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February 19, 2010

How scientific are superheroes?

Posted: 04:02 PM ET

You've probably had moments watching science fiction films when you thought, "Naw, that couldn't happen." And it's true - sci-fi movies often contain elements that don't conform to the laws of physics.

But modern science can say a lot about the plausibility of such things as stopping an asteroid from destroying the planet, and these are teachable moments, experts said today at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.

Take the asteroid example: films such as "When Worlds Collide" are good about estimating the impact of celestial objects hitting our planet, said Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University physicist and author of "Hollywood Science." In real life, the Tunguska Event, in which a meteor hit part of Siberia, Russia, in 1908, decimated hundreds of square miles of forest.

The Barringer Crater in Arizona, nearly a mile wide, was also created by a meteor. Science fiction movies, however, often incorrectly portray the "save the day moment," since not even an H-bomb has the power to deflect an asteroid, he said.

The powers of superheroes and villains do bring up important concepts in physics, said James Kakalios, technical consultant on the recent "Watchmen" movie and a physicist at the University of Minnesota. For instance, quantum tunneling - the idea that particles can pass through energy barriers - is how Dr. Manhattan teleports in "Watchmen" and how Kitty Pryde walks through walls in "X-Men." Dr. Manhattan's blue color can be explained through a phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation, he said, with the blue glow resulting from the leakage of high-energy electrons.

Believability is important to filmmakers because they don't want viewers' attention to drift away from the story, Kakalios said. He noticed, for instance, that in "Iron Man," Tony Stark is using the correct soldering tool and in the right way. "So you're not thinking about Robert Downey Jr. playing a role, you're thinking about Tony Stark making an Iron Man suit," he said.

You can watch Kakalios' popular YouTube video about the science of "Watchmen" to learn more. And watch for more on the science of superheroes on Monday on

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Timetraveller   February 20th, 2010 12:45 am ET

"The Laws of Physics", these laws are only good here on the planet Earth. Once you leave the influence on this planet, things begin to change. Once you leave the influence of this Solar System, things begin to change. To allow for these changes, which often are ambiguous, we now have the term "Quantum Physics". By simply saying the name, the reaction is, "Ah, yes I see."

If you were to look back into SciFi history you would find today inventions that were said to be impossible. Nothing is impossible and I mean absolutely nothing. It is only that we have not yet found the answer or the solution is not profitable at this time.

True Science is the realm of Nothing is Impossible. The True Scientist is the person who does not seek profit but instead the advancement of all living Entities.

SciFi is the beginning, it is the idea. Don't be afraid to dream as wildly as possible, because someone, somewhere, on this planet or another, will make your dream come true.

How do I know? Simple: Been There, Done That!!

Andreas   February 20th, 2010 4:32 am ET

John, I care. If you don't want to read it, why click on the link, and then comment? I would much rather get too many reading options than too few.

Timetraveller, the laws of physics are by definition valid anywhere in the Universe. They don't change as you leave the Earth or the Solar System. Whether humans completely understand the laws of physics is another matter.

ShaneC   February 20th, 2010 9:48 am ET

More than anything we need to realize that SciFi and movies in general are nothing more than a couple hours of an escape. You forget most of your worries and can live in the moment, see things that a person doesn't normally see on a day to day basis.
You can look at most of the scientific advancements, even the small ones, and see that what was once science fiction is now fact shows that we are limited only by ourselves.
Going into full nerd; we have seen or heard of Warp Drive and the like from Star Trek and immediately say "No way!" "Can happen" but keep in mind that new propulsion systems are in development and we already have Ion thrusters which at one time were unthinkable. Now obviously I am not a Rocket Surgeon or a college professor so I have no clue how long it would take to go from Ion thrusters to Warp drive but if we have come this far, who's to say we can't take it to the next level?
Money is one obstacle, acceptance is another. Even scientists have a hard time selling theories to big companies in an effort to get funding for their research simply because it is not the norm or in tune with society. I agree with Timetraveller in that true scientists do not seek profits but instead seek the advancement of all living entities.
Just my two cents.

Umm, No   February 20th, 2010 4:50 pm ET

Actually Timetraveller, the laws of physics as we know them are universal, independent of whether you are within Earth's gravitational field or even within the solar system. Quantum Mechanics/Physics is not limited to the realm of the intergalactic. Quite the opposite – it deals with investigating matter at the very small scale.

However, with that said, I agree with you about much of scifi from the past is now scifact. Who can forget that Darth Vader is 'more machine than man'... and now, look at how far robotic limbs have advanced!

