestion perhaps in support of my engineering colleagues who could care less about being referred to as a “scientist”.
    “The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems”
    By Henry Petroski

  4. The session was great – and the short film about the Exchange was worth the wait – hilarious. Any chance that video will be posted anywhere?

  5. Jennifer Ouellette

    @Pete: Sadly, we can’t distribute the short film because of copyright issues with “The Family Guy” sequence. We can show it during talks that are not broadcast (or Webcast), though!

  6. Wish I could’ve seen it, but great to have the summary! Thanks! I’m particularly delighted that Gattaca got a shout-out. It’s always been one of my favorites and I feel like it’s often forgotten in favor of “flashier” sci-fi…
    And yeah, Hopeful Monsters are WEIRD.

  7. The “Watchmen” two-disc DVD edition has a short documentary on the science checking that went into the movie (for instance, they point out that Archie doesn’t have sufficiently large fuel tanks).

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