Here’s part 2 of my Science of THE AVENGERS. This one covers the characters. You can read part 1, about the equipment and the plot here.
One of my favorite things about the Avengers is that it values science. Marvel has gone to great lengths to set up a scientifically plausible universe, and it pays off here, where Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk can exist side-by-side. And even more than that, scientists are an essential part of the plot. One of Loki’s first recruits is professor Erik Selvig, his key to managing a portal for his army. Meanwhile, Nick Fury first recruits Bruce Banner, and it is clear that he’s been relying on Tony Stark for years.
Just as important as whether THE AVENGERS got science right is whether they got scientists right. Most movie scientists are caricatures. I think it’s because writers don’t know how to write for scientists, directors don’t know how to direct them, and actors don’t know how to act them. Most writers just throw a bunch of jargon in their mouths, directors put them in a white lab coat, and the actors can’t sell the technobabble with confidence because they don’t know what it means, if it means anything.
THE AVENGERS did a great job though. Erik Selvig was a good representation of a scientist. He’s clearly curious about the universe, an expert at what he does, and was a good mentor to the younger researchers in THOR. Robert Downey Jr. is outstanding as Tony Stark -- I can’t imagine anyone else in the role -- but on the scientist credibility continuum, he leaves a bit to be desired (maybe it’s the absurdity of him building a particle accelerator in his basement). Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, though, is a revelation. Ruffalo not only is the best Banner, he does the best job at portraying a scientist of anyone in the Marvel universe. He’s skeptical, cerebral, listens to evidence, he’s motivated by things other than money, and he doesn’t feel the need to spout nonsense jargon like most other movie scientists. More than anything, there is a confidence in Ruffalo’s delivery and character that mirrors the authority with which most scientists speak. As a scientist you often get so specialized that you know you are one of the top experts in the world on a subject, and you know this because you know everyone in the field. It isn’t hard to be confident when you know you know as much as anyone else on the planet. Ruffalo plays a scientist as a real person -- not a caricature. And there is an air of mystery about him -- you always feel like he knows more than he’s telling you.
In fact, the special relationship between SHIELD and some of the world’s top scientists is handled well, and has parallels in the real world. Wars are won every bit as much by scientists as armies. During WWII, the US gathered together the top physicists to have them create a superweapon that would end the war. It was so successful, the system of national laboratories was established, effectively because the government decided it was great to have a bunch of smart people working on complicated problems. In the UK, during the war, people like Alan Turing helped to break the code of the German Enigma machines, allowing us to decode German plans. And I already mentioned the proximity fuze. The US still has a secretive group of top scientists, JASON, who meet every summer to advise the government.
Many scientists work on military programs because they think the cause is a good one, because the government offers them resources they would not otherwise have, because of the thrill of working together with other top minds, or because they are treated so well. Still, many scientists, who are often idealists at heart, are uneasy with this relationship, especially when politicians or the military lie or exploit the scientists. All these points of view are represented in THE AVENGERS. SHIELD has insane technology. Banner and Stark are just giddy working together. And there isn’t a better cause than saving the world. Even still, both SHIELD and the shady cabal running the show can’t resist keeping secrets from and manipulating the scientists, leading to bad blood.
Enough about scientists, let's have some science fun with some of the characters. Sadly, Black Widow has no superpowers, so I'll have to skip her.
Apparently, Hawkeye is appropriately named. I don’t think they out-and-out say he eyes like Captain America has muscles, but you’d think so from his name and precision with an arrow. How good could his eyes be? 20/20 vision gives you the ability to resolve angles of about one arcminute (there are 60 arcminutes in a degree). For reference the moon is half a degree in diameter, so naked eyes can see about 30 “pixels” on the moon. Some people can do better -- occasionally you hear about people with 20/10 vision -- twice as good as a normal person. But that’s about the limit -- your visual acuity is limited by how densely cones (color sensing cells) are packed on the fovea -- the awesome part of your eye. They are only packed close enough to allow half-arcminute resolution in the best case. Incidentally, hawks can see details eight times finer than humans.
Captain America is essentially a steroid-enhanced human, so he’s not that interesting, scientifically. But his shield is. It is made of vibranium, a Marvel universe material that is supposed to absorb and redirect all kinetic energy. He demonstrates this when Thor tries to go hammer-time on his shield and ends up smiting himself.
Could we make such a shield? Well, there are some materials that do funky things when you put pressure on them. A mixture of cornstarch and water (called oobleck, in a name stolen from Dr. Seuss!) acts like a liquid normally, but if smack it, it temporarily become solid. Regular readers of the site might remember this scene from Known Universe, where I used this trick to walk on a dumpster full of this stuff.
Ice can also take on many different forms depending on its temperature and pressure. Kurt Vonnegut fans may be familiar with Ice-9. His form of it is fictional, but there are actually at least 15 forms of ice structure, giving the ice different properties depending on the pressure.
We don’t have something like Cap’s shield yet, but the idea of using kinetic energy to change the molecular structure of something isn’t insane. The problem I have is that Cap’s shield only does this selectively -- when he throws it at someone, it doesn’t absorb energy at all. Maybe it behaves differently when hit from the side.
Gamma rays will fuck you up -- they damage whatever cells they come into contact with. In the real world this can give you cancer. Tony Stark was right when he said that the gamma ray dose Banner took should have killed him. Maybe Banner is a secretly a mutant with tough cells. But the Marvel universe, when gamma rays don’t kill you, they turn you into something big, green, and nasty.
