Tales From the Industry XVII: Jump Thoughts

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.”)

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5 Responses to Tales From the Industry XVII: Jump Thoughts

  1. Jude says:

    I saw Jumper today with my sons, and found it to be quick and fun. It was even more effective than The Amazing Race at making this agoraphobe want to travel. There were a few plot inconsistencies (why would he even have a passport? He’d need one to board the plane with Millie, but it takes months to get one when you’ve never needed one before). Thanks for writing about the physics. I’m sure we’ll end up purchasing the DVD, so I’m tagging this post on delicious so I can re-read the physics part after I’ve seen it a few more times. Now I’m off to read the book. Oh, and my favorite part? When he’s in danger, he ends up at the library. That’s where I would head if I were in danger. What happens there has inspired me to work on my library’s disaster plan (we’re in a flood zone).

  2. patrick says:

    The filming style of Jumper made me feel like i myself was jumping around, which was cool. Also Christensen’s lines were as short as possible, which was ideal for the movie’s overall quality.

  3. nige cook says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Thanks for these further thoughts about being science advisor to for what is (at least partly) a sci fi film. It’s fascinating.

    “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.”

    Please don’t be too hard on them if there are apparent internal inconsistencies. Such alleged internal inconsistencies don’t always matter, as Feynman discovered:

    “… take the exclusion principle … it turns out that you don’t have to pay much attention to that in the intermediate states in the perturbation theory. I had discovered from empirical rules that if you don’t pay attention to it, you get the right answers anyway …. Teller said: “… It is fundamentally wrong that you don’t have to take the exclusion principle into account.” …

    “… Dirac asked “Is it unitary?” … Dirac had proved … that in quantum mechanics, since you progress only forward in time, you have to have a unitary operator. But there is no unitary way of dealing with a single electron. Dirac could not think of going forwards and backwards … in time …

    ” … Bohr … said: “… one could not talk about the trajectory of an electron in the atom, because it was something not observable.” … Bohr thought that I didn’t know the uncertainty principle …” – Feynman, quoted at http://www.tony5m17h.net/goodnewsbadnews.html#badnews

    I agree with you that: “Entertainment leading to curiosity, real questions, and then a bit of education …”

  4. Clifford says:

    Movies aside, internal consistency in physics (science in general) is an important idea not to be taken lightly. For every Feynman who can tell a fancy story about how he did not worry about it and came out on top (and gosh, how he loved his stories…. but don’t get me started), there are thousands of scientists who got absolutely nowhere by doing the same thing.

    Feynman was Feynman, with a stratospheric level of marvelous intuition that most of us do not possess… as such, he is not necessarily the best example for us to follow in all things.



  5. nigel cook says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Thanks for your reply.

    “For every Feynman who can tell a fancy story about how he did not worry about it and came out on top (and gosh, how he loved his stories…. but don’t get me started), there are thousands of scientists who got absolutely nowhere by doing the same thing.”

    Could it be argued that if only one Feynman emerges by using intuition per many thousands who get nowhere using that route, surely the way to make progress fastest is to encourage even more scientists to use an intuitive approach? Besides, surely everyone trusts their intuition to some extent when deciding which speculative area to work in?

    Maybe people have to trust their own intuition when deciding whether to investigate string theory (which has not been proved finite beyond two loops), which is an example of an amazing intuitive idea that hasn’t been proved to be self-consistent?

    When students decide to work on string theory, they are doing so maybe for a lot of reasons, such as because it is fashionable, and because it interconnects so many different areas of frontier physics, even though it hasn’t won Nobel Prizes yet for experimental confirmation.

    So students just have to trust their physical intuition in deciding what to study when available theories haven’t been proved self-consistent and can’t be checked experimentally.

    This brings to mind what Wigner said about the different emphasis in the physics culture he met in America from that in his home country, Hungary, (in his autobiography, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner, as told to Andrew Szanton). Wigner said that in Hungary intuitive ideas are the most valued, but in America it is the long hard calculus of working out the consequences of ideas in detail is valued the most.