It was the first week of August last summer and I was at LAX for a trip to North Carolina as a guest speaker at Project Scientist’s STEM summer camp for young women. I had booked an early morning flight and had arrived at my gate with time to spare, so I decided to get some breakfast. I walked by a smart-looking salad bar and thought: Today is the day. Moving past the salad bar, I ordered a juicy cheeseburger with fries at the adjacent McDonald’s. Growing up in Greece, eating McDonald’s was a rare treat; as was playing video games with my brothers and reading comic books late at night. Yet, through a weird twist of fate, it was these last two guilty pleasures that were to become my Hadouken!, my Hulk, Smash!, my secret weapons of choice for breaking down the barriers between the world of quantum mechanics and the everyday reality of our super-normal, super-predictable lives.
I finished my burger, stuffing the last few delicious fries in my mouth, when my phone buzzed – I had mail from The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a non-profit organization funded by the National Academy of Sciences, whose purpose is to bring leading scientists in contact with Hollywood in order to elevate the level of science in the movies. I was to report to Atlanta, GA for a movie consult on a new superhero movie: Ant-Man. As I read halfway through the email, I grumbled to myself: Why can’t I be the guy who works on Thor? Who is this Ant-Man anyways? But, in typical Hollywood fashion, the email had a happy ending: “Paul Rudd is playing Ant-Man. He may be at the meeting, but we cannot promise anything.” Marvel would cover my expenses, so I sent in my reluctant reply. It went something like this:
Dear Marvel Secret-ary Agent,
The meeting was in three days time. I would finish my visit to Queens University in Charlotte, NC and take the next flight out to Atlanta. But first, some fun and games were in order. As part of my visit to Project Scientist’s camp, I was invited to teach quantum mechanics to a group of forty young women, ages 11-14, all of whom were interested in science, engineering and mathematics and many of whom did not have the financial means to pursue these interests outside of the classroom. So, I went to Queens University with several copies of MinecraftEDU, the educational component to one of the most popular video games of all time: Minecraft. As I described in “Can a game teach kids quantum mechanics”, I spent the summer of 2013 designing qCraft, a modification (mod) to Minecraft that allows players to craft blocks imbued with quantum superpowers such as quantum superposition and quantum entanglement. The mod, developed in collaboration with Google and TeacherGaming, became really popular, amassing millions of downloads around the world. But it is one thing to look at statistics as a measure of success and another to look into the eyes of young women who have lost themselves in a game (qCraft is free to download and comes with an accompanying curriculum) designed to teach them such heady concepts that inspired Richard Feynman to quip: If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t.
My visit to Charlotte was so wonderful that I nearly decided to cancel my trip to Atlanta in order to stay with the girls and their mentors until the end of the week. But Mr. Rudd deserved the very best science could offer in making-quantum-stuff-up, so I boarded my flight and resolved to bring Project Scientist to Caltech the next summer. On my way to Atlanta, I used the in-flight WiFi to do some research on Ant-Man. He was part of the original Avengers, a founding member, in fact (nice!) His name was Dr. Hank Pym. He had developed a particle, aptly named after himself, which allowed him to shrink the space between atoms (well now…) He embedded vials of that particle in a suit that allowed him to shrink to the size of an ant (of course, that makes sense.) In short, he was a mad, mad scientist. And I was called in to help his successor, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd’s character), navigate his way through quantum land. Holy guacamole Ant-man! How does one shrink the space between atoms? As James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, puts it in a recent article on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight:
We’re made of atoms, and the neighboring atoms are all touching each other. One method of changing your size that’s out: Just squeeze the atoms closer together.
So the other option: What determines the size of atoms anyway?
We can calculate this with quantum mechanics, and it turns out to be the ratio of fundamental constants: Planck’s constant and the mass of an electron and the charge of the electron and this and that. The thing that all these constants have in common is that they’re constant. They don’t change.
Wonderful. Just peachy. How am I supposed to come up with a way that will allow Ant-Man to shrink to the size of an ant, if one of the top experts in movie science magic thinks that our best bet is to somehow change fundamental constants of nature?
Naturally, I could not, umm, find the time last summer to read last week’s article during my flight (time travel issues), so like any young Greek of my generation who still hopes that our national debt will just go poof, I attacked the problem of shrinking someone’s volume without shrinking their mass con pasión. The answer was far from obvious… but, it was possible. If one could convert electrons into muons, the atomic radius would shrink 200 times, shrinking a human to the size of an ant without changing any of the chemical properties of the atoms (muons have the same charge as the electrons, but are 200 times heavier). The problem then was the lifetime of the muonic atoms. Muons decay into electrons in about 2 millionths of a second, on average. That is indeed a problem. Could we somehow extend the half-life of a muon about a million times? Yes, if the muon has relativistic mass close to 20 TeV (near the current energy of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva), the effect of Einstein’s relativistic time-dilation (which is how actual high-energy muons from cosmic radiation have time to reach our detectors before decaying) would allow our hero to shrink for a few seconds at a time with high probability. To shrink beyond that, or for longer periods of time, would require knowledge of physics beyond the standard model. Which is precisely what the Mu2e experiment at Fermilab is looking at right now. It’s like Christmas for Ant-Man fans!
