The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

We just heard Steinn Sigurðsson complain that there’s no science in Harry Potter, and therefore the book title The Science of Harry Potter is a non-starter. Jennifer Ouellette then leaped to its defense:

I think in this instance, I’d conjure the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” :)

But then, that’s just the sort of viewpoint you’d expect from somone who wrote about the physics of the Buffyverse.

In a display of the kind of synchronicity one might expect whenever the system is large and the selection criteria are loose, Bee at Backreaction just pointed to a new paper on the arXiv, “Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun but Limited Science Literacy” (9 July 2007). C.J. Efthimiou and R.A. Llewellyn declare their intentions as follows:

In this article, we examine specific scenes from popular action and sci-fi movies and show how they blatantly break the laws of physics, all in the name of entertainment, but coincidentally contributing to science illiteracy.

Movies under their microscope include Speed (1994), where projectile motion is thrown out the window; Spiderman (2002), which stretches Newton past the breaking point; Aeon Flux (2005), whose muscles really have to torque; The Core (2003), which just doesn’t float at all; Superman (1978), which ought to make a physicist’s head spin; X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), whose finale is cut loose from reality; and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at their X-Men example. Efthimiou and Llewellyn choose to ignore the bad biology of the premise and focus on the bad physics of the climax, when Magneto breaks the Golden Gate Bridge free from its moorings, carries it about five and a half kilometers, and drops one end on Alcatraz Island. Rather than asking, “Why didn’t he just drop the bridge on the building he was trying to destroy?” they investigate the energy budget required to pull off this feat. Estimating the mass of the bridge being moved at about 380 million kilograms and the speed of the bridge as roughly 10 meters per second, the kinetic energy of the moving bridge is approximately twenty billion joules, or almost 4.8 million kilocalories — the energy contained in 1350 pounds of fat.

Now, Magneto doesn’t appear to be divesting himself of that much extra baggage, but I vaguely recall reading somewhere on the Blagnet that all the mutants in the X-Men universe draw their energy from some parallel plane, so maybe the source of the energy isn’t a problem. (Somebody who knows the continuity better than I might be able to clarify — Russell?) Unless he does a very good job of dumping all that energy into his magnetic field, Magneto will have a whole other problem, too: 20 billion joules expended over the time-span of his bridge-hefting job is 37 megawatts. Radiating that much energy as light would make his body glow more than 900 times more strongly per unit area than a 60W light bulb.

It’s almost beside the point to note that once detached from their anchors, the suspension cables of the bridge will not support their load, and the bridge will collapse.


14 thoughts on “The Physics of Nonphysical Systems”

  1. That’s always been one major issue I’ve had with Harry Potter – the logic behind the spells is so ill-defined. Who comes up with these spells? Are they discovered, or are they invented? Does one have to rewrite the matrix of the universe in order to create a spell? Is going “swish-flick” and saying “Wingardium leviosa” merely some way of invoking a previously-defined cosmic macro? Or is it actual magic? If so, why does the matrix of the universe respond to Latin? If not, who writes these macros? Is there some registry where all of these are tabulated? Can they be undone? And so on.

  2. That’s bothered me about a lot of fantasy, actually. What responds to spells, and why? (I’ve seen lots of my friends playing the Final Fantasy genre of games, and I always wonder what those spirits they summon during attacks are doing when they’re not being summoned.) Maybe it’s just a de facto genre convention, like faster-than-light travel in space opera, women dressing as men in Shakespeare, or the existence of “love” in romances.

  3. What’s always bothered ME is why y’all can’t just relax and not expect fiction to mirror exactly real-world scientific principles. :) It’s entertainment, first and foremost, and everything falls before the Entertainment Gods.

  4. I’m with Jennifer Ouellette on this one. Now, I can’t comment as to whether or not this stuff actually decreases scientific literacy, though I would be surprised if the cumulative negative effect of all science fiction/fantasy on scientific literacy were greater than that of poor education in sciences or even religion.

    That said, I’d say that egregious errors are far more grievous in science fiction or ‘realistic’ films than in fantasy. Personally, if I’m invested in Tolkien’s world, I’m not going to ask about the rates of combustion of Ent flesh, or whether avian brains are legitimately capable of the complex thought and speech demonstrated by his giant eagles. There’s enough of a willing suspension of disbelief, I think, that fantasy books and films get a pass on much of this.

    Sci-fi has a tighter leash, simply because it attempts to use science to explain SOME things and looks better if it does so credibly. But, as the line between sci-fi and fantasy blurs, so too does my displeasure at inaccurate or unexplained phenomena decrease. Basically, the greater the level of realism, the more glaring bad science becomes.

    Regardless, if you want greater scientific literacy, it’ll come from better education in science and more novel approaches demonstrating both the wonder and relevance of things in the field…not from FICTION changing from ‘fantastic and out of touch with reality’ to ‘slightly grounded in realms of physics likely known only to physics hobbyists/experts.’

  5. Jennifer Ouellette:

    To a point, I agree. No real human could survive belting down the amount of hard liquor which any film noir detective consumes daily, and that’s fine. Do ordinary archaeologists have to keep their potsherds and soil samples out of the claws of the Nazis? No, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the Indiana Jones movies.

