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'Amazing Spider-Man': How Scientific Was the Science?

Jul 07, 2012 | 2:09am EDT


ALTI hear about it every single time The Day After Tomorrow reruns on television: There's no way Dennis Quaid's surveying equipment would work in sub-zero temperatures. And that's just one of many scientific inaccuracies in the global warming disaster film that my father, a chemistry professor at New York University, points out during the course of the film. Not to mention other numerous Hollywood releases; there isn't a disaster movie (2012), geek-tastic flick (Total Recall), or Syfy film (Sharktopus vs. Gatoroid vs. Giant Gopher vs. Mega Gary Busey) that my father won't find violates some basic scientific rules.

Not only does this knowledge enable me to take a breath of fresh air knowing my Hell's Kitchen apartment isn't likely to be overtaken by a rogue wave in the near future, but it's always fun to hear how Hollywood got it wrong (outside of Crash's Best Picture win). So following the release of Sony's genetics- and tech-obsessed Amazing Spider-ManI couldn't help but ask him about the real-life possibilities of a high schooler building his own synthetic web shooters and a scientist's attempt to replicate the regeneration capabilities of lizards in humans, despite his insistence that he is not a biologist. The conversation went like this:

Me: So what do you think about the possibility of a high schooler building his own synthetic web shooters and a scientist's attempt to replicate the regeneration capabilities of lizards in humans?

Dad: First of all, it's a comic and not real. 

Me: But let's pretend we want to adapt it to real life. Could someone like Curt Connors attempt to replicate lizards' regenerative properties in humans to regrow his arm? Has anyone ever tried it before?

Dad: It occurs in certain animals, so, in principle, it's feasible. Reptiles can regrow limbs. Amphibians grow limbs. What you can say is there are efforts ongoing in genetic engineering to eradicate certain health conditions or diseases. But are you asking has anyone ever used science to, say, grow wings and fly?

Mom: If you drink Red Bull, it gives you wings. And Scaramanga had three nipples.

Me: Okay, but why does Oscorp want to genetically engineer spiders and their webs specifically? What's the ado? Would any company be interested in creating web technology to replace metal?

Dad: Spider silks are amazingly diverse and have a range of properties from having extremely high tensile strength. So that's not beyond the pale at all. You just sequence their genome and identify the genome that's responsible for making silk fiber. It's lightweight. Metal weighs more. It's a cool material. Spiders are amazing. They generate all sorts of silk for multiple reasons. Some are strong and some are sticky to catch prey.

Mom: Like Frodo. 

Me: What about Oscorp's machine that turns any liquid serum into a gas? Could something like that be used like Connors weaponized it to attempt to turn all of NYC into lizards?

Dad: You can make any liquid serum into a gas. Technically, that's feasible. There are biological agents that are dispersed as gasses. But I don't know of any biological agents that turn people into reptiles.

Mom: What's the deal with James Carville then?

This conversation went on for another 15 minutes, delving into fascinating topics like the Darwin's Bark Spider (whose silk is 10 times tougher than Kevlar), Ralph Steinman (who won the Nobel Prize posthumously after using his own pancreatic cancer experiments on himself), and whether a high school kid would be able to buy scientific liquid on Amazon ("If you were Prime," was the answer). But I also learned of Dr. Jim Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor and authority on superhero science that my father said would be far greater the authority. And, as it turns out, Dr. Kakalios was a great authority — so great that Sony recruited the author of The Physics of Superheroes to be a consultant on the film. 

Dr. Kakalios — who had also served as a consultant on the set of 2009's Watchmen — is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange, which helps entertainment professionals connect with notable scientists to assist in accurate storytelling. And Sony, realizing they had lofty scientific ambitions with Amazing Spider-Man, recruited Dr. Kakalios early in the filmmaking process, even prior to green-lighting a finalized script. "[Sony was] interested in talking to me about the science of Spider-Man and the science of the lizard in a brainstorming way," he tells "Why would you use radioactivity in a genetic engineering lab? How would the wall crawling work? Are there any surfaces that it wouldn’t adhere to? How about the tensile strength of spider silk? How would you reproduce this artificially?"

