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How Scientifically Accurate Is Watchmen?

A science consultant to the film explains some of its mysteries



WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT

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The anticipated film Watchmen, based on the 1980s DC Comics 12-part comic book series (later adapted as a graphic novel), hits theaters tomorrow. Die-hard fans of the original publication may fret over its faithfulness to the series, but studio execs also worried about their movie's faithfulness to science. To set their minds at ease, they placed a call to Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota.

Kakalios, 50, began advising the film's makers in the summer of 2007 on everything from the quantum mechanics of Dr. Manhattan (one of the superheroes of the story) down to the details in the laboratories. "They wanted to know what was around the corner at the end of the long corridor, even if the audience wasn't going to see it," he says.

So why is Dr. Manhattan blue? He might just be leaking electrons, Kakalios explains. In a previous accident, the character had destroyed his "intrinsic field" (a made-up concept), which presumably stripped him of the fundamental forces—electromagnetic, strong force, weak force—other than gravity, that hold material together. Some avid readers of the book wrote to Kakalios expressing concern after seeing a trailer that included an "intrinsic field generator," which, they felt, was clearly meant to be an intrinsic field remover.

Not to worry, Kakalios says: in the same way that sound waves can be canceled by running other waves out of synch with them, one could destroy intrinsic fields by canceling them out with others. (Kakalios cautioned the filmmakers, however, that generating those fields would take a ton of energy, so it would be wise to include a particle accelerator of some sort in the lab.)

Dr. Manhattan's life-altering accident, like so many others in comic book history, has given him special quantum powers, such as (drum roll)… teleportation!

"Teleportation isn't real," Kakalios concedes. "But quantum mechanical tunneling is." In quantum tunneling, which scientists have known about for some 80 years, a particle passes through a barrier that classical mechanical physics says it shouldn't be able to. By that point, he says, "you're dealing with real science that is just as fantastic as anything in the comic book."

Kakalios was also happy to correct something that Hollywood always gets wrong: the ever-prominent A Beautiful Mind–style blackboard. In the movies, he says, these chalkboards are always filled with the most complex, but unrelated equations—Schrödinger's right next to Heisenberg's—probably chosen by an art director. But in real life, he says, it's only going to be one (not-so-famous) problem, along with notes to remind oneself to pick up the kids from, say, swim Lessons (or in Schrödinger's case, to let his cat out of that box).

Not many physics professors get a phone call from the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., asking them to help out on a new Warner Bros. Entertainment superhero movie. But then again, not many of them are Jim Kakalios. By day, he studies nanotechnology, but explaining science is his passion—and he's found that superheroes are just the right tool. (He's even written a book called The Physics of Superheroes and teaches a course on the subject.) "I can use this in some kind of sneaky ninja fashion to teach…real science," he says.

Kakalios notes that scientific incongruities in movies don't actually bother him that much: "I don't go to these movies with a pad of paper and a calculator." But he delights in finding snippets of accuracy in films, which to him, "is like finding an inside joke." In Iron Man, for instance, he noticed that star Robert Downey, Jr.'s character, Tony Stark, constructed the superhuman Iron Man suit using the same type of soldering iron Kakalios has in his lab—and correctly!

But he's not too concerned about the central aspects of Watchmen that can't fully be reconciled with real science, such as Dr. Manhattan's ability to be in two places simultaneously. In superhero movies, after all, he says, "You're asking the audience to buy something that's intrinsically ridiculous."

Still, he thinks it's a good chance to tap into a new market of minds. "The audience for this material…, [they] are also, in general, fans of real science," he says. At the end of the day, a nerd is a nerd, Kakalios admits comfortably, because he is also a comic book aficionado: "Geeks are people who get turned on by ideas" whether that's about spider powers or quantum mechanics.

And superheroes use a lot of the same brainpower and creativity as scientists do, Kakalios adds: "In the lab we're always doing creative problem solving, but usually with much less dire consequences."

Here's a video of Jim Kakalios explaining more about the science in Watchmen.

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