Friday, December 05, 2014

Physics and the Marvel Movies

Broadly speaking, the Marvel studio movies have managed to remain largely physically credible; and by this I mean that, while there are conceits that you simply have to accept for the sake of the story, and much of what goes on is often beyond current engineering, medical science, and so on, it is at least plausible. For example, in the Iron Man movies, the suit itself is a fairly reasonable extrapolation of current and experimental military exoskeletons; the arc reactor power source, however, you're just going to have to take at face value.

By the way, I'm referring here to the interlocking movies produced by Marvel themselves, also known to fans as the MCU, for Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movies made by other studios, such as the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, threw credibility overboard a long time ago.

Next year (2015), the MCU is going to get seriously weird, however. With the introduction of Quicksilver and Wanda to the Avengers, and a Dr. Strange movie -- Stephen Strange was name-checked in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so presumably this will take place in the same continuity -- it's hard to see how Marvel will explain itself without just shrugging and saying "Magic".

Before that happens, therefore, I wanted to jot down some notes on the least physical elements of the movies to date, basically because I enjoy this sort of thing. Oh, and I probably shouldn't need to say this, but obviously:

SPOILERS!

  • Iron Man 1: Deceleration is the big issue here. Stark pulls some serious Gs in his flight maneuvers, especially when he opens the flaps to evade the fighter jets; but that's not the biggest problem -- let's just accept that he has invented the world's best pressure suit. No, the big issue is when he lands hard, going from full speed to a three-point landing in nothing flat. It doesn't matter how good his airbags are, his body is coming to a stop in a very short period of time. In any realistic scenario, when they open up the suit after a landing like that, they're going to find a can of Tony Stark soup. (By the way, when I first watched the movie, that wasn't the thing that made me go "Oh, c'mon!". No, that was when Tony returned from Afghanistan and he wants a burger... so he goes to Burger King. He's in California: obviously, he's going to go to In'n'Out. Let's try to keep this at least a little realistic, OK?)
  • Iron Man 2: The "internal problem" in this movie is that Tony's arc reactor is poisoning him so he needs to replace the palladium that is a key component. Using instructions left to him by his father, he creates... a new element. Did anybody involved look at the Periodic Table and ask "Gee, where will this new element, which is chemically and electrically very similar to palladium, fit? I wonder why nobody else noticed that gap?". I suppose it's possible to dismiss this as one of those conceits I mentioned, but a much better solution is at hand: have Tony create a room-temperature superconductor. Not only is this a reasonable extrapolation of current science, it's an area where researchers are exploring many different approaches, so there's plenty of room for Tony to try something new and solve the challenge. Also, Tony is a genius at engineering, not basic science (notwithstanding the Avengers, where he just a generic STEM genius), so it's a better fit for the character. 
  • Captain America: One could quibble about just how the Super Serum works, but the big physical problem here is simply conservation of mass: Steve Rogers bulks up by at least 100 pounds in a matter of seconds, so where did all that matter come from? Note that the naive answer "it came from the energy they drew from the electrical grid" doesn't work, because it takes an enormous amount of energy to make a very small amount of mass. To give a sense of scale, consider the Soviet Union's Tsar Bomba, the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested. That bomb yielded on the order of 50 megatonnes-equivalent, roughly 10 times all of the conventional explosives combined used in World War II. In order to create Steve Rogers' 100 pound gain, you would need to harness the energy yield of approximately twenty Tsar Bombas, and do so in just a few seconds. 
  • The Avengers: This has been well addressed elsewhere, but the most obvious engineering problem is whether or not the helicarrier could fly; and the likely answer is No. At the depicted size of carrier, the rotor blades would have to be much larger. Or at the size of rotor shown, they would have to spin much faster, but then you get into problems of material science (the blades would break apart) or tip speed (what happens if the tip exceeds the speed of sound?). 
  • The Hulk: One of the nicer touches in the Hulk movies (and his appearance in the Avengers) is that they take seriously what happens to the ground beneath him when the Hulk jumps and lands. But as with Captain America above, where does the extra mass of the Hulk's body come from? In the comic books, the Hulk is the result of exposure to a fictional "gamma bomb", but as noted even the largest nuclear explosions convert only a few pounds of matter to energy, so even if you could capture all that energy, turned back into matter it would still only amount to the same few pounds. The most plausible explanation I can come up with is that the Hulk, in fact, weighs the same as Banner and his huge size comes from the fact that he is inflatable -- really, they should call him The Inflatable Hulk. I do realize, however, that this theory may be difficult to reconcile with other depicted elements of the character.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Obviously there's a lot we just have to take for granted in this movie because aliens, but my gripe is with a very Earthbound technology. Peter Quill has been playing the same cassette tape for over 25 years, and it still isn't a tangled, broken mess? He even plays it in a Sony Walkman without damaging it, which is just downright ridiculous. (On a lesser but related note, when he finally unwraps Awesome Mix 2, it's amazing that the tape hasn't degraded to the point that it is hopelessly stuck together.)
I'm sure there's more to be found in the movies not mentioned above, but that's all for now. Comments welcome.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tess Steps Out: A Short Story (work in progress)



