Where 'Avatar' And Scientific Possibility Meet James Cameron's Avatar continues to amaze movie goers. But could the lifelike war machines, tropical moon life and out-of-body experiences be predictions of the future? Adam Hadhazy of Popular Mechanics discusses the science of Avatar.

Where 'Avatar' And Scientific Possibility Meet

Where 'Avatar' And Scientific Possibility Meet

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James Cameron's Avatar continues to amaze movie goers. But could the lifelike war machines, tropical moon life and out-of-body experiences be predictions of the future? Adam Hadhazy of Popular Mechanics discusses the science of Avatar.


In the year 2154, human kind has figured out a way to travel to distant planets and project human consciousness into artificially grown alien bodies. Well, at least we have in James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar," which recently went past the $1 billion mark at the box office. It tells the story of paralyzed vet, Jake Sully, who re-ops to zoom off to a moon called Pandora to operate one of those nine foot tall blue avatars.

(Soundbite of movie, "Avatar")

Mr. Sam Worthington (Actor): (as Jake Sully) Me and Norm are here to drive the remotely controlled bodies called avatars. And they're grown from human DNA mixed with the DNA of the natives.

CONAN: It all looks and feel so real, it makes you wonder whether we'll actually be able to do any of that cool stuff in 44 years. Adam Hadhazy of Popular Mechanics recently evaluated the actuality of avatar creations coming into fruition. If you have questions about how close we might be to "Avatar" technology, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adam Hadhazy is a reporter. His article, "The Science Behind James Cameron's 'Avatar'" appeared on the Popular Mechanics' Web site last month. And he's with us in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ADAM HADHAZY (Reporter; Author, "The Science Behind James Cameron's 'Avatar'"): Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And well, that first part, to get to Pandora, it's a long way between here and there.

Mr. HADHAZY: Yes, about 26 trillion miles. Not a hop and a skip.

CONAN: No. So we're told that - or at least infer, that this was not done with a faster-than-light drive but by putting all the passengers in some sort of animated suspension.

Mr. HADHAZY: Yes. The idea is to basically put people into a sort of a cryogenic freeze, put them into hibernation. And that way, you don't have to worry about so much keeping them fed and keeping them occupied for the journey, which takes about six years, given how fast the spacecraft in "Avatar" goes, which is about 70 percent of the speed of light, they say.

CONAN: Which is a lot faster than anything humans have managed to (unintelligible) go that far yet. Nevertheless, there's a lot of questions about that. Any of that in the even distant future?

Mr. HADHAZY: Distant future, sure. Near term, not so much. This is something that is certainly have been looked at a fair amount. NASA has been looking at it over the years, time to time. And the idea is to basically find a way to generate enough thrust to really get going, you know, as fast as you can. And the best bang for your buck is really when you combine matter and antimatter. Antimatter is basically, it's - just as it sounds, it's the opposite of the matter that we're all used to - the microphone in front of me, the desk here, under my hands. It's - when matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other and�

CONAN: A big boom.

Mr. HADHAZY: �a current, exactly. Pure energy. Obviously there's not a lot of antimatter around. We're talking - all times, they've only really made of something on the order of nanograms, so...

CONAN: So you'd have to find a way to manufacture it and control these explosions so that they wouldn't blow up the ship too, and channel all of this stuff. And, well, even when you get going fast, you got to slow down too. And that's the other�

Mr. HADHAZY: Not to mention, in this whole thing, I mean, if you really can't think of a more volatile fuel than antimatter. And we do have ways to confine it using electromagnetic fields. But the promise in whatever storage container you have, it's really impossible at this point to make a perfect vacuum. So even if there's just a few stray molecules of real matter in there, the antimatter will hit those molecules and will annihilate. So it's not a very good fuel tank. You're losing fuel as you go.

CONAN: And then the other part, the cryogenic state which allows people to basically sleep their way off to Pandora.

