I go back and forth about the whole question of scientific accuracy in tv shows and movies. On the one hand, I think that complaining “Explosions don’t make noise in space!” is one of the worst forms of humorless dorkitude, and I’m generally happy to let bad science slide by in the service of an enjoyable story. On the other hand, though, I am a professional physicist, and it’s hard to turn that off completely.

Weirdly, one thing that tends to push me toward complaining about the science is when people start doing “The Science of ______” pieces, as both MSNBC and io9 did for The Avengers, and when movie people start patting themselves on the abck for having consulted with scientists. Because, you know, if you’re going to talk up the fact that there’s science behind the movie, you’re asking to be held to a higher standard.

And, really, most of the recent spate of comic-book movies have had scenes of technobabble that are every bit as dumb as anything produced in the days before consulting scientists. One of the worst was an exchange in The Avengers, where the team’s scientists, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, are trying to help S.H.I.E.L.D. track down Loki and his stolen energy source:

BANNER: How many spectrometers do you have?

SHIELD GUY: We have the cooperation of every university in the country.

BANNER: Tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof, and set them to detect gamma radiation.

(That’s paraphrased a bit from memory.) This is one of the stupidest science-type lines I’ve heard in any recent movie. To give you an idea of how stupid it is, here’s an analogue in more everyday terms:

BANNER: How many vehicles do you have?

SHIELD GUY: We have the cooperation of every transportation service in the country.

BANNER: Have them put all the vehicles on the roof, and set them to be helicopters.

“Spectrometer” is a general class of instrument for measuring the intensity of radiation over a range of frequencies. This encompasses a huge range of highly specialized devices designed to measure optical, infrared, microwave, ultraviolet. x-ray, and gamma ray sources, in the same way that “vehicles” encompasses cars, boats, trains, planes, and helicopters. There isn’t a toggle switch on the front of the shiny “spectrometer” box to pick between visible and gamma-ray settings, any more than there’s a button to turn your car into a helicopter.

This is a significant problem for the movie, because as many reviews have noted, the back-and-forth between Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Stark and Banner is otherwise excellent. The problem is, every time they say something that’s supposed to sound science-y, they sound incredibly stupid, and no amount of on-screen chemistry can fix that.

And the really sad thing about it is that it wouldn’t take much to fix:

BANNER: How many gamma-ray spectrometers do you have?

SHIELD GUY: We have the cooperation of every university in the country.

BANNER: Have them look for a peak at 1337 MeV.

It doesn’t take any more time on screen, involves one more technobabble term, and isn’t egregiously stupid. If you don’t like the use of MeV, throw in some other term– “K-band lines” or some such.

So, you know, if you’re going to get scientists to consult on your movie, consult them. Throwing in the occasional topical reference to “dark matter” or “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” or getting someone from Fermilab to help you dress the accelerator set is nice, and all, but doesn’t offset gross stupidity elsewhere.

(This is, of course, a problem for any kind of science fiction, on-screen or off, but it’s particularly bad for comic books, many of which are burdened with a continuity stretching back to a time when “gamma radiation” really was a mysterious and poorly understood thing. They’re sort of stuck with these dippy origin stories, and the need to keep the archaic terminology that the fans expect ends up infecting everything else.)

(Other than the really dumb technobabble, the movie was… fine. It’s good spectacle, which is mostly what I was after, but it wasn’t a transcendant experience, or anything. It was a good, competent summer blockbuster, fun while I was in the theater, and not anything I’m dying to see again.)

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    May 8, 2012

    Speaking of crappy comic-book science, it’s amazing how many protagonists acquired their super powers as a result of laboratory accidents. Granted, they weren’t as strict about lab safety in the 1950s as they were by the time I took the undergraduate lab class (and they are even more strict today), but all of these fictional accidents would have been easily preventable.

  2. #2 KevinQ
    May 8, 2012

    There isn’t a toggle switch on the front of the shiny “spectrometer” box to pick between visible and gamma-ray settings, any more than there’s a button to turn your car into a helicopter.

    Well, that’s the largest problem right there – if the Avengers can convert their aircraft carrier into a helicarrier, I don’t see why I can’t car into a helicar. Stupid science.

    I’m not a scientist, but those lines caught my attention in the movie – it just seemed clunky in a movie otherwise filled with smooth flowing dialogue.

    K

  3. #3 John Novak
    May 8, 2012

    Not to mention, if the spectrometers can do what Banner said, then the rest of his solution was undergrad level simplicity.

    Fury: “We have the cooperation of all the people with eyes in the country.”

    Banner: “Tell them to open their eyes and look for the thing. I’ll have one of my post docs look for a graduate student to identify an undergrad who’s bored enough to write a simple tracking algorithm based on their reports.”

    However, this is not a significant problem with the film. Eat some popcorn and laugh.

  4. #4 Electric Landlady
    May 8, 2012

    Yeah, that made me twitch too. (But I was enjoying the movie enough not to smack my forehead repeatedly and annoy my seatmates the way I did at Lockout a few weeks ago when the nitrogen levels in the air were rising past 40% and the characters were passing out, so… progress?)

  5. #5 David Clark
    May 8, 2012

    the most recent episode of “Bones” also makes light of this type of situation as a movie is being made from one of Bone’s books.

