Science and Celluloid: A Match Made in Hollywood

From a ruggedly sheepish archaeology professor who has a way with a whip to a debonair inventor with a knack for making exoskeletons that fly, science -- or at least the appearance of science -- is storming its way onto movie screens this summer.

But as fantastical as these films may seem, experts say these characters, whether they're green, ill-tempered scientists or amnesiac butt-kicking former CIA operatives, are grounded in more than the stuff of comic book lore.

The summer blockbuster "Iron Man" falls firmly into this category, according to James Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor and author of "The Physics of Superheroes."

"When you're asking the audience to buy into something as intrinsically [fantastical] as superheroes, the more you can ground everything else in realism helps with the suspension of disbelief," he said.

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Based on the classic comic book character, "Iron Man" follows Tony Stark, an inventor and venture capitalist who makes high-tech war weaponry. When Stark, while on a trip to Afghanistan, is captured by terrorists who want him to make weapons for them, he creates an exoskeleton that allows him to fly and escape.

"The good superhero stories require only one miracle exemption from the laws of nature. One miracle exemption [in 'Iron Man'] is that he builds this arc reactor, this small power supply that powers his suit. Once you buy into that," it's easy to go along with the rest of it, said Kakalios. "You see him trying to debug the suit, you see him develop the hand clusters as flight stabilizers. That's all within the realm of believability."

In the comic book and the movie, Stark controls the suit without voice commands or pressing buttons. Basically, according to Kakalios, Stark thinks the suit into motion. If he wants to fly right, the suit flies right. If he wants to slow down, the suit slows down. The technology in the movie is not so far from reality.

"Researchers are developing helmets that can detect your EEG patterns that are transmitted to electrical signals and sent wirelessly to computer screens," said Kakalios.

If you think about moving a cursor on a computer screen to the left, the helmet will pick up on that thought and move the cursor to the left.

"It's for the treatment of people who are paralyzed or who have prosthetic limbs. You could think about moving the limb and it moves," he said. "If you had asked me in the '60s which thing in the year 2008 would be the closest thing to being a reality, the last thing I would have picked would be the cybernetic helmet. But we still can't take flying cars to work. Sometimes I feel totally lied to."

"Iron Man" also gets science points for its smaller details, said Kakalios, who is currently consulting on a film version of the Watchmen, which he calls "the 'War and Peace' of comic books."

"You see him in the lab soldering, using the same equipment we use in the lab," he said. "It was a nice little touch, and it was clear that they are trying to show that this is a guy who really knows his way around the lab. Little touches like that work well. ... If they have something that's physically correct, it's almost like an inside joke."

Comic book characters, of course, have a long history with Hollywood and, by nature, with science: "The X-Men," "Batman," "Spiderman," "The Fantastic Four" -- the list goes on and on.

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