Iron Man 2 and the Myth of the Physicist

I think we can all agree that the movies appearing at your local megaplex are rarely if ever selected based on the actual quality of said movies. That is to say, those movies were going to appear in your local megaplex before they were even made, no matter what the outcome. They were placed there based on marketing strategies and some Hollywood game that relates very little to the lives of regular people. Knowing this, going to a movie at your megaplex is a bit of a gamble: if you lose, you see a piece of garbage and lose two hours of your life forever (sometimes more – I am looking at you Benjamin Button). And a startling amount of the time, you do lose.

With that in mind I will be in line, with my gamblin’ chips in hand, to see Iron Man 2!! We all need eyeball candy from time to time!!

Whether that eyeball candy is one of the attractive persons in this movie or one of the attractive explosions created by Mickey Rourke’s wiggly-light-saber-arms, I am thinking this will be a movie that my children will never see or care about, but I will definitely gobble it up with a bag of M&M’s (bought at the Walgreens across the street because come on, megaplex, $5.50?!).

There is a physics angle to Iron Man 2, or at least there appears to be because one of the main characters (Rourke’s villain Whiplash) is a physicist! So are we going to see some physics or what?!

Probably not. Oh, don’t get sad, that’s not really why you were going to see this movie, was it? It was? Really? Oh you, you are so cute.

It is kind of cool to see physicists as superhero’s (or supervillains), just like it’s great to see anyone we even remotely relate to become a superhero. Luke Skywalker was a fairly two-dimensional character who represented the desire we all have to be born with some special ability and to participate in great things. Not to mention the glorified fantasy of being faced with a choice between black and white good and evil and choosing the right. Almost all superhero movie characters are exaggerated representations of some aspect of ourselves which then play out the unrealistic fantasies we build in our heads. So maybe it is a fantasy of physicists to build electric-tentacle-arms or become half-robot super humans. And what is wrong with Hollywood wasting a cool hundred million to help us visualize that fantasy? (Besides the starving children in Africa. Don’t say starving children in Africa. That is your response to everything! You are not being cute now!).

And of course, we should give Hollywood some leeway. It is Hollywood, after all.

Trouble is – do the non physicists know where to draw the line? Hollywood’s portrayal of physicists as the folks who can do absolutely anything (even the impossible) is flattering, but it may also be damaging for a few reasons.

First, it’s simply untrue and may actually increase the rift between physicists and the general public.

Speaking strictly about technology – which is often the knowledge attained by physicists put into practical use by engineers – physics has created some pretty amazing things. Cars, planes, iphones, medical treatments, lasers, 3-D movies, and the Large Hadron Collider. We are constantly WOWED by science. Unfortunately, the less someone understands how these things work, the more they begin to believe anything is possible. In other words, if you don’t understand the parameters that allow for amazing things (like jets!) you also don’t understand the parameters that would prevent other things (like energy generating heart replacements). If you don’t understand anything about physics and technology, then it appears to be nothing short of magic, and magic has no bounds (I guess? It is not real, so can we even talk about it having bounds or not?).

Dismissing that idea is not so easy, as my friend David, a science writer points out:

I would guess it’s always been the case that in the eyes of many people, a scientist is someone who does things they don’t understand and that to them are practically indistinguishable from magic. If so, I would say that the notion that scientists can do impossible things has always been with us, in a way. But certainly physicists acquired a new status of gods of destruction with the Manhattan Project. I think that’s part of why Time magazine named Einstein person of the century.

While physics may not be magic, it is very incredible.

But if we take the time to explain those incredible things – like bombs and iphones – we lose the illusion of magic and build up the scope of possibility. While we may lose our faith in the idea that electric-boogaloo-arms and free sources of energy are possible, we gain perspective on the many very incredible things that are possible.

Now you are clearing your throat at me and reminding me that if I am to fully delve into where this idea of physicists as people who can do everything comes from then I must also investigate the role that physicists themselves play. And that, as you very well know, is a very hairy subject. An exceedingly hairy one. I would call this the mother of all hairy subjects, which sounds gross because your mom is not supposed to be the parent with the most hair. This detour from Walgreens to the theater is turning out to be more than what we expected but here we are. I think perhaps we will have to save this for a second blog post and in the meantime eat my M&M’s in peace before the comments start to rain down.

Let it rain!

You may also read these articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *