Superhero Physics

One day last year, Spiros Michalakis, a staff researcher at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, found himself having a serious conversation with actor Paul Rudd about conservation of mass and energy. Rudd stars in this summer’s Marvel flick, Ant-Man, playing a character who steals a suit that shrinks the wearer down to the size of an ant while allowing him to retain his usual strength.

Rudd was part of a team, including writers, producers, and special effects experts working on the film, who met with Michalakis, a quantum physicist, to get his scientific input on various plot points in the script. “The Ant-Man suit has to do a lot of work to keep the hero alive,” says Michalakis. After all, a lot could go wrong if a 160-pound man suddenly became the size of an insect. Everything from his metabolism, to his breathing, to his sight would change (he would see in the ultraviolet).

Then there was the issue of mass. In order for the character to be able to ride on a flying ant (as the original Marvel character did), he would have to lose almost his entire mass. How would one account for that? “I gave them a visually stunning way to represent the loss of mass through energy dissipation,” says Michalakis. “That would lead to nuclear explosions that would destroy the earth, but who is counting?”

The filmmakers identified Michalakis as the expert they needed through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at elevating the level of scientific accuracy in Hollywood productions. Michalakis says he doesn’t think the goal should necessarily be to get the science in the movie exactly right but to make some fundamental aspects accurate.

“It is in the conversations after the movie that the fans get into the actual science,” he says. “That’s when the experts should be front and center to answer the questions and to create wonder.”

–Written by Kimm Fesenmaier


Header photo courtesy of Marvel Entertainment/Film Frame