Gina’s Favorite Things: Comic Book Science

I have a confession to make: I used to watch Baywatch.  Even better?  I watched Baywatch with my dad.

You see, back in the late 60’s/early 70’s my dad was a lifeguard at Zuma Beach near Malibu in southern California.  Things about the job haven’t really changed much since then.  As you might guess, the reality of lifeguarding in South Bay expressed on Baywatch was…um…not accurate at all.  It was so very inaccurate, with Pam Anderson’s giant boobs barely being controlled by her flimsy uniform and David Hasselhoff…well…being David Hasselhoff, that we watched it for the pure hilarity of it.  It was one of the most entertaining shows on tv because it was so very terrible.

Watching CSI (any of them) gives me similar entertainment.  Here you have a group of Hollywood Attractive men and women who are all supposedly chemists who run around solving mysteries.  I don’t know much about being an actual crime scene investigator, but I’m fairly certain that they don’t generally investigate AND get into fire fights with deranged maniacs AND arrest them.  I’m pretty sure they pick up hairs, dissolve them in stuff and then put the solution in a variety of analytical machines.

I mean, I could be wrong about what the job actually entails, but much in the way that I’m pretty sure that most marine biologists start out (and never stop) crawling around in mud collecting samples of various mollusks as opposed to getting to swim with dolphins on a regular basis, the CSI shows make it seem like forensic chemistry is ridiculously exciting, dramatic, and entirely populated by sexy chemists.  Every time one of the female investigators shows up at a crime scene in leather pants, low cut shirts, and high-heeled boots, I laugh as they step around in blood and discuss the great abundance of semen on the walls and floor lamps.  Every time one of them glides through the lab with an unbuttoned, completely stain-free lab coat, I laugh because that’s not how you wear a lab coat and also, there’s probably not a safety manager there.

In short, I find the science in movies and television geared towards the general public HIGHLY entertaining.  It is most certainly one of my favorite things about popular media.  I know the awfulness of some scientific premises in media thoroughly annoy scientific people, but to me it’s just hilarious.  It’s not that I suspend disbelief.  It’s that it adds an element of comedy to a movie that probably isn’t all that serious to begin with.

I went to see The Avengers this week.  I absolutely loved it.  I have really enjoyed all of the Marvel movies that have come out in preparation for this one and it did not disappoint me.  It also had one of the greatest idiotic science sentences that I have ever heard.  It was so bad that I actually laughed out loud in a quiet theater about it.

I wouldn’t really call this a spoiler, but fair warning, I’m going to talk about a tiny part of it.

So, Bruce Banner, world renowned gamma ray expert and giant green anger monster, is talking to Tony Stark, one genius to another.  Banner jumps into gear to help look for this thingy that has a specific gamma ray signature.  He is told that they have tried all methods of detection and have failed (whatever that means).  Banner says something to the tune of “You haven’t tried everything…Get all of your spectrometers, put them on the roof and set them to detect gamma rays.”

That sentence is basically meaningless.  Stark says something about how brilliant that idea is and all I could think was, “I don’t think you know how spectrometers work…”

First of all, spectrometer is a catch-all term for analytical machines that analyze chemicals by exposing them to different wavelengths of light (infrared, UV/Visible, for instance).   When you say something like, “GET ALL THE SPECTROMETERS!” you are saying that all spectrometers work in the same way, require the same sampling methods, etc.  They aren’t and they don’t.  In addition, you don’t just walk up to a spectrometer, throw an unknown sample on it and say “tell me what that is”.  You either have to have a library of spectra for known substances to compare against or be really good at reading spectra (which, for me at least, is very difficult).  If you’re trying to figure out the concentration of something in a sample, you don’t just throw the sample on there and say “tell me how much is in there”.  Again, analytical chemistry is a science of comparison.  To figure out the concentration of something in an unknown mixture, you have to make up several samples with that particular thing in various known concentrations.  This is called a calibration curve.

What I’m saying is that analytical chemistry is a pain in the ass.

Readers of this blog will probably start to figure out that I have biases against various realms of chemistry.  I have already ranted at length about inorganic and now I’ve got my sights on analytical.  I should point out that I am very happy that both of these things exist…I just don’t want much to do with them myself and commend the people who have a passion for them.  My dislike of analytical chemistry is what made my graduation from college take 10 years instead of 5 (I just didn’t want to write those damned lab reports, so I had one class to finish for 5 years following the completion of everything else).  Luckily, the analytical professor at my university is one of the most patient saints in the world.  But I digress…

So that’s just what’s wrong with saying “use the spectrometers”.  Next he says that they should put all the spectrometers on the roof and set them to “Gamma Ray”.  Look, I know that gamma rays are waves just like light, but a generic “spectrometer” is not going to just detect them for you.  What’s more hilarious is that the reason they need an expert is that the particular thingy they’re trying to find has a particularly strange and faint gamma ray signature, so it would stand to reason that you would need a really specialized, VERY SENSITIVE detector to pick it up.

