Does 'Watchmen' Hold Hidden Physics Lessons? Can superhero movies teach audiences about science? Dave Gibbons, author and artist of the Watchmen comic series, discusses the science behind the superheroes in his story. Physics professor James Kakalios talks about teaching science to the Watchmen actors and stuntmen.
NPR logo

Does 'Watchmen' Hold Hidden Physics Lessons?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102428962/102428941" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Does 'Watchmen' Hold Hidden Physics Lessons?

Does 'Watchmen' Hold Hidden Physics Lessons?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102428962/102428941" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

IRA FLATOW, host:

We're going to continue to change gears a little bit, talk a little bit about science and the arts, science fiction, science fact. If you're thinking about taking in a movie tonight, may I suggest one of the new science fiction films like "Watchmen"?

It's really graphically stunning. Fans of the comic books will love it, I am assured by my son who is one of these great fans. And it's chockfull of real science tidbits that make you think about science. In fact, science teachers may find the film as a starting point to talk about physics or chemistry or earth science, space science.

And, you know, filmmakers are finding that audiences like the science and the science fictions films to be as close to accurate as possible. So they are hiring scientists to be advisors on these films, not only in the writing process but actually be present on the set. They give the actors pointers in creating characters as true to life a scientist as they can be.

And I did get to see "Watchmen" this week because for the rest of the hour as part of our continuing science and arts series, we're going to talk about the scientific accuracy in the new movie, "Watchmen," based on the bestselling graphic novel about the dark side of superheroes.

The movie takes place in an alternate 1985, a world where there are real superheroes, Richard Nixon is president for the fifth time, think about that, a man who, due to an experiment gone wrong, has complete control over matter at a subatomic level. It sounds pretty unrealistic, but the movie had an actual physicist on the set who is comfortable mixing science and comics.

So, for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about "Watchmen" and science in the films with my guests, James Kakalios, he's a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the book "The Physics of Superheroes." He joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Kakalios.

Dr. JAMES KAKALIOS (Physics, University of Minnesota; Author, "The Physics of Superheroes"): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Thanks very much for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Also with us is Dave Gibbons, who's coauthor and illustrator of the original "Watchmen," and he joins us from the BBC Studios in London.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Gibbons.

Mr. DAVE GIBBONS (Author, Illustrator, "Watchmen"): Thanks very much. Hello.

FLATOW: Thank you.

And if you want to see video footage of Dr. Kakalios discussing "Watchmen," you could visit our Web site at sciencefriday.com.

Let me ask you, Dave Gibbons. How much science - real science do you try to get in to comic books and films about them?

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, I don't know about comic books in general, but with "Watchmen," you know, we were really interested in how the presence of a superhuman, somebody with the powers of a god would kind of alter the world.

And I remember right back at the very beginning making a list of possible, you know, changes in technology and one of the leading ones was about electric cars, because I understood that you had to be able to manufacture lithium very cheaply in order to have efficient battery.

So, we thought, okay, if there's a guy who can transmute matter, it would be a breeze for him to synthesize lithium, so therefore we'll have electric cars everywhere. And that immediately made the world look different, and made it clear to everybody that it was an alternate reality.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Dave Gibbons and we're also talking with Jim Kakalios about "Watchmen."

We have to take a break. Our number 1-800-989-8255. I need a drink of water, I think. Also, you can join our Twittering at SciFri and also join us at Second Life. The avatars there are discussing SCIENCE FRIDAY. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY at NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with James Kakalios, author of "The Physics of Superheroes," Dave Gibbons, coauthor and illustrator of the original "Watchmen."

Dr. Kakalios, how did you get involved in this project?

Dr. KAKALIOS: I was contacted back in 2007 from someone - Ann Merchant at the National Academy of Sciences. They were just about to start up a program where they would matchmake academia and Hollywood.

As you mentioned earlier, there's a growing interest in the part of people making television and movies to try to incorporate scientists earlier on in the process, trying to get their science right. Not so much that they intend to present physics lessons in the films or TV shows. But when you're asking the audience to accept something clearly impossible with superheroes or other science fiction aspects, the more that you could ground the rest of it in things that look believable and look correct, the more you'll - successfully you'll be in creating an artificial reality and the audience will then follow along, not notice that things look wrong and just follow the story.

So, Ann Merchant had contacted me. She said that there had been a request for some science consulting from a superhero movie. She asked had I ever heard of this comic book called "Watchmen." And having been a comic book fan for many years, I had indeed heard of it and got very excited and was thrilled to help out in any way that I could.