Long story short, Peter could make his own web shooters with advanced circuitry ("Real spider silk is very strong and can do something like that — you just have to fudge a little bit on the diameter of the silk"), scientists would indeed love to find out a way to produce spider silk ("You could basically make lightweight clothing that would be stronger than Kevlar, [but] we don't know how to do it"), and lizards are able to regrow their tails thanks to evolution. (If only hands could do the same, "woodshop wouldn't have quite the same terrors," says Dr. Kakalios.) Clearly, it's implausible to believe in our current scientific landscape that a scientist like Curt Connors could find a way to mimic lizard behavior in order to grow back an arm. But when it comes to filmmaking, it's all about helping audience members believe that the existence such research is possible and, more importantly, understandable. "[Stan Lee and Steve Ditko] struggled to try to come up with plausible motivations," Dr. Kakalios says. "That’s the thing that Hollywood wants to do — they want to just have enough plausibility, enough reality, so that you don’t question how totally wrong anything else is."

After all, scientists and mathematicians have explored human mortality and life decay that Connors — and the head of Oscorp — hoped to reverse. An equation called the Gompertz Function actually explains that as one ages, the more he or she is likely to catch a lethal disease and die. As Dr. Kakalios says his colleague, University of Minnesota's Professor Boris Shklovskii, explains it using a metaphor involving cops and criminals, "When you’re young and healthy and in your prime, there are a lot of cops on the beat — a lot of immune cells that are searching out, always trying to nip a defective cell in the bud." But, as you age, "it's like a series of budget cuts that eventually winnow down the police force," and cells causing harm in the system can multiply into a tumor. It's proof that while it might seem ridiculous for a human to attempt to mimic reptile behavior, science is addressing the issue of life decay — and, more importantly, is eager to find interesting ways to do so. After all, as Dr. Kakalios notes, it was curiosity that led to the development of quantum mechanics (which, in turn, led to the existence of cell phones, iPads, and, as the professor notes, "pretty much anything my kids would say, without which, life is not worth living"). "You never know exactly what's going to pay off, and when and where," Dr. Kakalios says. "Quantum mechanics says that if you’re moving fast enough at a solid barrier like a wall, there’s a tiny but non-zero probability you’ll wind up on the other side of the wall. I tell my students, 'Run as fast as you can, and don’t be discouraged by the first 100 billion failures.'"  

But Sony was also interested in getting the nitty-gritties correct, even if the storyline requires its audience to stretch their imaginations. Dr. Kakalios says he worked with the studio to create a production-friendly equation that was rooted in mathematical accuracy. "That would always be a pet peeve of mine, because you frequently see a random collection of complex equations that have no connection to each other [on movie blackboards]," he says. And Dr. Kakalios, noticing the theme of life decay throughout the film, opted to channel the Gompertz Function in the formula that audiences see in Peter Parker's notebook. "I took that equation, and I combined it with some other equations, because [the production designers] wanted it to look complicated," he says. 

Of course, since, let's face it, the filmmaking business is all about appearances, Dr. Kakalios did have to adjust his equation in order to make it more movie-friendly. Says the professor, "The first thing they said [was], 'We love this, but could you make it more math-y?’ They wanted it to be more visually striking. Movies are obviously a visual medium, and I understand that, so I added some, what I might call, 'mathematical glitter' in order to bedazzle it, and that’s the equation. I thought, okay, but when the movie comes out, I know that there was actually some real science that was like the primer coat that went in there."

Because, when you come down to it, even Dr. Kakalios — and my professor father — is an audience member that heads to the theater for popcorn and a great show, regardless of accuracy. "When I went to go see Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t go with a pad of paper and a calculator, and say, “Ooooh, my physics sense is tingling,'" he says. "I go as a fan who wants to be entertained and understood."

But just one more gripe: Is it actually humanly possible for any high school student to score a plum internship with a plum scientist? "Listen, if I need to do some modern programming, the younger the better. You wouldn't want these old professor farts," he says. "I’ve actually had a couple [high school interns] in my time, and if they’re as smart as Peter Parker or Gwen Stacey, then I’d be happy to have them."

To see more about Dr. Kakalios' amazing collaboration with The Amazing Spider-Man, watch the video, titled "Spider-Man and the Decay Rate Algorithm," below! (Says the professor: "[It] sounds like the title of issue #241.")

(Reporting by Matt Patches)

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