slaying with science

Warpathjenluc_5We 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.Bvcover

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…

9 thoughts on “slaying with science”

  1. [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?]
    Hi Jenn, I don’t think ghost stories hold much water, but I wasn’t aware that nebulous clouds (or casper the friendly ghost) used ‘feet’ to walk or propel themselves or were thus limited by Newton’s curse.
    Also Jenn, it would be practically impossible for a human to push (or pull) a 10 Ton truck with flat tyres, but fill the tyres with ‘air’ – and voila!
    [The core heats the material surrounding it not with light, but by radiating most of its energy in neutrinos, nearly massless sub-atomic particles that can pass through tons of matter without being affected. As the in-falling gas approaches the core, it is exposed to a higher and higher flux of neutrinos. A tiny fraction of those neutrinos are absorbed. They heat the gas, which expands and becomes buoyant.]
    Maybe ‘ghosts’ have been going to neutrino school and harnessed the power of nuclear physics.
    Spirits on the other hand would by definition be moving in a flux state in a different dimension (The Spirit World) therefore would not be limited by the laws of physics in our 3 dimensional world. Ask L Susskind about the laws of physics in the different pocket universes in his Megaverse.
    As for ST (Star Trek) is it any more farfetched than ST (String Theory) and is Warp Drive any more far fetched than M-Theory.
    That which is not possible is NOT possible, but how can you know till you know (or till you’ve tried).
    Lateral thinking is sometimes called for. Have fun!

  2. There are sinews of Einsteinian thought twisted into string theory’s heart: string theory has special relativity built right into its very core. In other words, string theory respects things like causality and the speed-of-light limit. This is as it should be: in familiar situations, where energies are not too extreme and distances aren’t too darn small, the stringy world has to reduce to the Einsteinian one, just as Einstein’s law of gravity reduces to Newton’s for ordinary things like apples and moons.
    String theory also doesn’t involve a galaxy full of aliens, all of which are humanoid and speak English (and half of which are attracted to William Shatner).

  3. Just as we enjoy Star Trek for what it says about our human desires, Buffy can be enjoyed for the empowering feeling it gives us.

  4. Hi Blake, I think you misunderstood.
    Leonard Susskind’s Megaverse implies pocket universes where beings will not resemble anything we know, and where the laws of physics are not the same as in our 3 Dimensionsal Space
    In the 5th Dimension I gather gravity is ‘stronger’
    Of course it would have been difficult for old hollywood to create really bizarre humanoids or beings from other dimensions (like Alien say)- and these humanoids just happened to have google translators, which made you think they spoke in english (sometimes).
    My point was really meant to be that perhaps we should first try and travel to the galaxies we know and love, before we start dreaming up any more distant pocket universes (beyond the cosmic horizon) – which we have even less chance of travelling too, especially if you cannot even go faster than the speed of light …
    something which will require some lateral or even ‘parallel’ thinking
    And I repeat my favourite saying: If you’d told someone 500 years ago you could talk to someone the other side of the world from a little box which fits into the palm of your hand … they would have probably locked you up
    And if you’d said to anyone you could communicate with just about anyone, just about anywhere on earth almost at the speed of light … well they might just have burnt you at the stake
    But hey this is about slaying with science, not slaying science, or even future science. Right?

  5. You’re capitalizing on your talents and proclivities in order to make a living?!? You fiend, you! Your joys are to be pursued after your done in the mine, and no sooner!
    My goodness, if we condemned anyone who tried to make a livig doing something they liked, what kind of world would we live in?
    Seriously, so you’re an aftermarket for Buffy? Sounds good for anyone who isn’t forced to pay for your book. I think that list includes… umm… you know, all the humans anyway.
    eh, I lose energy to fight such a strange perspective.

  6. I must admit that the physics of the Buffyverse was never really a concern for me. Unlike Star Trek, we’re in the fantasy genre, according to which scientific consistency with our world is not a requirement.
    In fact, it’s pretty much an anti-requirement. Otherwise, it’s not really fantasy, right?
    But, hey! How could I not read it to see what you’ve done?

  7. See, now I’d argue that STAR TREK need not be (and sometimes isn’t) scientifically consistent with “our world.” We’re talking fictional universes here in both cases, regardless of genre. (Buffy and Angel are a mishmash of genres — part of what makes that world so fascinating, in my opinion.) Although it’s true that STAR TREK’s creator drew on “real” physics, he took liberties with it and extrapolated a bit. That’s the hallmark of the best science fiction. (I’m a big fan of THE PHYSICS OF STAR TREK, needless to say.) Any good writer of science fiction or fantasy will tell you that in order to create a believable fictional universe, there must be something recognizable from ours. And there must be “rules” — some of which, in the case of the Buffyverse, can be used to illustrate real-world laws of physics.
    That’s my premise anyway. The physics is admittedly a bit less obvious in the Buffyverse than in STAR TREK, but the basic approach is to compare and contrast How Things Work in the Buffyverse with how they actually work in our world, and have a bit of fun in the process. Like THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES (fantastic book), even the howlers can be extremely instructive (not to mention hugely entertaining). Being an avid fan, the last thing I wanted to do was be a killjoy by stripping away every last bit of mystery and ruining the fantasy. 🙂

  8. There’s another way to walk through walls that manages to avoid Newton’s Curse. In fact, you avoid classical mechanics entirely, and invoke quantum phenomena, in particular, tunneling.
    Consider Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, who has the mutant power to “phase”though solid matter. Presumably she does this by quantum mechanically tunneling through a wall. She would walk toward the wall normally, the same as you or I. As she reached the wall, she would turn on her mutant power, which presumably allows her to control her tunneling probability (in particular, making the probability of tunneling Unity). At this point she continues moving with the same speed and direction she had following her last, normal step. Once through the wall, she turns off her tunneling power, and can continue running or walking normally. Presumably she doesn’t fall through the floor while tunneling when standing still because she maintains the same total energy she had before activating her power.
    All this is described in THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES, coming this month in paperback (who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of Shameless Plugs?). Thanks for the kind words about my book, by the way, Jennifer. I agree with you entirely – much better to take the obviously fantastic world, whether its Star Trek, Comic Books or Buffy, and then see how much real physics can be explained within the constraint of the suspension of disbelief. The traditional methods of explaining physics work fine for those who will be physicists or engineers. If those who are not intending on a career in the mechanical arts, but who remain voters and citizens for the rest of their lives, can gain some scientific insight from Buffy, I think that’s great!
    Face front, True Believer!

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