Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They hired a Science Consultant?! Why?

Yep, Dr James Kakalios, a teacher at the University of Minnesota, was the Science Consultant on the upcoming feature film, "Watchmen." The first question that popped into my mind was "why bother?" It's a comic book. The science is expected to be absurd. Spiderman, Superman, the X-Men ... They are highly improbable to say the least, and I do mean the least. Even the Watchman's Dr. Manhattan is pretty much a scientific impossibility.

This is not a bad thing until one starts making claims for scientific accuracy or "reality." I love movies with skewed realities, like Pirates of the Caribbean or X-Men or some crazy vampire flick, but I'd balk if someone claimed that the supernatural elements of Pirates was how the world really worked. And if they told me that Superman was grounded in real science, well, they'd get an argument from me.

So, what exactly could a scientist contribute? Just like Pirates of the Caribbean benefited from some research into British Naval vessels of the period, a film that shows a scientist at work in 1985 will benefit knowing what an actual physics lab of the period would look like. Just don't tell me that Dr. Manhattan's superpowers make sense or that they're physically possible.

Unless you're Dr Kakalios that is, because when he says that Dr. Manhattan's superpower makes physical sense it turns out that it's fascinating in a totally geeked out way and it does make sense if you pay attention to his quiet "ifs" and realize he is really talking on a metaphorical level:

He used people's interest in comic books and movies to teach a little basic science about waves. Good for him, but in a way he's making a fool of himself. How does Dr. Manhattan make himself disappear and reappear magically? Well, "he's a wave and out of phase waves cancel." He can appear in more than one place at a time? Diffraction patterns. There are things that can do those things for the reasons he states and they're called atoms. Atoms have been "seen" to be in two places at once. Atom lasers can make atoms disappear.

As a physicist Dr Kakalios knows better, and he says so, but a little too quietly, "if intrinsic fields existed, which they don't," then this could be. Right, and if wishes were fishes then beggars would be kings. People are not atoms, they're a highly structured pattern of atoms and these quantum tricks destroy those patterns.

Another little problem I have with that video, I don't think analyzing the science in comics is the most useful thing you could do with a knowledge of physics if you don't go on to get a job in science. If you're a musician it could be quite useful to know about those waves, sound is waves. The usefulness of that knowledge is more true today than in the past because of the technology being used; computers. Computers can draw the wave forms and they're described by mathematics, the language of science, and that could be damn useful. For example, there is a feature in my Audacity Audio Editor that will let me program my own sounds. I think I could make my own software version of a Theremin. Right now I can't quite figure out the language, the Nyquist programming language, but I think I'll be able to make some use of it in the future.

Also, according to some published research, listening to some beat frequencies can cause brainwaves to "align" with that frequency through a phenomenon called entrainment. The result is a different state of awareness, like increased relaxation or alertness, lucid dreaming or many other states.

The four most familiar brainwave frequencies are:

* Beta (14-21 Hz and higher)
* Alpha (7-14 Hz)
* Theta (4-7 Hz)
* Delta (0-4 Hz).

There are variations on these bands as well as other brainwave frequencies, and that different states may be associated each.

That, and you don't want to wind up so ignorant of basic science that you're willing to believe Ray Comfort when he claims to "disprove" evolution. That kind of ignorance is just pathetic today.

Saying how science can help a non-scientist analyze comic books is really selling knowledge of science short.

The other thing I want to note about this video is that it's just a tiny sampling of the internet buzz that's circulating around the up coming film, and that I've now become part of. I predict a box office landslide the buzz is so heavy. Every sci-fi site I visit has something on the film. This is odd for a film based on such a dated comic book, it's full of Cold War paranoia.

Maybe Ron Moore and the new crew of "The Thing" should consult PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. PZ could probably help generate a lot of buzz.

And one more thing before I close this, here's Alan Moore, the writer of the original comic:

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