FLATOW: You're also present on the set during filming.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, I went up to the set back up in Vancouver early on before they started filming. It's still in the preproduction stages.

Alex McDowell, the production designer, we talked - he wanted to know things like what would a physics lab look like in 1959, what it would've looked like in 1985.

Ultimately, you're speaking with the real science consultant for the "Watchmen" film, Dave Gibbons. Dave used the graphic novel, as I once said, you couldn't swing Schrodinger's cat without…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: …hitting a copy of "Watchmen" graphic novel on the set. And so, they used that as the ultimate reference. And so, if they - if I told them something wasn't right but it was - Dave Gibbons had drawn it, they had a choice between making a million "Watchmen" fans upset or upsetting one…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KAKALIOS: …physics professor from Minnesota.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, I know what I would do, and I'm the physics professor from Minnesota.

FLATOW: Well, Dave, did you find - I know you have a background in science. Did you find that helpful when you come up with the story and the illustrations for "Watchmen"?

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, yeah, I mean my education when I was at school was really much more in the sciences than in art. I mean, as an artist, I'm self-taught and I've always been interested in science.

And when we came to create "Watchmen," Alan Moore, the writer of it, was obviously dealing with character and plot and everything like that. And it was kind of left to me to kind of dress the world up and make it believable.

I mean, I mentioned electric cars, I also thought there might be things like geodesic domes, which were, you know, kind of technology which has seemed to have lapsed, and there would be air ships, again, a kind of lapsed technology, and things that, as I say, like, with the electric cars, once you put them into an otherwise completely believable background, immediately key in to the fact that this isn't the world as we know it.

But I think what James said was really interesting. You know, in fantasy or science fiction, you can't ask people to believe 10 impossible things before breakfast. You know, you really, I mean, it's enough to say…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Right.

Mr. GIBBONS: …this guy has been disassembled in a nuclear accident and has reassembled himself. That's enough for people to swallow. And after that, okay, we'll say, if this had happened, what really would have happened after that?

FLATOW: Well, there were some directors who loved the authenticity. Stanley Kubrick, you know, in the "2001: Space Odyssey," has incredible authentic stuff going on in his spaceships. You know, they were going out to Jupiter…

Mr. GIBBONS: Yeah. And I think they felt real, the kind of textures of them…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. GIBBONS: …you know, felt like things that were believable.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, 1-800-989-8255. Peter Schwartz in Berkeley. Hi, Peter.

Mr. PETER SCHWARTZ (Cofounder, Global Business Network): Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Good to talk to you.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Good to talk to you. It is great conversation.

I, too, am a "Watchmen" fan, loved the movie, loved the whole look and feel of it, so did my son, Ben.

I've had the experience of working on a number of science fiction films. In fact, Alex McDowell's last film, "Minority Report," - last science fiction film. He was the art director on that as well. And I worked on "WarGames," "Sneakers," "Deep Impact," and "Minority Report." And Spielberg particularly wanted to get the science right.

I mean, virtually, everything on screen there we developed except he did want the fantasy of having the cops carry jetpacks, which wasn't realistic - firearm jet packs, but everything else.

And one of the things, I think, we succeeded in that film, and part obviously is because it's Spielberg and Tom Cruise and so on, is that people now use the images from "Minority Report" to talk about the future, whether it's the screens that Tom Cruise used or the newspapers that they read or the electronic advertising or the retinal scanning.

But an example of really getting it wrong with my case, was - I was asked to work on "The Day After Tomorrow," the climate change film that Roland Emmerich did. And I said, bad science, bad idea. I was wrong and he was right.

People were smart enough to figure out that the science was off, but the question was interesting - what about abrupt climate change - and it triggered a great conversation. And Emmerich was right and I was wrong.

Even when the science wasn't quite right, the audience was more sophisticated than I gave them credit for.

FLATOW: And look at all the conversation that started about…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly.

FLATOW: …you know?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly. Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right, good to see you, Peter.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Talk to you.

FLATOW: Talk to you later, bye. And - well, go ahead.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, there's got to be one part that's unbelievable. If I went to the movies and I wanted something, you know, if I wanted to read something that was 100 percent scientifically accurate, I'd read Physical Review letters. And so, you know, you're going for some entertainment, but the thing is that once you - as Dave said - once you ask the audience to buy in to one suspension of disbelief, if you keep piling them on and piling them on, then eventually they'll start feeling - they'll start noticing them and they're not paying attention to the story.

