A commenter asked how the aforementioned movie viewing and panel discussion went on Friday (movie: Jumper), and so I thought expand a bit on the answer I gave:
It went very well. We were at the School of Cinematic Arts, at USC. We had a full house in the Norris Theatre, which was great to see. Most of the audience was students from the SCA, I think, with some of the faculty present, and people from the film’s parent studio, and several others. For the panel, present were two of the film’s producers, the visual effects supervisor, costume supervisor, production designer… basically, the perfect people to have a discussion with about the physics! I won’t try to list all names since I did not catch all of them and don’t want to mis-credit people for being there who weren’t.
Teleportation physics aside for a moment, I’m very impressed with how they realized the teleportation effect visually. All through the film I could see that a good deal of thought had gone into several bits of the working physics – conservation of momentum and so forth (no silly business of moving at one speed before the jump and then a completely different one after, as far as I could see) – and I learned afterward in the discussion that it was indeed true. They were very careful. The visual effects supervisor (who was on the panel sitting next to me), Joel Hynek, has a physics background, in fact. During the panel discussion it came out that they’d spent a huge amount of time thinking about those issues, as well as how the teleportation might affect things nearby and so forth. They seemed pleased that I’d noticed little details such as the blowing out of things when a jumper appears, vs the sucking inward of the air when one leaves. I attributed that entirely to air displacement, and they’d apparently thought of that in addition to a lot of other things, such as mismatches of air pressure, humidity, and so forth. They really wanted (at director Doug Liman’s request) each jump to have its own character and so they tailored in a lot of these different “environmental” effects as they went along. Joel Hynek was particularly interesting on this.
They built on the basic universe they’d created for the film in a number of ways, having spent a long time doing research on to the background of what sort of teleportation they might play with as forming the basis for his ability. Seems that they came up with a hybrid of a number of things (being informed by the scientific literature as well as mystical writings and other things), but the picture they really liked a lot was that they were, as Joel put it, “folding spacetime so as to have two non-neighbouring bits touch one another. I was pleased to see them playing with this idea, and imagine that it must have been fun to develop it in their sessions and then realize it visually and in the back-story. This resulted in a number of nice secondary ideas, like the “jump scar” that is left for a while as spacetime slowly heals itself after a jump… This, like all good filmmaking, results in them being able to build in new story elements: the scar can be used to follow someone to where they jumped… I like all the attention they paid to these things, and overall I was happy to be there to tell them they did a good job on all that.
My role as spoilsport? Well, of course, I pointed out the things I pointed out in the Correlations post about the physics of teleportation vs the reality. I did not comment on wormholes, (the basis of their folding and connecting space idea) as I could have though. Did not get to it, and had already stilled the audience by talking about quantum teleportation, speed of light restrictions, how many fundamental particles would have to be transmitted, and so forth. (Thoughts on wormholes, if you’re interested, can be found here.)
There were some nice questions from the audience about the physics, such as about wormholes, and so forth…(a young lady was very passionate about how an Einstein-Rosen bridge would need two black holes, and how disruptive to travel that would be, which allowed me to talk about why that’s not the problem (and why black hole are not in fact relevant)…. I did not have the gall to reference the aforementioned History Channel show about this, but the producer and I recommended Kip Thorne’s excellent book*, of course.)… and of course there were lots of questions about other aspects of the filmmaking fielded by the rest of the panel.
I hope you weren’t expecting me to just stand up and say some unhelpfully negative thing about how all this is just Hollywood nonsense or something like that. I’m the wrong guy for that. For me, these things are simply devices on which to hang a good old fashioned story, like any science fiction. What I like to see first and foremost in these things is not a strict adherence to all known scientific principles, but instead internal consistency. I don’t mind if filmmakers (or writers, etc) go ahead and make up some bit of “science” to drive the story, as long as they then make that new world with that new bit of science an internally consistent one. There’s nothing more annoying than a film with too much random and self-inconsistent stuff happening. When you can break your own rules, no matter whether it is science fiction or just plain fiction, the film making and hence the story telling become altogether too easy, with bad results. So I look for good scientific thinking going into making the (made-up) science seem real and consistent. I hope that makes sense. On this matter, I think that they did a pretty good job. It might seem a bit like knit-picking, especially after the previous few lines, but I wish they’d not wanted the instantaneity of the effect, though. Speed of light would have been just fine for what they needed. Oh well.
So there you have it for my commentary on the physics within the film. It was fun to take part and good to learn that these teams of special effects people are so dedicated to making the physics (real and made up) look believable, by reading up on their subject matter, and (presumably) consulting experts. To my scientific colleagues, I’d say let’s not get too hot under the collar about things (although some heat is good at times). It says it’s a science fiction film, right on the packet. We must pick our battles: I don’t think that anybody is going to be fooled into thinking that people can teleport (although I was slightly alarmed by the producer’s repeated references to the wisdom of the “old writings” he’d found in his research), and in fact I’m pleased for the opportunities that the film has created around the world to get people to ask whether any of it is real and then maybe dig a bit to find out. Then we the scientists get to explain the actual science to them. Entertainment leading to curiosity, real questions, and then a bit of education for all? Count me in!
All in all it was good fun for an evening’s panel work. And I got a free SCA hat as a thank-you gift. So it’s a win-win.
(*”Black Holes and Time Warps.”)