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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Thor, Science, Magic, and Shameless Self-Promotion

By May 15, 2011

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The Woman of Science - Natalie Portman as astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster in ThorI'd been looking forward to the release of Thor, but became even more intrigued as I noticed it springing up not just across the comics and film sites, but on the science sites as well.

When I finally got the chance to see the movie, I understood why. The creators of Thor did an excellent job of portraying science in a realistic way.

Yes, you read that right: the film about a Norse god who can command lightning and thunder treated science realistically.

The Science of Thor

Those who haven't yet seen the film might wonder how science has any bearing on the film. Science enters the film in the form of the lovely and talented Natalie Portman, who plays Dr. Jane Foster. In the comic books, Jane Foster is a medical doctor (actually, she was a nurse in her 1962 introduction, but went to med school sometime in the intervening years), but for the film they've transformed her into an astrophysicist.

The first scene of the film, in fact, starts with Foster, her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig, and her research assistant, Darcy Lewis, in the middle of the desert looking for a strange astronomical phenomena which Jane has been studying. It's clear that she's been tracking this down for a while, meticulously analyzing it, and has made a prediction that the strange lights in the sky will return. In fact, she believes that the cycle is so regular that she's able to predict it down to the second and is disappointed when it doesn't manifest on time.

The phenomenon does finally manifest and it's more than they bargained for, resulting in the arrival of Thor, who has been banished from his home realm of Asgard, stripped of his powers. The film then backs up a bit to begin telling the story of why Thor has been banished and then jumps back to the storyline involving the scientists. They drop Thor off at the hospital, believing that he's completely insane. (He is, after all, claiming to be Thor.) But as they begin analyzing the data, they realize they have pictures of this guy actually falling out of the astronomical phenomena, which they now suspect may be some sort of wormhole.

This prompts Jane to return to the hospital, because Thor could provide further information about the phenomena. Ultimately they part ways because he won't give her any answers, but Jane joins up with Thor again when all of her data, representing years' worth of research, has been taken by the government. The only way to get information out of Thor is to help him.

The portrayal of the scientists throughout this storyline is spot on. They've even introduced the nice twist of having Darcy be a political scientist (she was the only one who applied for the job), so that Foster & Selvig have a legitimate in-story excuse to explain (to both Darcy & the audience) concepts which the two astrophysicists wouldn't need to explain if they were just talking to each other. Despite this, there isn't actually a ton of scientific exposition. It's handled fairly fluidly.

Even the idea of Asgard seems scientifically credible, with the idea that it's a parallel universe containing technologically advanced beings whom the Norse worshipped as gods.

But Thor is a participant in the upcoming Avengers film, which means that he'll have to coexist with scientific-based heroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk. How will he stack up?

Iron Magic

Consider the way science was portrayed in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, films based around a weapons engineers who builds a suit of advanced battle armor.

On the surface, this would seem to make the film more scientific, but in fact the portrayal of Tony Stark has no realistic bearing on the way any scientist or engineer does their work. Designing such a revolutionary suit of armor would require years of research and work by an entire team of specialists in all sorts of different fields - optics, aeronautics, propulsion systems, material sciences, video imaging, electrical engineering, and so on.

It's like locking Steve Jobs in a cave and telling him to build an iPad 10, right now, or he'll die. It just ain't going to happen.

The idea that Stark could pull it off so simply, with the primitive materials at his disposal in the first film, isn't plausible at all. Even once he has all of his resources at his disposal, it still comes off as being far too effortless.

Now, that's fine, because accepting Stark's singular brilliance is the suspension of disbelief required for Iron Man to work. In Iron Man, science plays the same role that magic plays in other fantasy films.

However, the suspension of disbelief in Thor comes from needing to believe that the Norse god of thunder actually exists and has come to Earth, which means that everything else has to be completely believable.

Thus the explicit presence of science in Thor. Because the premise is so unrealistic, it needs more realism in the surrounding details, which is part of the reason they brought in CalTech astrophysicist Sean Carroll to serve as a science advisor (as part of the Science and Entertainment Exchange).

Reconciling Magic and Science in Film, Comics, and Literature

The way that both Iron Man and Thor can coexist in the same universe (along with Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, who apparently also has a movie coming out) is based on Clarke's Third Law, which is the idea that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Green Lantern and Philosophy coverThis is a common concept in science fiction ... so common, in fact, that I recently used it in discussing another comic book-based character coming to the big screen: DC comic's Green Lantern.

