The (Literally) Incredible Iron Man

Movie ScienceTony Stark, the man behind the mask in the blockbuster Iron Man movies, doesn't have any super powers, but he is supernaturally gifted in terms of intelligence, ingenuity, and sarcasm. His most amazing ability, however, may be the ability to make movie audiences suspend their disbelief regarding the science at the heart of his adventures. The hotly anticipated sequel released last Friday taxes those powers to the limit, with Tony building something even more ridiculous than an indestructible flying suit of armor powered by a pocket-sized cold fusion reactor. If you don't mind spoilers, check out Vince LiCata of The World's Fair as he ponders why this particularly egregious scene rankles when the rest of the movie is just as implausible. Rhett Allain of Dot Physics and Matt Springer of Built on Facts are also on the case, analyzing Iron Man's incredible forays into flight.

Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics and the Science and Entertainment Exchange has a thorough analysis of the science of Iron Man up on Discovery News today. Tabling the question of Tony's aerodynamics, Jennifer investigates the scene that stuck in Vince LiCata's craw at The World's Fair: building a particle accelerator by hand in an afternoon and using it to create a stable new element.

In a nutshell, the idea of building a particle accelerator in one's basement is plausible, in that some people have done exactly that. (One of them is an honorary member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, author/physicist Michio Kaku).

The questions of powering this accelerator and the stability of the resulting element are tougher to answer. The former falls under the Perkowitz Rule in that almost all of the tech in the Iron Man is a product of the arc reactor's more-or-less limitless energy. And with the Arc Reactor itself the product of another equally implausible engineering scene in the first film, we can let it slide as the one thing that gets the science totally wrong.

The latter--how particle accelerators actually make new elements and how long they actually exist--is turned into pure fantasy in Iron Man. And while I initially groaned at the synthesis of this breed of unobtanium (upsidedowntriangulum?), I'm ultimately fine with it. The scene's inclusion tells me that Director Jon Favreau has some confidence that audiences are familiar with the concept of a particle accelerator from coverage of the LHC, and that's generally a good thing.

And while it's possible that Favreau is overestimating his audience's familiarity with real world science, he's at least throwing us true nerds a bone. Beyond praising him in the Time 100 issue, he used clean-tech pioneer Elon Musk as a model for Tony Stark and put him in the film as himself.

But whenever a big sci-fi movie comes out, we nerds end up having the debate about how it relates to "scientific literacy." Would better, more accurate science in our fiction make the public more interested in the non-fiction stuff? Leaving aside the questions of what scientific literacy actually means, or what would change if it suddenly became more prevalent in our society, there's the assumption that audiences will readily be able to distinguish good science from bad and appreciate the former more than the latter when they do.

As I said in a Week in Review column after Avatar had neatly destroyed every box office record, scientific abominations like The Core still trump fairly accurate sci-fi, like Gattaca in sales, and that said accuracy didn't protect Gattaca from criticisms from geneticists and bioethicists.

Another relevant example is Danny Boyle's Sunshine, which follows a small team of astronauts on a dangerous mission to reboot the sun and save the Earth. While the mechanics of this existential threat are a little dubious (let's call that the Perkowitz exception), the movie is fairly scientifically rigorous when it comes to cinematic space. It wasn't perfect by any means, and the third act definitely goes into magical realism mode, but I was surprised to see this Anthony Lane New Yorker review say bad science was Sunshine's major flaw.

Here's what he says about a scene where three characters need to jump from a broken airlock on a derelict ghost ship to the safety of their own still-semi-functioning one:

At one point, there is only a single suit among three of them, so Capa (the indispensable one, thanks to his bomb-priming skills) puts it on while his colleagues cling to him, wrapped up nice and warm in torn-off hunks of wall panelling and aluminum foil: just the thing for that merciless interstellar void. It was at this moment that I stopped worrying about the science of "Sunshine," which clearly has as much to do with the verities of astrophysics as Carmen Miranda did with the economics of fruit cultivation. The film is nonsense, and what counts is whether viewers will feel able to lay aside their logical complaints and bask in what remains: a trip in search of a tan.

There is a huge scientific error in that scene, but it isn't the one Lane describes. In fact, since the interstellar medium is a poor heat conductor, a short exposure wouldn't instantly freeze you solid as Lane apparently intuits (you might have some problems with the vacuum and radiation, but that's another matter).

The real problem is one Rhett Allain at Dot Physics caught: once the hapless astronauts are back in the working airlock, gravity magically reappears. While Sunshine did go to great lengths for plausibility, even contracting physicist Brian Cox as a consultant (and possible body double of lead actor Cillian Murphy), the scene simply doesn't jibe with the ship's portrayal of spinning modules designed to simulate gravity while aboard.

Big deal. If this doesn't register to a movie critic at the highest-brow publication, it's a moot point. If we can work real science into our fiction, so much the better. But otherwise, the best we can do is use the science, good, bad, real, or ridiculous as a jumping off point for further discussions. And, look at that, a comment thread appeared below this sentence! Science at work!

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