Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man, will be released on July 17, and I recently got a chance to chat with physicist Spiros Michalakis who consulted on the film for The Science and Entertainment Exchange. He gave us some info about the work he does, his geek credentials and which Marvel movies are the closes to the reality of the science world today. He also talked about what it was like working with Marvel, meeting star Paul Rudd and what would happen if the Ant-Man suit were a reality.
Jenna Busch: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the field.
Spiros Michalakis: I grew up in Greece, solving math puzzles and playing volleyball with my brothers. After high school, I moved to the U.S. to study Math and Computer Science at MIT, before coming to sunny California for my PhD in Applied Mathematics at UC Davis. After a two year postdoc at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico, I moved to Caltech, where I now split my time between research on theoretical quantum physics and outreach for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. I learned of the Exchange from my good friend, mentor and colleague, Sean Carroll.
Jenna Busch: Are you a comic book fan? An Ant-Man fan?
Spiros Michalakis: I grew up playing video games, but if I had access to comic books, I would have been immersed in them for hours a day (I am a huge Anime fan). Of course, I am very familiar with most of the Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, but I must admit that I was clueless when it came to Ant-Man.
Jenna Busch: How did the meetings with Marvel go? What sort of questions did they pose? Do you know what point they were at in production? Spiros Michalakis: I was about to board a plane to North Carolina as a guest at a wonderful STEM summer camp geared towards young girls (projectscientist.org), when I received an email from the Exchange asking me if I was available later that week for a consult on a new Marvel movie. The superhero, Ant-Man, was to be played by Paul Rudd. Moreover, the studio would pay for my flight and accommodations. It was a no-brainer. I arrived at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, where I was escorted to the main conference room. I expected one of the writers and maybe a producer to appear, but within a few minutes I found myself sitting at the head of a long table, with Mr. Rudd to my left, the director next to him, the writers across from me and the producers and heads of the other departments to my right.
Most of the questions came from Mr. Rudd himself and they were, to my delight, increasingly focused on deep aspects of quantum mechanics. The main focus was what superpowers/challenges would Ant-Man acquire/face at the quantum level (much smaller than nano). I spent 3 hours deep in conversation with a group of really curious and very intelligent artists. I was asked to stay for the rest of the week and I would have gladly done so were it not for some exciting projects I was working on at Caltech at the time. They tempted me further by offering to fly me to San Francisco the next week, for the first week of shooting. I plan to take them up on that offer for the sequel.
Jenna Busch: If we could actually shrink someone down, can you explain what sort of powers they would have?
Spiros Michalakis: Invisibility. How often do you walk around in a building or a busy street noticing the ants? Ant-Man would be the perfect spy. It would also be almost impossible to hurt him, like trying to squash a fly the size of a dust particle. As far as strength goes, it is true that he would be really really strong for his size, but it would be irrelevant if he tried to fight an opponent whom his tiny hands could not grab onto. He would also be super fast relative to his size, but that would also be irrelevant given that no material on earth would support the pressure of his original weight on such a small area. Unless, of course, he had a suit that was truly extraordinary. Kind of like Ant-Man.
Jenna Busch: What would the drawbacks be?
Spiros Michalakis: His density would increase a million times if he were to become the size of an ant while maintaining his mass. He would fall through everything unless his suit kept him afloat using powerful forces beyond our understanding as mere mortals. A physicist, on the other hand, would probably work with an engineer to develop a carefully shaped electromagnetic field that distributed the weight over a much larger area. High-temperature superconducting skis invisible to the human eye, designed by Apple. Beyond Ant-Man’s weight issues, he would also need to worry about his body’s temperature, which would drop really fast to deadly levels (there is a relevant talk by Richard Feynman, “Tiny Machines”, where he discusses how a combustion engine a hundred times smaller than the one in your car would leak heat so quickly that it would never ignite).
The benefits and drawbacks of Ant-Man derive mostly from the same principle: Certain properties, like strength and heat dissipation, are proportional to surface area and not volume. When volume decreases a thousand times, surface area decreases only one hundred times. That mismatch leads to superpowers and super-weaknesses alike. But, again, thank the gods for Ant-Man’s super-suit, which makes up for the negative side effects of shrinkage.
Jenna Busch: Is there anything going on in the science world that comes close to what they do in the film?
Spiros Michalakis: I haven’t watched the film yet, but I hear that there are two complicated father-daughter relationships in it. One of them is between Dr. Pym and his daughter. I assume the relationship is strained because Dr. Pym can’t get his research published in Nature – something about not doing “big science” anymore. I feel for him. Oh, I almost forgot. Ant-Man can teleport to different dimensions, which is something we are experimenting on at Caltech. We never expected the NSF to fund “Project Stargate” so enthusiastically. It is unbelievable, really.
TSAEE: Outside of Ant-Man, what Marvel film gets the closest to being scientifically correct?
Spiros Michalakis: Any film that Sean Carroll has been involved with. So, it would have to be Thor, traveling through an Einstein-Rosen bridge to Asgard. Having said that, hearing Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, talk about the “quantum realm” playing a big role in future Marvel movies, I can’t help but feel excited. I coined the term in an email exchange with the writers, so they are serious about going full quantum. I have packed my toothbrush for Atlanta already. I just need them to send a flying ant to pick me up.