In the recently-released book Green Lantern and Philosophy, there are a lot of great essays about how philosophical concepts relate to Green Lantern. My essay, "Magic and Science in the Green Lantern Mythos: Clarke's Law, the Starheart, and Emotional Energy," explores the relationship between magic and science within the context of the Green Lantern storyline.

While researching the essay, I found an intriguing analysis from the early 1900's by sociologist Marcel Mauss, which relates religion, magic, and science as three different means of trying to understand and influence reality. I classified Mauss' categories in the following way:

  • Religion is a public enterprise. The focus is on moral laws, not necessarily tangible results. It is powered by belief and emotion, while the ultimate outcome is based on divine will.
  • Magic is a private enterprise. The focus is on achieving tangible results. It, too, is powered by belief and emotion, while the ultimate outcome of magic is rule-based.
  • Science is a public enterprise. The focus is on achieving tangible results. Belief and emotion are completely irrelevant to the outcome, which is entirely rule-based.

These aren't hard and fast distinctions, of course. For example, most religions contain a mystical tradition, such as Kabbalah, which is sort of a merger between magic and religion. Groups of people can practice magic, but they still tend to do so as a private group, so it's still a private activity. Corporations perform research in private, but it's still a public activity, because they are drawing on the collective knowledge that exists among the scientific community, even if they aren't going to reciprocate by publishing their own results. Finally, while emotions and belief are obviously important to scientists, many of whom are quite passionate about their work, the scientific outcome isn't actually dependent upon the emotions you put into the act.

Of Mauss' three categories, we only know for sure that science works. There's no conclusive, incontrovertible evidence that either religion or magic actually achieve their goals, despite impassioned, heartfelt claims by proponents. This explains why, as a means of understanding and interacting with the world, science is continually growing in dominance.

Thor presents yet another means of merging the three disparate concepts (though one which will not, I suspect, be amenable to the religious among our readers). An advanced being worshipped as a god, who explicitly describes magic as an advanced form of science.

Even very late into the film, the scientists still really don't believe that this powerless guy is actually Thor, not until they see the transformation with their own eyes. As soon as they witness the evidence, however, they're completely on board. Their behavior and dialog is completely in tune with the following description of science by Richard P. Feynman:

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

And on that note, I suppose one of my biggest take-aways from Thor is this realization:

If there are any gods out there, and they ever do show up on Earth, I hope that the first people they run into are scientists.

We could do a lot worse.

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May 16, 2011 at 11:17 am
(1) Alana Abbott says:

Great article! I’ve been looking forward to Thor, and I must say, you’ve just encouraged me to try to go see it sooner. The comparison to Iron Man is dead on: as an audience, we only have so much disbelief to suspend! Couching Thor in a very real world sounds like it was a great choice.

May 23, 2011 at 11:26 pm
(2) ddd says:

this is fantastic article. i agree. funny thing when i was a child and tween Thor was my favorite hero, even beyond batman and superman. particularly enjoy the elegant and simple way the author defines religion, magic and science. i’m odd character in that i have looked into and studied all three. when push comes to shove i rely upon science.

June 21, 2011 at 2:51 am
(3) Andrew Ayinzat says:

It is amazing that science is being appreciated through the this film. Obviously, science is all about reality and more when concepts are practicalized in similar way; it gives room for easy understanding. Remember films like Tom and Jerry, ect.

September 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm
(4) mortaryan says:

Your article shows a typical bias of one faith writing about others it has nothing but self justifying rationalizations concerning itself and strawmen concerning the others (obviously having never legitamately and or honestly practiced the others, in a manner to attain the empirical results they offer) and “objective” study from a subjective presupposition is not objective knowledge. Both faith-wisdom and the art and science of magick have their empirical effects, that scientist of scientism (of which, based on the self evidence of your article, you are one) refuses to acknowledge because of its own predefined conditional reality, and their blind faith in that self limited construct. As an educated scientist, a practicing mystic, I am not bound by the contrived mythologies of high priests of any faith, especially those of scientism, which is an evolutionary red herring, and so recognize all that is fallacious with you article.

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(5) Mahna mahna says:

PhenomenON. Sorry, great article otherwise, but the singular of phenomena is phenomenon.

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I think that Religion is more rule based than you do. If loving your neighbor is a good moral command, than it will produce a lot of loving actions. In looking at the history of Christianity, we see thousands of hospitals, universities, orphanages and other charitable institutions built. It seems to me that belief of loving your neighbor produces good work plus numerous personal good works. This same type of cause and effect rule that we find so often in science.

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