Mr. HADHAZY: Yes. Well, there's been some work on that. I think we all might have heard the infamous Ted Williams case. I mean, he has had his, a�

CONAN: Yes, just his head, though.

Mr. HADHAZY: Yeah, right. Exactly. So they certainly look into doing it. And, you know, it's - you know, it can work for certain creatures but not for people.

CONAN: Or at least not yet.

Mr. HADHAZY: At least not yet.

CONAN: Nobody has been revived. Let's put it that way.

Mr. HADHAZY: Yes. Fair enough.

CONAN: Okay. We're talking with Adam Hadhazy, who wrote an article in Popular Mechanics Web site called "The Science Behind James Cameron's 'Avatar'." 800-989-8255, if you'd like to ask a question about what's possible and what isn't. Or email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Let's go to Robert. And Robert is with us from Moultrie in Georgia.

ROBERT (Caller): How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

ROBERT: I have a question. I haven't seen the movie. The main character is paralyzed, right?


ROBERT: Okay. How did they explain in the movie how they somehow can build him an avatar, a genetically engineered like, you know, half human, half - whatever creature that is - and they can project the consciousness into it, but for some reason they can't fix this guy's body.

Mr. HADHAZY: Well, that is sort of one of those...

CONAN: Well, actually they said they could fix his body, but it cost a lot of money which he didn't have.

Mr. HADHAZY: Right.

ROBERT: It cost more money to fix the body than it would be to build an avatar?

CONAN: Well, somebody was willing to pay for the avatar, and I don't think that was cheap either, but he was going to earn the use of his legs from the corporation that was hiring him out.


CONAN: Yeah.

ROBERT: Okay. I wondered about that because that was like one of the main things that like sort of stuck in my craw whenever I saw the previews from the movie, you know? I'm like that looks like a, you know, that looks like BS to me, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HADHAZY: It was a little - I mean, sure, it's definitely, you know, a convenience of the narrative, but it does make it that more - that much more interesting...


Mr. HADHAZY: ...for the main character, Jake, that he, you know, cannot walk and then via means of this, you know, nine or 10-foot-tall blue-skinned alien, he's able to run around...

CONAN: Leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Mr. HADHAZY: Right.

ROBERTS: So basically they're blackmailing this guy then.

CONAN: Well, yeah. I think that might be a way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HADHAZY: More or less. Yeah.

CONAN: More or less. Yeah. That would be a way to think about it. Thanks...

Mr. HADHAZY: (Unintelligible) commentary, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think, well, there's a lot of commentary on that movie.


CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call.

ROBERT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: But that idea of - well, first of all, how do you grow a nine-foot-tall alien blue body?

Mr. HADHAZY: You got me on that one. Not so sure how they intend to explain that, but in terms of transferring one's consciousness, the human consciousness to, again, this half-alien, half-human hybrid, that's going to be - that is definitely a bit far-fetched for now. Just to talk a little bit about this concept of, again, of transferring consciousness from one being to another, we've sort of done sort of crude versions of the first half of it.

What you see in the movie is that the humans are placed into what are sort of coffin-like devices, and then they have some electrodes placed over their chest and sort of halo-like device placed around round their heads. And this apparently is supposed to draw their thoughts and motivations and consciousness. And then this is then transferred to their avatar. In terms of actually pulling this off, as I said, we've sort of done the crude first half of this, which is integrating a brain with a machine, a so-called brain/machine interface.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HADHAZY: We've done some work on that. It's in - with people, it's allowed them to move computer cursors, joysticks, things like that.

CONAN: I've seen some of those toys. With a brain - concentrated brainwaves -you can move a very light ball.

Mr. HADHAZY: Okay. Yeah. And - similar sort of the idea, but where the - where more progress has been made and where we're sort of getting closer to something like you might see in the movie, is of course what - monkeys with electrodes implanted in their brains. A really neat example - this was done just about two years ago, a scientist at Duke University working with scientists in Japan, they trained a rhesus monkey to walk upright on a treadmill in North Carolina. And they had electrodes implanted in his brain, and they were able to take these neural signals, send them over the Internet to Japan, and they took some video too as well. And they got a robot in Japan to synchronize its movements with this monkey.