    I start chafing and fretting when the alternate reality itself becomes vague or ill-defined, because that’s bad storytelling. Back in the 1950s, nobody thought you could write a science-fiction mystery, because (as Isaac Asimov put it) the detective could always whip out a device and say, “As you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan can locate the hidden jewel in a trice.” Asimov himself got around this problem in The Caves of Steel by building all the science-fictional elements into the setting and then keeping them constant during the course of the mystery. Once he established the setting —a futuristic subterranean New York filled with robots — the bits of new technology were fairly minor: a data-card reader, a GPS-like navigation device, hypodermic injection slivers, a handheld apparatus for blanking robot brains. Except for the last, these all sound like things we’ve got around today, and in fact the “alpha sprayer” which zaps robot brains works on principles which were later discovered to damage real-life computer memory, many years after the book was published.

    Now, by analogy, if you introduce vampires or magic or the Force at the beginning of your story, that’s fine. But if you give your vampires, wizards or Jedi knights new abilities which hadn’t even been foreshadowed before, you’re cheating, and I won’t be happy. It’s not about Bad Science, it’s about Bad Entertainment.

  6. Yeah, I’m with Blake. I’m not at all bothered by magic that doesn’t behave in a manner consistent with our science, because duh otherwise it wouldn’t be magic. That’s how I’m able to enjoy Neil Gaiman’s very trippy meta-stuff. But he’s internally consistent. So is Tolkein, more or less.

    Actually, Blake’s invocation of Jedi Knights is a good example. Why was everybody so annoyed when George Lucas brought up midichlorians in Episode I? Because the idea of microscopic life forms giving people superpowers is unscientific? Or because reducing “force sensitivity” to a bunch of microorganisms in your blood contradicted all the crap about will and focus that was central to the original trilogy?

    If the former, then why do so many geeks enjoy X-Men or Spider-Man, whose premises are every bit as biologically nonsensical?

  7. Have you read Star Wars on Trial (2005)? Let’s just say, I side with the prosecution. . . .

    If “force sensitivity” really were reducible to symbiotic microorganisms living in your cells, and if your Galactic civilization has enough biotech to be able to clone people — fer chrissakes! — then you should be able to genetically engineer Jedi as potent as you want, and bulk up the Force quotient of anybody you like with a simple serum injection. Come to think of it, you should also be able to nullify Force powers by genetically engineering a virus which attacks midichlorians!

    There: I’ve just invented a better movie than the ones George Lucas made. The good guys can be a bunch of grad students at Coruscant University who are tired of endless dynastic warfare and don’t want to pledge their allegiance to either wing of a deranged royal family.

    In Stardust (1998), Gaiman explicitly defines Faerie as the place things go once they have been disproved. I figure that’s a good reason to stop worrying about consistency with real science!

  8. I checked out that arXiv paper last night, but it’s conclusion was weak. I don’t see evidence that Hollywood movies create or contribute much to science illiteracy even though they may not enhance it. Nothing new here. Viewers are watching a man flying in a cape as it is – are they walking around afterwards all warped in their thinking about the nature of time? Perhaps they’re wondering if it’s possible in theory or maybe they just accept the imaginative part of it. Those who are curious will pursue and discuss it.

    The paper mentions negative effects on society. Such as? (Yes, I know negative effects due to lack of critical thinking, but I don’t see these movies as a problem.) I’d like to see how many people thought that the bus in Speed could have really jumped the bridge gap as it did or how people absorb information from such movies and apply it to real life. That is useful information to know. Should directors take the opportunity to get angles, speed, etc. correct and make it more plausible? Perhaps, might be nice. But, say, in Speed there were many implausible scenes as it was. I concur with Jared’s last paragraph. Otherwise, the examples are great tools for a teacher to approach a topic: show Superman flying around the earth turning back time and using that as a jump-off to discuss time, why that wouldn’t be possible and so on. And lots of people are doing just that. :-)

    Logical consistency within a film or story is critical thinking on a level that applies to just about everything. It’s not just science that’s the problem! But you know that.

  9. Is going “swish-flick” and saying “Wingardium leviosa” merely some way of invoking a previously-defined cosmic macro? Or is it actual magic?

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘actual’ magic here. Certainly all or nearly all literary magic follows some repeatable recipe; a universe in which trial-and-error didn’t work at all would be terrifying to us(that might be an interesting tale to spin at some point). We live in a repeatable universe – the apple falls to the ground every time I drop it – and so we expect that our ‘magic’ should be the same – eye of newt + chant “abra cadabra” thrice = the Evil Eye every time I do it. I suppose in that sense, nearly all fantasy magic is ‘pulling down a cosmic macro’.

    As for leaving HPSpellSystem undefined, I suppose that’s because explaining the system for the reader would take up too much space or bog down the story.

  10. My interpretation of HP Magic is that nearly none of it is actually presented to us, and what is shown is simplified greatly in the telling. The *swish-flick* and latin-esque incantations are merely aids to concentration, not cosmic macros but rather mental macros that you build up as you learn the spell.

    Wheel of Time explores this at some point, where an Aes’Sedai explains that it’s not actually required to gesture like you’re throwing something when creating an explosion of fire, it’s just part of how the spell was originally taught. Now, it’s integral to the spell itself. You’d have to recreate the spell from first principles if you wanted to do something different.

  11. Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Let’s not forget the corollary: Any technology which is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

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