  6. #6 Ron
    May 8, 2012

    Dave Krieger tells the tale of fighting the fight of Scientific Technical Adviser to TNG: http://www.davekrieger.net/Waves/

  7. #7 MobiusKlein
    May 8, 2012

    Space explosion sounds are actually generated by the cockpit audio systems to provide pilot feedback about targeting success. Similarly for the ion cannon sounds, provided to the pilot for tactical reasons. A binaural system for targeting and evasion allows the pilot to use vision for coping with controls.

  8. #8 RM
    May 8, 2012

    any more than there’s a button to turn your car into a helicopter.

    Well, maybe not *your* car, but this is Bruce Banner and Tony Stark we’re talking about. Their cars have all sorts of cool toys in them that activate at a push of a button.

    if you’re going to get scientists to consult on your movie, consult them.

    I recall an interview with a science adviser to a movie, and the one thing that stuck in my mind (the name of the movie and the scientist unfortunately did not) was that the scientist was told “we want your advice – but the one thing we can’t do at this point is change the script.” My (hazy) understanding of the reason was that in Hollywood there’s a negotiated power dynamic between all the parties involved, and actually writing down things for the actor to say is considered scriptwriting, and there are limitations on who can do that and when.

  9. #9 marciepooh
    May 8, 2012

    RM, if I remember the credits correctly the screen writer and director were the one and the same for The Avengers. So if the director consulted a scientist and he made a suggestion similar to Chad’s. Joss could have then changed the script without stepping on anyone’s toes.

    My fiance and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and went back to enjoying the movie after that line.

    Electric Landlady, if nitrogen was only 40% what the hell were they breathing before?

  10. #10 Danil
    May 8, 2012

    “we want your advice – but the one thing we can’t do at this point is change the script.”

    That’s a really dumb constraint to have, considering how frequently actors ad lib their lines.

  11. #11 CCphysicist
    May 8, 2012

    1337 MeV? Those are pretty hard gammas. (understatement) Might as well be looking a bit higher for the two photon decay of charmonium. But I must say I like the jump from high energies down to K-band microwaves. Cute way to show the absurdity of their vague usage of “spectrometer”.

  12. #12 Ender
    May 9, 2012

    “Speaking of crappy comic-book science, it’s amazing how many protagonists acquired their super powers as a result of laboratory accidents. Granted, they weren’t as strict about lab safety in the 1950s as they were by the time I took the undergraduate lab class (and they are even more strict today), but all of these fictional accidents would have been easily preventable.”

    My Physics professor told a story about how he was looking for their radioactive sample for their fancy new machine, many many years back when this stuff was all new, and when he asked his Professor the man replied “Oh yes! People kept moving and using it, so I’ve got it here in my pocket.”

    This was no mere weakling radiation either.

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    May 9, 2012

    1337 MeV? Those are pretty hard gammas. (understatement)

    I mostly did that for the joke number, but wanted to make sure to avoid anything real. 511 keV obviously wouldn’t be a good line to be looking for, for example.

    My Physics professor told a story about how he was looking for their radioactive sample for their fancy new machine, many many years back when this stuff was all new, and when he asked his Professor the man replied “Oh yes! People kept moving and using it, so I’ve got it here in my pocket.”

    Ernest Rutherford famously used to absent-mindedly pocket radioactive samples, then dump them in a drawer of his desk. When they put the desk on exhibit in a museum some years ago, they had to expensively decontaminate it first.

  14. #14 Matt McIrvin
    May 9, 2012

    If they wanted to detect coyotes they could just write the word “coyote” on the scale and set the lever there.

  15. #15 CCPhysicist
    May 9, 2012

    Joke as in 633|< $p34|< ? I was in too quantitative of a mind set to notice that possibility. I favor 1729 when looking for a cute number.

    I heard a talk by a guy who worked with Rutherford, and the source they used at that time would fully light up the room if it wasn’t in the box that acted to collimate the alpha particle beam.

  16. #16 CCPhysicist
    May 9, 2012

    Stupid html blog software ate everything after the first half of the letter k.

  17. #17 Ian Kemmish
    May 10, 2012

    The scriptwriters do consult with the scientists. The problem is that (some) scientists don’t understand what the word “cunsult” means. It does not mean that what the scientists say should be incorporated into the script – if what scientists say was that compelling, universities would be much fuller than they are now!

    Dialogue in movies is intended to move the action forward, and in the case of frothy movies, to create tension. Try your suggested replacement dialogue on a focus group of typical Marvel movie-goers, and I think you’ll agree that scientists are such accomplished dramatists as you think they are. Supposing some science consultant had vetoed the use of sonar in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey – would that scene have had the same dramatic weight?

    And while you’re at it, why not get a psychologist to write a column about how the one-dimensional personalities of the characters in these movies simply don’t occur in the real world. As Oscar Wilde said in slightly different circumstances: “That is what the word fiction means.”

  18. #18 Derek in DC
    May 11, 2012

    Personal opinion… time spent complaining about the silly science in genre movies is better spent spreading the word to the public about the *real* science that’s going on.

  19. #19 Captain Traemel
    May 12, 2012

    Interesting as your point is, one thing you might want to stop and remember is that these movies are not written for people who care about science and are interested in accuracy. It’s the general populace that is going to be providing the main bank for any comic film, and how many Bob Jones’ on the street do you know that would have a clue what your alternative line means? To them, Bruce Banner = gamma radiation = nifty techno babble = moving the plot forward. They put that in there only so they could come back later and get dramatic about the fact that Bruce was dealing with gamma radiation and might go Hulk on everyone. I tend to ignore the scientific inaccuracies in a movie where a mild-mannered scientist turns into a thousand pound green monster with unlimited strength and invulnerability.

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