Then again, maybe the gamma rays caused a mutation. In real-life it is possible to have a mutation that gives you massive muscles. Normally, our bodies produce myostatin, a protein that inhibits muscle growth. Fortunately, we (and animals), have two copies of the gene the regulates this. But some real-life mutants lack it completely, and as a result they have runaway muscle development. Take this whippet:
Sorry Ang Lee haters, there are Hulk dogs in real life! Some people have this Hulkish condition too. There’s a bit more about this in io9’s show on the Science of the Avengers.
This doesn’t explain why the Hulk is green, how he transforms when he’s angry, where he gets the mass from, or how he keeps getting stronger the angrier he gets, but we don’t have to explain that. The Hulk is awesome.
I happened to be watching the Avengers for the first time with my buddy and colleague, Ben Mazin. In addition to being a physicist, Ben is an international arms dealer. I’m serious. And, no surprise, he loves the hell out of Iron Man. Ben invented something called Jetboots, which propel you pretty quickly underwater, and then sold them to militaries. He then tried to pitch DARPA on an underwater version of a suit of armor using Jetboots, inspired by Iron Man, but they didn’t go for it. So when we first see Iron Man *under freakin’ water* in THE AVENGERS, Ben nearly lost his shit. At the bar later, he explained that much of the Iron Man tech is either here today or close to reality. There are already powered exoskeletons. The only real problem to creating an Iron Man is the power source.
Just how awesome is that arc reactor anyway? We can actually get an idea from the movie. When Iron Man offends the delicate sensibilities of certain preening man-god he gets himself (sing it with me), “Thun-der-struck!” Apparently the only bolts from the blue he’s received before are ideas, because he’s kind of surprised that the bolt didn’t fry him. I thought he’s supposed to be some kind of super-genius. He shouldn’t have been phased at all. Iron Man’s suit is made of metal, so it conducts electricity. The electric field inside a conductor is zero -- he’s in a Faraday cage, so he can’t be shocked. Don’t believe me? Watch these guys, ArcAttack, not just wearing chain mail, not just playing guitar in friggin’ chain mail, but rocking the fuck out while being hit by lightning while playing guitar in chain mail! And it gets even crazier. They are using the Tesla coil to make the music! And the music is Iron Man! I just recursively blew my own mind.
Incidentally, they also play music worthy of a Sith Lord.
Interestingly enough, Thor’s bolt actually charged Iron Man’s suit to “400% capacity.” Ooh, ooh, we can use this to figure out how much energy Iron Man’s suit holds! We all know how much power is in a lightning bolt, right? 1.21 Gigawatts! That actually isn’t too far off, but it doesn’t make sense to talk about lightning in terms of power, which is energy per time, since a lightning bolt is so quick. But the total energy release in a lightning bolt is about a gigajoule (a billion joules). That’s about as much energy as is in a tank of gasoline. Doesn’t sound like much, but cars have a hell of a lot of kinetic energy. And they only use about 15% of the energy -- most of the rest is wasted. Still, I would have thought that the arc reactor would give you more than a quarter tank of gas. Maybe Thor hit him with an insanely powerful bolt of lightning.
I’m paraphrasing, but some character says to Tony Stark, “Since when did you become a thermonuclear astrophysicist.” He says something like, “since last night.” Since my area of expertise is thermonuclear supernovae, I guess that makes me, in the parlance of the Marvel universe, a “thermonuclear astrophysicist.” It took me 4 years as an undergraduate, 5 years of graduate school, plus many years as a postdoc to master the subject. As a by-product of my job, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the smartest people on the planet. I don’t know anyone who could master a field in one day. Then again, we know how Tony Stark likes to brag. He isn’t being entirely honest -- since he perfected the Arc reactor, he was actually already an expert at thermonuclear fusion.
I’ve already written an article on the Science of THOR. The Asgardians are basically an alien race in the Marvel universe, and I think that’s pretty awesome. But I’d still like to see a scene where Banner and Stark are arguing over some advanced physics, and Thor just corrects them. Come on, that’s comedy gold! (It reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles.) Even though he seems like a brute, even the stuff he learned in elementary school has to be way beyond Earth science. I don’t understand why Banner and Stark aren’t quizzing him nonstop.
Thor’s semi-magical nature from the comics did bring up an interesting discussion at the bar after the film about whether magic has any place in the cinematic Marvel universe. We physicists said not just no, but hell no. The reason is, that if something like “magic” showed up, scientists would figure it out. If you could utter a spell, and, say, teleport, just about every physicist in the world would drop what they are doing and study that. You just have to say these words!?! Awesome!
The point is, there is nothing “mystical” that is off-limits to science. Science would just absorb it, and then it would be something we understand. It would be no less awesome, it would just move from the “magic” column into the “understood” column. Don’t believe me? We now know how to fly. We can build robots. We can transmute elements. We can make things invisible. We can levitate things. We can see back in time to the origin of the universe. We can explode cities. We can even teleport photons. So we can do “magic,” only it is now called science.
As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’d put it the other way around. Calling something “magic” is just a statement about our ignorance.
That’s it. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the Avengers. It was entertaining, but it gave me plenty to think about too. I love the universe they set up, and I hope they keep talking to scientists to “keep it real.”
- Copernicus (aka Andy Howell)
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