Let's Talk Thor's Hammer and Wakanda ... Sciencewise

5 min
Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” follows T’Challa who, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king. Pictured (L-R) are Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). (Walt Disney Studios)

The season of summer blockbusters is in full swing. From the rollicking space adventure of "Solo," to the universe-spanning "Avengers: Infinity War," characters are dodging blasters, collecting stones of power, and falling in love as their world hangs in peril.

It's a lot of popcorn, and whole lot of fun. It's also a chance to lose yourself in new imaginary worlds. Sometimes what you see on screen can become inspiration for real life.

"The number of present-day scientists who might point to a character like Spock as a point of inspiration that got them interested in science is many," says Rick Loverd, program director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a project of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's our job here at the Exchange to try to facilitate as many of those moments as possible for the next generation of kids."

The service is free and works best, Loverd says, when a researcher connects with a storyteller early on, while the project is still being envisioned.

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"While we're happy to help at anytime," Loverd says, "we're most excited by those projects where a screenwriter calls us up and says, 'Hey, I just had an idea. It involves time travel and I'd love to talk to a scientist.'"

Loverd helped "Black Panther" movie makers conceive the city of Wakanda, for example, finding architects, city planners and anthropologists to contribute to a document the crew used as a reference for the history, culture and layout of Wakanda.

Lovered recently spoke with KQED Science editor Danielle Venton about what science can offer to Hollywood.

Black Panther toys are displayed to attendees at the Hasbro showroom during the annual New York Toy Fair, on February 20, 2018, in New York. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

DANIELLE VENTON: I wanted to know, is this really about getting the science right?

RICK LOVERD: For us, we're not trying to be the accuracy police and the least interesting consults for us, though we're happy to do them, are the ones where we're just fact checking. For us it's a lot more about inspiration and about giving storytellers ideas.

DV: What's an example or two of a Hollywood movie that really got the science right?

RL: I'd like to say that it's not always important to get the science right. You know, especially in the narrative summer popcorn movie. Some of the more exciting science moments for me have come in Marvel films, not necessarily because they have deadly accuracy in them, but because they're seen by so many people. And a character like Shuri from "Black Panther," has an opportunity to inspire a lot of kids into science and engineering.

Also another example that I like is "Interstellar." Because the visualization of the black hole actually was based on a Nobel Laureate's work. We hear about black holes our whole lives and we kind of have this image of the absence of light. But when you see it in "Interstellar," it's actually quite vibrant and bright. I think that moment of wonder when you see the unexpected and then you later find out that there's some truth to it, those are really the moments that the Science & Entertainment Exchange tries to facilitate.

DV: I gotta say though as someone who has a science degree, when I'm watching a movie and there is something just obviously inaccurate it completely pulls me out of the story. I might be a curmudgeon but I can't suspend my belief if I'm like, 'Oh, that definitely couldn't happen.'

RL: I can tell you that that is something that no filmmaker wants. But I don't think that these mistakes usually are intentionally done, and when they are intentionally done I actually have no problem with the idea of a storyteller knowing what the facts are, and then saying, 'You know what? It's going to serve my story better to not be completely accurate in this situation.'

DV: Some of my colleagues who are extreme movie fans had a couple of extra questions for you, if you're game.

RL: Okay, alright.

DV: Alright, if you had unlimited resources, which company would you hire to build a real Iron Man suit?

RL: There are places like the Media lab at MIT where there's just such a trove of brilliant minds that I would definitely feel comfortable that they'd be able to make something pretty spectacular, given unlimited resources.

DV: To the best of your knowledge what is Thor's hammer composed of?

RL: Well it was forged in a dying star, so it's gotta be made of some exotic materials that are super dense. Actually, there are materials that exist, I understand, in dying stars in our universe that are extraordinarily dense that could be targets for something like Thor's hammer. I don't know exactly, other than the magic of the character and the mystique of Thor, why one person would be able to lift it and another person would not, though.

DV: That’s a mystery that will have to stand.

 

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