When a major blockbuster film comes out, there's no shortage of attempts among scientists to make it a "teachable moment." The new comic-based film The Avengers, however, may have more than its fair share of this ... and rightfully so. As I mentioned a while back, even I got on this bandwagon with my recent article about time travel and how it is utilized in some of the Avengers comic book plotlines.
The Avengers film doesn't have time travel, but it has been steadily building its storyline and fictional universe over a serious of previous films and that effort has had scientific elements to it. As I discussed when Thor came out, the creators were making specific efforts to ensure that the universe made sense and held together in a realistic way. The comic books rarely deal with the conflict between the science that fuels Iron Man's armor and the magic that fuels Thor's hammer, but since the films were reaching beyond your average comic reader, it needed to find a way to bridge that gap.
In Thor they did so by establishing the premise that the Asgardian race of "gods" were actually trans-dimensional beings who, though they resembled humans, were able to harness far more advanced scientific knowledge and became increasingly powerful as a result. In this latest film, the entire conflict centers around this advanced science.
Specifically, the film focuses on a real scientific problem: trying to find sustainable energy. The conflict is about control of a nearly-infinite energy source. (I'm not giving much away, because this is revealed in about the first 5 minutes of The Avengers and was previously hinted at in both the Captain America film and in the post-credits teaser at the end of Thor.) The energy source is called the Tesseract, or a doorway in space.
A tesseract is a mathematical concept. The simplest explanation is that the tesseract is a four-dimensional cube (in the same way that a cube is a 3-dimensional square). More on the comic book (and film) version of the Tesseract is covered here.
Though the physics of the tesseract isn't really laid out, what is clear from the film is that it has something to do with dark energy, the mysterious substance that physicists believe is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The discovery of this acceleration earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, so it's kind of a big deal these days. The thing about dark energy is that it isn't particularly strong ... but there's a lot of it. The overall impact is quite a lot of power, enough to push the universe apart more quickly than we would expect it to be expanding.
In the film, the Tesseract has the capacity to somehow draw power from the dark energy to become a nearly-unlimited energy source. I won't spoil any part of the plot about how this energy is utilized, but there's the basic science behind it.
Of course, that isn't all the science that made its way into the film. Below are some additional links to some interesting articles on how science shows up in the Avengers film (and its predecessors).
- Book Review: The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
- Thor, Science, Magic, and Shameless Self-Promotion
- Science, Philosophy, and Popular Culture
- io9 Show: The Science of the Avengers (video link)
- MSNBC - Five awesome ways they bent physics for "The Avengers"
- Journal of Materials - The Super Materials of the Super Heores (downloadable PDF)
- Wired Dot Physics - The Physics of the Hulk's Jump
- Discover magazine - Real-World Technology That Approaches "The Avengers"