U professor casts physics eye on ‘Watchmen’

Hollywood routinely asks audiences to suspend disbelief, and the new âÄúWatchmenâÄù movie is no exception. But thanks to University of Minnesota physics professor Jim Kakalios, the filmâÄôs alternate reality will be a little more plausible. Kakalios , the author of âÄúThe Physics of Superheroes,âÄù has continued to bring physics into popular culture by working as a science adviser for âÄúWatchmen,âÄù a movie based on the graphic novel about vigilante superheroes, set to be released March 6. The National Academy of Sciences connected Kakalios and the filmmakers as part of their larger effort to facilitate creative collaboration between the entertainment industry and scientific community. When Ann Merchant, deputy director of communications for the National Academies, called Kakalios, she said âÄúshe knew within seconds he was the right guy.âÄù An avid comic book reader, Kakalios said âÄúWatchmenâÄù is the âÄúCitizen Kane âÄú of graphic novels. He was very interested in helping, he said. After a couple of conference calls with the filmâÄôs director and production designer, he flew to the Vancouver set in early fall 2007, where he talked with the filmmakers about how a physics lab might look in 1959 âÄî the year a physics-experiment accident gives superpowers to the character Dr. Manhattan âÄî and 1985, the year the story takes place. He also showed them a slide of what might appear on a physics professorâÄôs blackboard. âÄúIn a Hollywood movie,âÄù Kakalios said, âÄúthey typically have a string of complicated equations that bear no relation to each other.âÄù But by getting details like that right, he said, filmmakers can help the audience buy into a movieâÄôs alternate reality. Kakalios also applied his physics expertise by making sense of Dr. ManhattanâÄôs superpowers, which include teleportation, controlling matter with his mind and changing his size. He said the powers seem to be âÄúmore or lessâÄù quantum mechanical. In other words, they can be more or less explained by applying the physics of microscopic particles, or quantum mechanics, to humans and larger objects. For example, he said, Dr. ManhattanâÄôs teleportation powers have a real-world parallel in quantum tunneling, a phenomenon used in high-resolution microscopy, whereby particles move through barriers. Kakalios said he also talked about the psychology of physicists with Billy Crudup , the actor who plays Dr. Manhattan. âÄúDr. Manhattan is a scientist,âÄù he said, âÄúand as he grows detached from humanity he grows more obsessed with his physics project, and you sometimes see this, where grad students deal with frustration, depression by throwing themselves into research.âÄù Since Kakalios became involved with âÄúWatchmen,âÄù the National Academy of Sciences has launched the Science and Entertainment Exchange , charged with connecting scientists and entertainers. Director Jennifer Ouellette said a lot of people in the entertainment industry are looking for guidance on science topics. She had a dozen queries before Christmas and has been getting a few every week since. For example, the exchange set up a rapid response team for the television series âÄúFringeâÄù to check with scientists on the plausibility of the technology they use and the accuracy of their scientific jargon. ItâÄôs a service that University of Central Florida physics assistant professor Costas Efthimiou, who has criticized the way Hollywood movies misrepresent science, said sounds like a good idea. Efthimiou uses the inaccuracies of Hollywood movies to teach one of his physics courses. He said heâÄôs frustrated with the trend he sees of movies and television shows that suggest the supernatural trumps logic and critical thinking. HeâÄôs tried to remedy the problem, he said, but realizes his audience is much smaller than HollywoodâÄôs. He doesnâÄôt insist on complete scientific accuracy, he said, but heâÄôs against presenting completely false ideas that end up spreading misunderstanding. HeâÄôd like to see a better attitude towards science coming from Hollywood, he said. In the past, science has been focused on fact-checking, Ouellete said, citing websites that rip apart the bad science in movies without offering novel alternatives. Instead, she said, the exchange aims to improve the interactions between science and Hollywood. In the long run, she said, the science will improve âÄî but itâÄôs also important to respect the creative process. Kakalios said itâÄôs important for scientists to meet others at least halfway. âÄúYou never want to be condescending, you donâÄôt want to be off-putting,âÄù he said. And that can be a challenge. A physicist takes certain concepts for granted, and itâÄôs hard to âÄúput yourself in the frame of mind of someone who is not in your business,âÄù he said. But popular culture provides an instant reference frame. Nowadays, he added, citizens are asked to have opinions on science issues from stem cell research to nanotechnology to climate change, and scientists have some obligation to step up and accessibly explain the key issues. âÄúLike the âÄòDaily ShowâÄô has figured out how to present the news in an entertaining way, I think you can present the science in an entertaining way âĦ and itâÄôs extremely important to do so,âÄù Kakalios said.