Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bad Science in the Movies: Iron Man 2

I've done several articles on "Bad Science in the Movies". This one was inspired by See Ar Oh, from the blog Just Like Cooking. It's my entry to his #chemmoviecarnival. I hope he's ok with a bit of physics getting mixed in (I'm a physical chemist, so it's a pretty gray area for me...)

The scene we're talking about is this one, from Iron Man 2:

Honestly, this may be one of the most baffling examples of bad science in the movies. The set up is simple: the palladium inside Tony Stark's miniature magic energy device is leaking into his body and slowly killing him. He needs a new energy source and, frankly, the rest of the periodic table has failed him. Stupid universe. It never creates that exact element you need, right? Of course this is Tony Stark, the engineering prodigy that built a flying suit that talks to you like a snarky butler, so he won't let the laws of physics get in the way of a good energy source - he's going to build one.

It turns out that his father already secretly designed the new element and hid it in plans for the 1974 Stark Expo. About 39 seconds into the video above, Tony realizes that the nucleus is at the center of an atom - a novel discovery. Tony's "ah-ha!" moment happens at about 1:20.
"The structure of the protons and neutrons is in the a framework."
And there you have it. Making a new element is simple. All you need to know is how many protons, how many neutrons, and how they are arranged in the nucleus. Ignore the circular logic that an element is in fact defined by the number of protons it has. Forget that this new element will likely decay the moment it is made. This new element is just what Tony needs, and he's going to build it. Jarvis (the snarky butler) even verifies that this new element "should serve as a viable replacement for palladium". This is particularly amazing, since this element has never been experimentally studied. I suppose Jarvis could have done extensive computational studies on the element (in which case I would like to request a few minutes of wall time on that server, please).

So then Tony has to build his new element. This requires a particle accelerator and that's what he builds, right?  It looks like one at least. It's a giant metal ring. Tony turns it on and grabs a wrench to steer the beam into some other clear material and BAM! - you've got a new element! Here are the problems I see with his process:

  1. Tony didn't build a particle accelerator. He dropped in a prism to steer the beam, so apparently these are photons he's accelerating. Read that last sentence again if you didn't notice the problem. Photons. Tony is accelerating light. Light that is already traveling as fast as it can (or will ever) go. Whatever his source of light is he could have just aligned it directly and saved himself the remodeling expenses. 
  2. Tony didn't need the metal ring at all. The purpose for the metal ring would be to create a low pressure environment (necessary in particle accelerators), but the first thing he does is steer the beam into the lab. Not only is this a serious safety violation but now his beam is at atmospheric pressure so why did he need the vacuum to begin with?
  3. But let's forget these two problems and examine what he was actually doing. The light hew was steering is visible to our eyes as a nice crisp blue, but it was also aimed at a clear target. I'll give you another moment to think about the contradiction in that sentence. A visible beam was absorbed by a clear target. The target is clear precisely because it wouldn't absorb any visible light. Even ignoring that, if visible light were energetic enough to rearrange nuclear structure I think life would be just a little bit different.
But, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he does have a pretty cool suit.