We weren’t planning on posting again for at least a couple of days, but we just can’t let this go without a bit of commentary — not to mention a whisper of shameless self-promotion. Those fabulous females at Inky Circus have drawn our attention to a news item on ABC News Australia with the earth-shattering headline: "Physics Proves Horror Movies Get It Wrong!" The science, that is. Apparently there are things that happen in the fictional realm of Movieland that just can’t happen in the real world. We know, it’s quite the shocker; our worldview will never be the same again.
What’s the sitch? You might be wondering. Well, a theoretical physicist at the University of Central Florida named Costas Efthimiou has employed some basic math and physics principles — thermodynamics and Newton’s laws of motion, for example — to poke holes in how ghosts, vampires and other monstrous creatures are depicted in Hollywood horror flicks. Among other findings, he concludes that any movie depicting a ghost walking through walls defies basic physics — yes, even if that ghost is played by Patrick Swayze. In all fairness, this point has been raised before, most notably by Lawrence Krauss in both The Physics of Star Trek and Beyond Star Trek, but what the heck, Hollywood continues to churn out movies that flagrantly violate this principle, so it bears repeating.
Everything rests on that whole "equal and opposite reaction" principle, which Krauss has dubbed "Newton’s Curse." The reasoning is that nothing can walk without exerting a backward force on the floor to propel it forward. But if a ghost can do this, it can’t also walk through walls — it should bounce off instead. There is no significant difference, in a physics sense, between the atoms that make up the floor and those that make up the wall, so why should a ghost be able to exert a physical force on one and yet walk right through the other? As for the sudden chill that supposedly accompanies ghosts whenever they waft into a room (since they can’t walk), well, that can be explained by conventional thermodynamics, namely, the natural heat cycles and eddies that occur in rooms with high windows or a door with a gap (because the cooler outside air displaces warmer indoor air).
Humph. Darn those physicist killjoys. Spoil our fun, why don’t you? Seriously, we are actually delighted by anyone who takes this kind of creative approach to physics education and outreach, especially since Efthimiou published a paper on the topic not in Entertainment Weekly or News of the Weird, but on arXiv. Just take a moment to savor the delicious irony. But I must take issue with a few things, most notably, the fact that the Inky Circus item opens with this inflammatory statement: "Who needs Buffy the Vampire Slayer when you’ve got physics on your side?"
Oooh! Them’s fightin’ words! Jen-Luc Piquant is throwing down the gauntlet to defend Buffy’s besmirched honor! Because here at Cocktail Party Physics, we’re all about Slaying It With Science. (Jen-Luc has just smacked me soundly upside the head for that groaner of a pun: "Have some aesthetic standards, woman!") Regular readers will know that this is not an idle statement: some people said it couldn’t be done, but we have defied the skeptics and naysayers and written an entire book on The Physics of the Buffyverse.
I only bring it up because, well, Inky Circus started it. And I just received the bound galley (uncorrected proof) in the mail last week. In fact, the book is now officially listed on Amazon, even though it won’t be available for shipping until late December. (Book publishing is a very long, drawn-out process. By the time a book actually comes out, one has almost forgotten one wrote it.) It’s a pretty sparse Amazon entry at the moment: no description, no reviews, no cover art — which you can see for the very first time at right. (The scary blood-red vampire head freaked out my very religious mother, but you must admit, it’s visually compelling.) All that will come in due time.
The point is, I know a little something by now about the physics of make-believe monsters and fictional universes. Without giving away too much detail, Newton’s Curse is definitely discussed in the book, along with telekinesis and telepathy, thermodynamics, wormholes, quantum teleportation, mass/energy conversions, electromagnetism, light, sound, string theory — there’s even an entire chapter on the physics of martial arts. Sure, you can fight monsters (literal or metaphorical) with a Slayer, or with physics, but how much better for ensuring a positive outcome if you can fight the monsters using both?
Which brings me to my second point of contention: Efthimiou and his collaborator, postgraduate student Sohan Gandhi, use the mathematical principle of geometric progression to rule out the existence of vampires. They figure thusly: assuming a vampire must feed once a month, and doing so turns the victim into a vampire, the net result is two vampires and one less human. The next month, two vampires would kill two humans, and this progression would continue to double with each successive month. Efthimiou and Gandhi (E&G) conclude the entire human race would be wiped out and replaced by vampires within two and a half years. The ABC News article states, "Using the principle of reductio ad absurdum, they concluded that vampires can’t exist as their existence contradicts the existence of humans."
Let’s leave aside the fact that one shouldn’t need to split philosophical hairs over the existence of mythical creatures — after all, plenty of people believe Earth has been visited by aliens, which is an equally unlikely scenario. We’re just having a little fun with a bit of fictional conjecture here. But while Jen-Luc Piquant is impressed by the casual insertion of Latinate phrasing, I am not so easily taken in by such pretensions. At the risk of sounding like a geeked-out fangirl of questionable sanity, allow me to point out a critical flaw in E&G’s analysis: their base assumptions (starting conditions) are overly broad and ignore some of the most common modern variations on traditional vampire lore.
For instance, in the fictional world of Anne Rice’s vampires, merely biting or feeding off a victim is insufficient to turn someone into a vampire. (Unlike werewolves, where a mere scratch can ruin your life… at least on every full moon.) You’ve got to go through this whole messy process of draining the victim’s blood to the point of death, then having them drink the vampire’s blood in turn in order to go through the "change." The same transfusion principle holds true in the Buffyverse, where the process is known as siring. To quote Buffy herself, "First they have to suck your blood. Then you suck their blood. It’s like a whole big sucking thing." In these two fictive universes, E&G’s base conditions simply don’t apply, ergo, their geometric progression "proof", proves absolutely nothing. Which is not to say that vampires exist, mind you, just that this isn’t an effective way of debunking that particular legend.
Admittedly, debunking a light-hearted analysis of the science depicted in a fictional world is a fairly straightforward endeavor. The ABC News article also quotes Alan Carey, dean of the Mathematical Sciences Institute at the Australian National University, who notes that it’s actually quite easy to poke holes in the cliches — fans would call them "conventions" — of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre. The challenge is to talk about physics while still respecting, even paying homage, to the "metaphysics" of the original series. That was certainly my goal in The Physics of the Buffyverse, which frankly blurs the lines a bit between scientific fact, myth and metaphor. Sure, a bit of debunking must necessarily take place, but I’ve loved the show since its inception, and it wouldn’t have been much fun to just dump cold water over everything that doesn’t make perfect scientific sense. Why sully such a richly textured imaginative universe?
This brings me to my final point of contention. The Inky Circus girls are a bit skeptical of E&G’s motivation in producing their paper: "All this slightly smacks of a couple of geeky scientists trying to
turn their hobby into their job…" Um, is there something wrong with having a bit of fun on the job? I’ve met with similar skepticism, having been accused more than once of trying to ride the coattails of a successful TV series to make a quick, opportunistic buck. To which I can only respond: Oh please. Any book with "physics" prominently displayed in the title isn’t exactly going to zoom up the bestseller list, no matter how popular the cultural tie-in. Trust me, Joss Whedon makes more in a single day than I was paid to write this book — and that doesn’t bother me one whit. It was very much a labor of love, a chance to combine two very different passions into one pet project, and I feel privileged to have had that opportunity. I’ll warrant E&G feel the same way about their "physics of horror movies" paper on arXiv.
In short, it’s called altruism, people. Now go add The Physics of the Buffyverse to your Christmas wish list. My quarterly taxes are coming due, and Jen-Luc Piquant is in need of some chic new berets…