Tess finally found Barry in the college library, a heavy, dog-eared text open in front of him, marking his habitually scrupulous hand-written notes into a ruled yellow pad. She sat down across from him, leaned as far across the broad table as she could reach, her long blond hair falling down around her face. She brushed her hair away and stage-whispered, “Barry! I think I’m pregnant!”.

Barry barely flinched. Not even raising his eyes to her, he continued with his note taking. Finally, reaching the end of a paragraph, and carefully holding his place with his finger, he looked up. 

“And?”, he asked wearily.

“I think you’re the father”, hissed Tess. “When was the last time we had sex?”

Barry leaned back from the table, but carefully so as not to dislodge his finger from its assigned position. He ran his free hand through his floppy, lank dark hair. “Valentine’s Day. You’ve had your period since then”, he replied flatly. He didn’t bother to lower his voice, and a couple of other students cast warning stares at him.

“That doesn’t prove anything”, pouted Tess.

“Seriously? Christ, Tess, I know I’ve not had much sexual experience, but I’m not a complete idiot”, sighed Barry. “Let’s take this outside” he added, noticing the stares of the other students. He pushed the textbook onto a nearby cart for shelving, shoveled his notepad and pens into his tattered canvas messenger bag, took Tess by the elbow, and steered her outside into the still-warm evening air.

They sat down on the steps in front of the library portico, an architecturally illiterate mishmash of Greek and Roman elements that some coal-rich benefactor had inflicted on their small-town mid-western college. As the price of his munificence, his name was carved indelibly in stone over the entrance, but to generations of students it was known simply as The Hangar, a tribute to the charmless, spartan interior, a warehouse for books and students alike.

“Valentine’s Day? That sounds very specific. Are you sure?” asked Tess.

“Very sure”, replied Barry. “You were mad at Graham – or maybe Danny, I forget who you were dating after me. Anyway, whoever it was hadn’t sent you flowers, and you were mad, so you came to my room and we slept together. You stayed the night, I made you scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast. When you got back to your room later you called to tell me that the flowers had been waiting there all along, and we haven’t seen each other since. That was, what, five weeks ago? And about three weeks ago you told Margo to tell me it was OK, you were having your period, because you thought I might be worried. By which you meant, you wanted Margo to know you’d slept with me again, just in case she might be thinking I was available.”

“Wow”, said Tess, “were you, like, taking notes? Does one of those pads of yours have your sex life flow-charted and cross-referenced with dates and what page you were on in the assigned European history text at the time?”

“You know this isn’t the first time you’ve tried  this stunt on me, right?”, said Barry.

“It isn’t?”

“No. About a week after we first slept together I figured out that you were sleeping with other guys too, so I broke it off with you. A couple of days later you said you thought you might be pregnant, and I was stupid enough to believe you, and we got back together. And a week after that when I asked you if you were still late, you had no idea what I was talking about. So I guess I’m not the first guy you’ve pulled that on?”

Tess stared at Barry for several long seconds. She lowered her eyes, bit her lip, and tried fruitlessly to squeeze out a tear. Barry leaned back, folded his arms, waited patiently. She looked up, cross.

 “Dammit, Barry. Why are you the only guy who won’t fall for that?”

“Because the moment I do, you’ll lose interest in me again”, he answered flatly. “Do you want to get pizza?”

Tess took his hand, and he didn’t pull away. They ambled across campus in silence to the cheap pizza franchise that, as far as many of their fellow undergraduates were concerned, provided at least two-thirds of their dietary needs. Soon, they were sat next to each other on a torn plastic bench, two slices of greasy pizza on paper plates in front of them.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”, he asked after a few moments of silent chewing.

“You can ask. I don’t promise I’ll answer”, she replied.