CONAN: Cool, unless you were the monkey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Let's go to Scott. Scott with us from Jackson in Michigan.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. I saw on a documentary on cable television that at least one person at NASA has been researching the idea of using blowfish toxin or tetrodotoxin to put people in a sort of suspended animation or coma to survive the long trip to Mars. I forget how long that's supposed to take. What is it, four months? Six months?

But obviously - many of you have speculated that if you had to live in a space besides an Airstream trailer for four months, you'd just go insane. So this period of stress of being awake all that time, they're going to use blowfish toxin, which, as you recall that if you go to the wrong sushi restaurant...

CONAN: Exactly. I was going to say. You just go to the wrong sushi restaurant, you're going to wake up on Mars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HADHAZY: Well, there we go. That's an example of, you know, some creatures are able to go into suspended animation for very long periods.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

SCOTT: Okay. Bye.

CONAN: You put me off my sushi now. Just after the movie came out, we talked with TyRuben Ellingson, who is the lead vehicle designer for "Avatar." And he was talking about James Cameron's approach to making the exoskeletal war machines seem really realistic.

Mr. TYRUBEN ELLINGSON (Lead Vehicle Designer, "Avatar"): Jim's approach to it was to look at the existing technologies and try to extrapolate from that what, you know, what the military of the future might have without going into an area which would be too fantastic, or too fantasy-like. He really talked about these things as an extension of a tank, for example, that had...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ELLINGSON: ...some of the technologies that are being developed by the military today. You've mentioned the exoskeleton, is a similar idea that you wear a suit that's robotic and it actually increases your human capabilities, your strength and your speed. This was that kind of on steroids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's definitely on steroids. Those machines look very cool.

Mr. HADHAZY: Oh, yeah. Those would be very fun to stomp around in.

CONAN: And are we - we do have Waldos where you can use your hand and there's anther hand inside of a box that will do stuff for you, but this is obviously a long way from that.

Mr. HADHAZY: Well, in terms of something that big and heavily armored and just massive - we're definitely a long ways off from that. Some of the close stuff that we have, it's basically sort of a wearable robotic suit, it's on your arms and your back and your legs. It's made by company called Sarcos, which is part of Ratheon now. They call it the XOS suit. They'll be coming out with a new generation of it this spring, actually. But yeah, it's basically something that allows the wearer to lift hundreds of pounds over and over again without getting tired, something that they cannot do normally.

And so, you know, it's definitely a basis for what you see in the movie.

CONAN: We're talking with Adam Hadhazy, who reports occasionally for Popular Mechanics about the science of "Avatar."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Jim. And Jim's calling us from Cedar Rapids.

JIM (Caller): Yes, hello.


JIM: I'd like to know if the people that are nine or 10 feet tall are tall enough that they couldn't, oh, stand up due to the strength-to-weight ratio, scaling factor considerations, that kind of thing.

CONAN: Adam?

Mr. HADHAZY: That's actually a very interesting question. And how they get around in the movie, this - I don't believe this actually appears in the movie, this bit of information, but as you can probably guess, there is lots and lots of information available outside of the movie. There's actually something coming out called the Pandorapedia. They've just made some of the first entries available online that give some of the background, back story and deeper science and explanations of what you see on screen.

Pandora is supposed to have less gravity than Earth. And by having less gravity there, you're able to support bigger biological structures, so it's an explanation for...

CONAN: Oh, that's why the trees are so tall.

Mr. HADHAZY: That's why you see these ginormous tress and sure enough the sentient forms that have developed there are 10 feet tall.

CONAN: I see. All right. So, Jim, it's a different matter. It's matter of gravity.

JIM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. And I guess that's supposed to explain the floating mountains.