FLATOW: Dave, why is Dr. Manhattan blue?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, you know, we wanted to suggest that he was - he'd reconstructed himself and he'd become kind of unreal. And I think that's the thing in the movie as well. You know, people have got very excited about the fact that he is completely naked and, you know, you can see all his masculine attributes.

But of course, you're not really looking at real human masculine attributes. You're looking at a kind of a reconstruction of them. And so to make something look unreal, obviously, if you color it a different color that's quick shorthand for that. And I think we may be could have had him green, but then you think of the little green men from outer space. You know, orange just looks like he's maybe stood too close to the sunlamp or something like that.

But blue suggests kind of unearthliness, also a certain cool, almost electric kind of quality. So I think that was completely appropriate for him.

FLATOW: You know, when you brought, when he brought one of the "Watchmen," one of the superheroes to Mars and she started suffocating because, you know, there's not enough air to breathe or any air to breathe on Mars, you point - you made a point of that, you know? You could have just left it out. Was done on purpose, to show the authenticity of being on Mars and talk about the science of the atmosphere there?

Mr. GIBBONS: Yeah, and I think also to show Dr. Manhattan's kind of disregard for what humans need to survive. You know, he can survive just fine on the airless surface of Mars, and it kind of slipped his mind that Laurie would need to breathe.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is it the kind of stuff they ask you, Jim, about - when…

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, yeah. Actually, I - see, I lost a bet. I thought that you had chosen blue for the color of Dr. Manhattan because whenever you see images of nuclear reactor piles underwater, you see them emitting a blue glow, and…

Mr. GIBBONS: Yeah.

Dr. KAKALIOS: …blue light is from the fact that they're emitting high-energy electrons which create an electromagnetic sonic boom called Cerenkov radiation, which is in the blue, ultraviolet portion of the spectrum.

If Dr. Manhattan were blue because he was emitting these high-energy electrons all the time because he had reconstructed himself atom by atom, well, he probably would be giving people cancers.

Mr. GIBBONS: Right.

Dr. KAKALIOS: But the blue - there is physics of it. And what I do in my class is I talk about that. It's not really important why he's blue in the context of the story, but it's then a sneaky-ninja way to start talking about Cerenkov radiation and other types of physics.

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, I've certainly learned something this evening, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Your context is placed in the Cold War with a different outcome of what would happen in the '80s. Do you use this as a chance to talk about and to think about consequences of actions of science and public policy?

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, I think so. You know what I mean? There has been kind of a history in comic books of science, and particularly nuclear science, kind of being the bogeyman, you know what I mean? You only have to think of the Marvel characters like Spiderman bitten by a radioactive spider or the hulk causing the explosion of a gamma bomb or whatever it was.

So, yeah, I mean, I think nuclear power has been a kind of a bogeyman. I think it's interesting as well, you know, one of your callers was talking about trying to extrapolate into the future. What we're actually doing is looking into the past and extrapolating it.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. GIBBONS: And I think certainly, the days of the nuclear arms race, were truly terrifying. I mean, I can remember really being frightened back in the '80s. There was a science fiction - or not science fiction -a science documentary called "Threads," which showed how even a very limited nuclear strike would actually, you know, destroy society and our civilization as we knew it. So I think we were…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. GIBBONS: …identifying a very real fear. Today, things are rather amorphous and less clear. But I think that very clear standoff with the ultimate weapon was just the kind of way that we could make it, kind of, universal and kind of archetypal in the story.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mark(ph) in Portland, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARK (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. It's shocking that I already get a chance to talk to you for the first time. I've called in many times and talk to Neal Conan as guest, but I've never been able to get through on SCIENCE FRIDAY. And here, I'm an astronomer and local artist here in Portland. I've had some great success with my astronomy art and Web sites over the years, and didn't noticed until recently I looked back in some of my comic books from the early 1960s and realized that it was my early fantasy of comics, of "Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom," I found recently, that's a…

FLATOW: So he inspired your artwork.

MARK: …that inspired my later technical artwork that's more science realist today. But in the middle of those comic books, they actually had little intermissions of real science facts. And I was probably accidentally discovering, you know, the real science inside to those comic books, not knowing that I was just looking at it for the science fiction. But it wasn't for many years later I realized this.