“How many guys have you actually slept with?”

“Assuming you mean had sex with, not literally slept with?” She furrowed her brow in concentration, and he watched her fingers moving on the tabletop, ticking off the count. After a minute or so she answered, “Forty-ish”.

“Ish?” he asked, perplexed.

“Well, it depends what you count as sex”, she elaborated. “Forty-three if you include anal but exclude guys that I only blew but never fucked.” Mistaking his stunned expression for a desire for more explanation, she added: “In high school I did some really stupid things.”

“Like sleeping with the entire football team?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.

“No”, she giggled, “like blowing a guy and getting no satisfaction in return. Or believing guys that told me that anal didn’t really count. It wasn’t until I was a junior that I decided that I deserved to be having some fun too.”

“So I was number…?” he asked.

“Do you really want to know?”, Tess replied.

Barry thought about it for a moment then answered, “No. I really don’t want to know how many guys you’ve had since me. Or while me, as it were. “

“Can I guess your score now?”, she asked him.

“OK,” he said warily, “but you know you could count my partners on my right hand”.

She pretended to think hard for a moment, then: “I’m going to say two, if you include me but exclude your right hand.” 

Despite himself, Barry burst out laughing. “Yeah, but thanks for at least not thinking I was a total virgin.”

Tess blushed slightly. “If we’re being totes honest with each other? Actually, I did think you were a virgin before I had you, but I was trying to be polite. OK, now you have to tell me about your first time!”

“Really? OK, but not much to tell. There was a party in my dorm the first semester of freshman year, and my roommate Michael’s older sister was in town. To my astonishment she took me back to her hotel room and we… well, you know. She went home the next day, I never heard from her again, her brother doesn’t know. ”

“So how was it? Was it sweet?”, asked Tess,  rapt.

“Are we still being honest? It was awkward and disappointing. I was so anxious, I couldn’t finish. In the end I had to fake an orgasm so we could both get some sleep.”

“Wait, guys can do that?” said Tess, genuinely surprised.

“Oh sure,” said Barry. “You just breathe a little hoarsely, say ‘oh my god!’ a few times, then give a big shudder and a gasp like in the movies. If you’re wearing a condom, she’s not to know. I’m guessing she had to fake it too, but on the plus side she did congratulate me on my stamina.”

The two of them cleared their table and walked outside. The night was a little cooler now, the air crisp, stars twinkling in a completely clear sky: it would certainly get cold later.

“So you haven’t had sex with anybody since me”, said Tess, as they began the walk back. “Don’t you miss it now that you’ve had it?”.

Barry thought for several moments. Finally: “Some, I guess. Actually…” Barry paused and started over. “Actually, my biggest regret is that I still haven’t had a blow job. Everybody says they’re great. And I can’t believe I just said that out loud.”

Tess laughed. “You haven’t? I never did you? I’ll blow you now if you like. For old times’ sake.”

Barry’s face turned deep red. “That’s very sweet of you to offer,” he said, “but I think I’ll save my oral virginity for somebody special.”

Tess punched him playfully on the shoulder. “Oh Barry. You’re still such a romantic! Don’t ever change!”

They were in front of Tess’ dorm now. Barry took both her hands in his, looked her in the eyes and said “Tess, can we be like this from now on? Forget about the sex, just be fun together. I think we can be really good friends – and I don’t even mean friends with benefits. I feel like I can trust you, confide in you. And you in me, of course.”

Tess smiled as gently as he had ever seen; for a moment she seemed like a little girl. “Sure”, she replied. She leaned in, kissed him lightly on the cheek, and turned to go inside. He stayed and watched until the door closed behind her.

Ten minutes later, Barry arrived back at his own room. Before he could get his key in the lock, the door opened from the inside. Michael was on his way out, pulling on his jacket and stuffing his wallet into his jeans pocket. “Oh, hey, Barry”, he blurted as he pushed past. “Uh… you and Tess are still broken up, right? Because she just called me and… well, if it’s OK with you, pal?”

“Oh sure”, replied Barry, “take your shot.”

“Thanks, pal!”, said Michael, hustling down the corridor. As he reached the outer door, Michael turned and called back, “Hey, is it really true that you once faked an orgasm?”, but he didn’t wait for the answer.

Barry watched him disappear, then went inside and pulled the door shut behind him. He undressed to his tee-shirt and shorts, climbed into bed, and turned out the lights. “Good luck, Tess. Good luck, number forty four”, he murmured, and slept by himself.