Sean Webb   February 21st, 2010 3:27 am ET

Science fiction isn't the only genre that pushes the boundaries of physics and logic. Watch any of the James Bond and Mission Impossible films and you will see highly trained secret agents bouncing off of sky scrapers or sliding on pavement. No amount of training can stop flesh from tearing and bones from breaking. And I don't think Q has created a pair of pants that hold up to the type of abuse 007 puts them through. At the very least we should see his boxers sticking out of his tattered tux.

jayman419   February 21st, 2010 9:55 am ET

I love timely posts about movies from last year, books from the last decade, and space disaster movies created six years before Sputnik.

Oh, and I especially liked how the author basically ignored the topic in the title to discuss asteroids for most of the article. Superhero movies are their own genre, and usually don't bear much in common with "hard" sci-fi. Why bother to mix them? No superhero has the special ability "stop asteroids from hitting earth" and no superhero movie has had such a plot point. Talk about people able to set themselves on fire, or manipulate magnetism, or the likelihood of "gamma rays" or whatever actually turning you into the Hulk or Dr Manhattan instead of a pile of goo, or x-ray vision that doesn't kill people, or Batman and Superman being able to catch people who fall from tremendous heights without hurting them, despite the sudden stop in their arms that must not be that different from a sudden stop on concrete. And even your 'expert' claims that Iron Man is good because Tony Stark can weld, despite the character being able to fly with just a couple of tiny little flames under his heel being his only propulsion.

But if you want to talk about inaccurate Hollywood physics in general, you don't need to go back to the dawn of the space age to find some movies. Just look at the entirety of "Mission to Mars", for example, which just ten years ago (I guess you'd call that recent, too, right?) had people stopping in space as soon as their fuel ran out and complex formations of candy rotating together around a single point and a hundred other problems.

Or sound in space, like the sonic space mines in "Attack of the Clones". Or other mistakes like the rocket falling over without damage then launching on homemade fuel in "The Astronaut Farmer".

Or any movie where the bad guy gets "blown away" by a gun that leaves the hero standing, or....

Seriously I could go on all day. Why didn't you spend a minute looking into this before you started writing?

TR   February 21st, 2010 10:08 pm ET

Lost me there Britt.

David   February 21st, 2010 11:49 pm ET


The details of the "Laws" are changing everyday and we have no idea of what the laws are outside of the solar system...

Louise   February 22nd, 2010 3:29 am ET

Being a scientist, I've always wondered how my fellow scientists can look for answers to phenomena that don't seem to follow the "laws" of science we currently know, when they state "That can't happen, because the "law" states.......". The existence of science fiction supports people like myself who are really searching for the answers, unburdened by the current "laws". By the way, the same thing happens in the social sciences. I once asked why people can't continue to work after the "retirement" age of 65 in France. The answer? Because there's a "law" against it. Laws change – in all areas! If we don't want to be like horses wearing blinders stumbling through life, those laws are made to change. Changing laws leads to real progress.

Brigitte   February 22nd, 2010 10:41 am ET

Timetraveller – you're thnking about Newtonian phyisics. Quantum physics is at the micro level – in simplistic terms – the study of the basic components that make up everything and how they interact within atomic structures. For the study of physics at the macro level Newtonian physics works well enough to get man to the moon and back and to send probes to Jupiter and Saturn. Special relativity and general relativity also cover macro physics and explain things that Newtonian physics could not – like gravity. M-theory (unification of the 5 string theories) promises to unite micro and macro physics. Furthermore, there is at least one thing which is impossible, whether you want to accept it or not – nothing is faster than light – NOTHING. Moreover, nothing can approach the speed of light. There isn't enough energy in the universe to allow this. There are ways to "get around" this, like worm holes (folding space) if we can figure out how to create and control them. The energy requirement is not infinite but it is greater than anything we can produce with today's technology. Finally, the best Sci-Fi stories play by the rules. Star Trek assumed that we figured out how to fold space (warp it) using warp drives. That's okay. It is not against the laws of physics.

Melissa   February 22nd, 2010 1:09 pm ET

I've never understood how anyone in these articles can ever say "never". Remember, we're almost all walking around with Star Trek communicators in our pockets, only we call them cell phones. There was a time when that was considered fiction. And for gods sakes, Sony just came out with an organic television (OLED) thats literally only 3 millimeters thick. Thats like a tenth of an inch. Not even. Just because we think something is impossible now doesn't mean it will be impossible later. Never say never. Our scientists never cease to amaze me.

Technology News For 21st February 2010 | Jason Slater Technology Blog | Industry News   March 24th, 2010 10:41 am ET

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