We have an infrared spectrometer in my lab.  It cost $35,000.  It’s a pretty good IR spec, but ultimately, infrared spectroscopy is a pretty limited analytical technique.  You sample by putting a drop of your unknown stuff onto a diamond.  IR light gets refracted and reflected through the diamond all up in your sample.  The bonds of the molecules get all excited and shake, rattle and roll and the machine converts these movements into an image, a spectrum.  You can tell the structure of a molecule by where peaks on the graph are.  It can only tell you big components.  For instance, in an organic molecule you will always see huge peaks indicating the presence of carbon-hydrogen bonds because organic molecules are ALL ABOUT those.  If there are subtle things you’re trying to find, good luck.  IR, at least a $35,000 IR, doesn’t do subtle very well.  It’s like your loud uncle at Thanksgiving who outs your in the closet cousin…but instead of a cousin, it’s carbon.

That’s a terrible simile, but whatever.  I like the image of a loud, asshole IR spectrometer eating a mountain of mashed potatoes saying, “DID YOU KNOW THAT CARBON IS GAY?  HE’S TOTALLY GAY.” And then everyone at the table says, “Yes, IR, we know. And since we are all made of carbon, perhaps we’re all a little bit gay…” and then a conversation about how we are all equals in the eyes of atoms and how we should all just get over who people fall in love with or are attracted to because we’re all just bags of chemicals anyway and chemicals just react.  It’s what they do.

Well, this just got really off topic.  Whatever, that’s what they pay me here for.

Hmm…I don’t actually get paid.  Well, then, um, I can talk about whatever the hell I want.

Anyway, back to Avengers science.  So the point I was making about the IR is that even not particularly sophisticated ones are hella expensive.  Spectrometers get more expensive the more impressive their detectors are.  Could you imagine how much a spectrometer with a detector calibrated to pick up a very particular gamma ray signature to find a strange alien cube by just scanning the ambient air on the roof would cost?  That’s NASA money…nay, that’s “Haha, we won’t pay for our foot soldiers to have working equipment and proper personal protective equipment, but by God, we need that thing that finds alien gamma rays deep in the arctic or something” money.

I’m sure there’s some sort of equipment that could be used for this process.  I don’t feel like googling it.  But I would think that if you had a spectrometer that did all that, you wouldn’t really want to stick it up on the roof.  You also wouldn’t want to walk outside with it on a flying aircraft carrier.  Just sayin’.

After Banner says this brilliant nonsensical thing, he and Stark exchange a bunch of techno babble to which Captain America says something like, “Uh, what?”  Don’t worry, Captain America, they didn’t actually say anything.

It is a generally known fact in the Geek Realm that Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts regularly had places where the characters were just supposed to adlib techno babble.  I suspect that’s why there were just so many mentions of tachyon pulses, polarity reversal, dilithium, and deflector shields.  I got the feeling during the particularly scientific moments in Avengers that this was what they were doing.

Stark: Hmm, science science science science.

Banner: Yes, that’s because of science and science.

Stark: Science!  Brilliant!

Banner: Yes, brilliant! GET ALL THE SPECTROMETERS.

Yeah, I laughed a lot.  Just like in Iron Man 2 when Stark makes a new element by building a proton accelerator out of crap he found around his beach mansion.  I thought that was simultaneously hysterical AND completely hot.  I often describe that scene as one of the hottest things ever filmed.  Stop laughing at me.  Whatever.  Robert Downey, Jr. plus tank top, plus proton accelerator = Drool.*

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily shared by all contributors to Polyskeptic.

In conclusion, I love good science, but bad science can be fabulous…when in movies featuring Norse Gods, giant dudes with anger management problems, people with eyepatches and Uzis, and Captain America.  I never have a problem with stupid science if the point of the media is not to be scientific.  Comic books are awesome and also ridiculous, therefore the science gets to be far fetched and a little nonsensical. Plus, it’s fun to be a scientific person poking holes in the scientific claims of someone like The Incredible Hulk.  It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the movie that he says a bunch of bullshit, it just makes it Marvel.  I go into it expecting to hear it and get a little disappointed when I don’t.

Hmm…now all I want to do is watch a bunch of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Stupid work.


4 thoughts on “Gina’s Favorite Things: Comic Book Science

  1. Also enjoyable is that Loki needs to steal a lump of iridium, because it comes from space, so it can form anti-protons. These anti-protons will then stabilize the wormhole to the bad guy dimension.

  2. I went to see the Avengers with my sister and when Bruce said that idiotic line about the spectrometers we just looked at each other and burst out laughing. Everyone else in the theater looked at us like we were crazy, so I’m glad we weren’t the only ones who couldn’t listen to that sentence with a straight face.

  3. Meh, comic books are comic books. I’d be much more concerned if I heard this in a documentary or something. If you laugh at the line about spectrometers, surely you recognize its being spoken by a man that turns into a giant green rage monster.

  4. The point of the post was not to express concern over dubious science in entertainment, but rather express my amusement with it. As I said, it adds to the experience because I find it funny. Also, as a geek, I enjoy talking about why I considered it dubious and amusing.

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