Today, of course, it's aided me. And I think in - although we're expected to submit science-real technical sketches to these Web sites I contribute to, if get a little too abstract or impressionistic, they don't want to see that. They want to see real technical sketch work, you know, a form I can - I contribute to. But if I do something a little impressionistic or science fiction or put my hand in the sketch, doing the sketch, it seems to draw more interest.

FLATOW: Yeah.

MARK: I realize that it's what maybe, in the science fiction movies, people are drawn to - the movie industry - but when they actually discover real science that they're intrigued to learn something, too.

FLATOW: Yeah. They certainly are. We're talking about science in film this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, talking with James Kakalios and Dave Gibbons.

Yeah, you do. You - I think people love to see those touches in the film, in movies. You talk about, for example, tachyons, which I haven't heard talked about in years. And they come from the future, right, as far the…

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, tachyons are theoretically suggested particles that can never travel slower than the speed of light. And so there's no way for us to generate them or to actually interact with them.

Presumably, they would - the fact that their casualty is all backwards would interfere with Dr. Manhattan's ability to perceive his future. And so the existence of tachyons, of people creating tachyons, is used in the story to keep Dr. Manhattan from knowing how the story is going to end and thus changing it.

On the set, Alex McDowell asked me, how would you create tachyons? What kind of device would that look like? And I said, well, if I knew how to create tachyons, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. I'd be on the plane to Stockholm to pick up my Nobel Prize.

So you don't have to worry about anyone complaining that your tachyon generator is wrong. Ask them prove it.

FLATOW: Dave, did you ever consider your work crossing over into a tool for teaching science, for understanding science?

Mr. GIBBONS: Well, it's interesting because in an early item in this program, somebody was talking about the two sides of the brain.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. GIBBONS: And, you know, I've actually always felt that science fiction and comics - and comics are quite often the route into science fiction - actually have a way of getting science into the intellect through imagination. And…

Dr. KAKALIOS: Absolutely.

Mr. GIBBONS: …you know, I've always felt that by - I mean, certainly the comics that I read as a kid, and your earlier caller was mentioning this as well, had science fact pages in them, you know, interesting facts. And that certainly got me interested in science. And although I think comics should be for fun and entertainment, I think the fact that you can also wake up people's interest in the real world is another kind of bonus of them.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Oh, I agree completely. When I give talks at comic book conventions, it's striking how many adult fans of comic books work in high tech or IT field. In some sense, especially those comics back from the silver age are perfect training for - to develop scientists. They inculcate a respect for the rules of the game and what are the laws that you have to follow; create a problem solving - when you're in a death trap and they've taken away your utility belt, how do you get out; and of course, a dashing sense of fashion.

FLATOW: Yeah. Why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: A lot of fashion on this film, beautiful graphic - stunning, stunning stuff that's going on there. And it always reminds me or suggests to me why not take a film that kids love to watch, like "Watchmen" and make teaching curricula out of the film, you know, use these ideas to…

Dr. KAKALIOS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The University of Minnesota made a short video of me talking about the science of "Watchmen." And I demonstrated how light diffracts and how matter diffracts as an aspect of quantum mechanics and just suggest that perhaps this is one way that Dr. Manhattan can diffract.

And in this video, I demonstrate a key aspect of quantum mechanics, that electrons, matter can exhibit the same diffraction as light, a wave. And the university put this up on YouTube, and within a couple of weeks it received over 1.4 million views.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. KAKALIOS: And they're not coming to see the quantum mechanics of it. They go to see me. It's the - to get them to come for the "Watchmen," stay for the physics.

FLATOW: You know, that's my whole point entirely, and I'm hoping maybe this will happen to, you know, "Watchmen" and other kinds of films in the future. Any other projects, Dave, and - that you want to talk about that you're involved?

Mr. GIBBONS: Wow. Well, I've got something coming up called "Martha Washington," which is a thing I'd do with Frank Miller. He's also a quite well-known in movie circles. And this is an extrapolation into the future of kind of social trends of the past 10 years or so. It's a much more wild ride than "Watchmen," but I think it also may be ask some interesting questions about science and technology.

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Dave, for the "Watchmen," the comic book, and thank the folks who made the film. It's a really - it's a very enjoyable film. I liked it a lot, a highly recommended for anybody who's looking for a film this weekend. Thanks for both of you for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

Mr. GIBBONS: Thank you.

Dr. KAKALIOS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

James Kakalios is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the book "The Physics of Superheroes." And Dave Gibbons is co-author and illustrator of the original "Watchmen."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.