So the famed Pym particle is a neutral particle that adds mass to an electron, converting it to a high-energy muon… When did I become a particle physicist? Oh well, fake it until you make it. Oh, hey, they are bringing pretzels! I love these little pretzel bites!
Enter Pinewood Studios
The flight was longer than I expected, which gave me time to think. A limo was waiting for me at the airport; I was to be taken directly to Pinewood Studios, luggage in hand and all. Once I was at my destination, I was escorted to the 3rd floor of a nondescript building, accessible only through special authorization (nice touch, Marvel). I was shown to what seemed like the main conference room, an open area with a large conference table. I expected that I would have to wait an hour before the assistant (to the) general manager showed up, so I started fiddling with my phone, making myself look busy and important. The next time I looked up, Paul Rudd was tapping my shoulder, dressed in sweats after what seemed like a training session for The 300. I am not sure what happened next, but Paul and I were in deep conversation about… qCraft? Someone must have told him that I was involved with designing the quantum mod for Minecraft and suddenly our roles were reversed. His son was a huge Minecraft fan and I was the celebrity in this boy’s eyes, and by parental transitivity, an associative, but highly non-commutative group action, in his dad’s eyes. I promised Paul that I would teach him how to install mods in Minecraft so his kids could enjoy qCraft and teach him about quantum entanglement when I wasn’t around. To my delight, I found myself listening to Mr. Rudd talk about his son’s sense of humor and his daughter’s intelligence with such pride, that I forgot for a moment the reason I was there; instead, it felt like I was catching up with an old friend and all we could talk about was our kids (I don’t have any, so I mostly listened).
Within five minutes, the director (Peyton Reed), the writers, producers, VFX specialists, computer playback experts (I became friends with their supervisor, Mr. Matthew Morrissey, who went to great lengths to represent the atoms on-screen as clouds of probability, in the s, p, d, f orbital configurations you see flashing in quantum superposition behind Hank Pym at his lab) and everyone else with an interest in quantum mechanics was in the room. I sat at the head of the long table with Paul next to me. He asked most of the questions along with the director, but at the time I didn’t know Paul was involved with writing the script. We discussed a lot of things, but what got everyone excited was the idea that the laws of physics as we know them may break down as we delve deeper and deeper into the quantum realm. You see, all of the other superheroes, no matter how strong and super, had powers that conformed to the laws of physics (stretching them from time to time, but never breaking them). But if someone could go to a place where the laws of physics as we know them were not yet formed, at a place where the arrow of time was broken and the fabric of space was not yet woven, the powers of such a master of the quantum realm would only be constrained by their ability to come back to the same (or similar) reality from which they departed. All the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics combined would stand no chance against Ant-Man with a malfunctioning regulator…
The Quantum Realm
The birth of the term itself is an interesting story. Brad Winderbaum, co-producer for the movie, emailed me a couple of weeks after the meeting with the following request: Could I come up with a term describing Ant-Man going to the “microverse”? The term “microverse” carried legal baggage, so something fresh was needed. I offered “going nano”, “going quantum”, “going atomic”, or… “quantum realm”. I didn’t know how small the “microverse” scale was supposed to be in a writer’s mind (in a physicist’s mind it is exactly meters – one thousandth of a millimeter), hence the many options. The reply was quick:
Thanks Spiros! Quantum Realm is a pretty great term.
Et voilà. Ant-Man was going to the quantum realm, a place where time and space dissolve and the only thing strong enough to anchor Scott Lang to reality is… You have to watch the movie to see what that is – it was an off-the-cuff remark I made at the meeting… At the end of the meeting, Paul, Peyton and the others thanked me and asked me if I could fly to San Francisco the next week for the first week of shooting. There, I would have met Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, but I declined the generous offer. It was the week of Innoworks Academy at Caltech, an award-winning summer camp for middle school kids on the free/reduced lunch program. As the camp’s adviser, I resolved to never miss a camp as long as I was in the country and San Francisco is in the same state as Caltech. My mom would be proud of my decision (I hope), though an autograph from Mr. Douglas would have fetched me a really good hug.
I just watched the movie yesterday (it is actually good!) and the feeling was surreal. Because I had no idea what to expect. Because I never thought that the people in that room would take what I was saying seriously enough to use it in the movie. I never got a copy of the script and during the official premiere three weeks ago, I was delivering a lecture on the future of quantum computing in a monastery in Madrid, Spain. When I found out that Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, said this at a recent interview, my heart skipped several beats:
But the truth is, there is so much in Ant-Man: introducing a new hero, introducing a very important part of technology in the Marvel universe, the Pym particles. Ant-Man getting on the Avengers’ radar in this film and even – this is the weirdest part, you shouldn’t really talk about it because it won’t be apparent for years – but the whole notion of the quantum realm and the whole notion of going to places that are so out there, they are almost mind-bendingly hard to fathom. It all plays into Phase Three.
The third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to go quantum and all I can think of is: I better start reading comic books again. But first, I have to teach a bunch of 11-14 year-old girls quantum physics through Minecraft. It is, after all, the final week of Project Scientist here at Caltech this summer and the theme is coding. With quantum computers at the near horizon, these young women need to learn how to program Asimov’s laws of quantum robotics into our benevolent quantum A.I. overlords. These young women are humanity’s new hope…