Mr. HADHAZY: That's actually something else. And again, this is something that is not in the movie but is - or is not directly seen in the movie, but the idea there is that the mineral called unobtainium is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They couldn't come over a better name than unobtainium.

Mr. HADHAZY: I was looking into that. Apparently that's sort of an old sci-fi joke. It's something that you can't get, you want, you just called unobtainium. So anyway, this mineral is supposed to have the property wherein magnetic fields, which Pandora is supposed to have a very strong magnetic field - the Earth has a magnetic field also - that deposits of this unobtainium due to the magnetic field can actually float. Of course that left the question with me that how come they're so interested in mining this stuff out of Pandora rather than just going after these big floating chunks of what it sounds like is the mineral that they're after. But...

CONAN: Let's go next to Jane - Jamie, excuse me. And Jamie is calling from Charlotte.

JAMIE (Caller): Hi. As a science major with a secondary education minor, I want to be a science teacher, my question is what - is there a (unintelligible) movie in the past where they have said at that time, oh, there's no way that that can happen, you know, the technology is not there, but the technology is there now?

CONAN: Hmm. Adam, could you think of any movies where the technology predicted a science fiction movie of the past has - well, seemed impossible but come to pass?

Mr. HADHAZY: Definitely there are examples. I'm drawing a little bit of blank right now, but, well, certainly if you - "Star Trek" came to mind, and no, we're not really doing anything you've seen there. But one example that you can sort of draw from that is if you think about 12(ph) cell phones - we saw on the original "Star Trek" series, they would reach into their pocket and, you know, call the Enterprise.

CONAN: True. Yup.

Mr. HADHAZY: And, you know, that was sort of farfetched then, in the era of landlines.

CONAN: And one of the very earliest movies, "From the Earth to the Moon." We've done that.

Mr. HADHAZY: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMIE: Well, how about something a little bit more not outrageous but something a little bit more farfetched? Or what they would have thought was farfetched, that we can kind of think about now, that, yeah, it's possible. But...

CONAN: Well, one of the odd ones is you see all of these science fiction films of the past and they don't have computers.

JAMIE: That's true.

CONAN: They have sort of a computer in "Star Trek," but they are all these 1950s to 1960s science fiction films - alright, "2001" excepted, which had a ginormous computer. But nevertheless, there are no computers on the bridges of those starships.

JAMIE: Now, I'm just wondering is that, you know, I'm always wondering that if the science - we think about these things and we wonder about these things, but you know - and we say, oh, well, the science isn't there. And I just - you know, I'm convinced that the science is out there. We just haven't found it yet.

Mr. HADHAZY: And that's certainly an encouraging thought. And that is sort of the beauty of sci-fi movies and books and so forth, is that it really gets people thinking about the possibilities. And it's interesting when you see terms that are made in science fiction, they then cross over into real science. And...

CONAN: Like Waldo, for example.

Mr. HADHAZY: There you go.

CONAN: Yeah. There you go.

JAMIE: Right. Like in National Geographic this month, there is about how the - there's a new biotic arm out where they can actually - they've been able to do up to 22 movements, whereas the past (unintelligible) quote-unquote "biotic arms" have only been able to do three. So there's new - because they've been able to cut open the skin and move the nerves and transfer - have electrodes transfer...

Mr. HADHAZY: Fascinating.

CONAN: That's great.

JAMIE: You know, yeah.

CONAN: Jamie...

JAMIE: So I'm hoping - I've got my fingers crossed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're all crossing our fingers. And somebody else is too, at remote control.

Jamie, thank you very much for the call.

And Adam Hadhazy, thanks very much for being with us. He and I are going to get into our jet packs and we'll chat in Esperanto on our way home.

Adam Hadhazy reports occasionally for Popular Mechanics. "The Science Behind James Cameron's 'Avatar'" appeared on the Popular Mechanics Web site last month

Thanks very much for being with us here in Studio 3A.

Mr. HADHAZY: Thank you very much, Neal.

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