Science of TRON

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Caltech physicist Sean Carroll (far left) explains the science of TRON: Legacy.Twenty-eight years after the release of the originalTRON film, the sequel, TRON: Legacy, is stunning audiences with cutting-edge visual effects, heart-racing action and a mesmerizing story. But audiences are also being stunned by another element in the film: science.

“Obviously the concept as a whole is a little fantastical. But it was important to me, and producer Sean Bailey and our other producer Jeff Silver that we have some sort of strong science foundation at key moments in the film,” explained TRON: Legacy director Joe Kosinski.

Part of a “Science of TRON” panel discussion presented by The Exchange and moderated by TRON: Legacy producer Sean Bailey, Kosinski was joined by two of the film’s advising scientists – Caltech physicist Sean Carroll and retired JPL physicist John Dick – to discuss the science in the film.

And while the conversation centered on the complexities of quantum teleportation, genetic algorithms and emergence, Sean Carroll pointed out a simple science concept that formed one of the film’s iconic props: the laser. In bothTRON and TRON: Legacy, the laser digitizes the main characters into the computer. If you look closely, the laser has four canisters to hold carbon, oxygen and other essentials to build a human.

“There’s something called conservation of mass,” Carroll explained. “If you take something and you zap them with a laser and you put their information into the computer, you still have all of their atoms lying around. And if you want to get them back out, you need more atoms to make them out of.”

It’s a small science component in the film but it speaks volumes for the film’s scientific foundation.

“You would not even notice that. You wouldn’t need to notice it. You can turn that part of your brain off while you watch the movie and just enjoy the ride. But if you want to think about what is going on, there is a lot there to think about,” said Carroll.

There is a lot to think about in TRON: Legacy. For example, how do you digitize a human into a computer?

“If it were possible to take some sort of organic matter or person and digitize them, how would you go about doing it? How could it be done?” said Kosinski. “We invited some of the smartest people we could find and asked them that very question and got some very interesting answers that we were able to incorporate into the film itself.”

Some of those “very interesting answers” involved new concepts such as quantum computing and quantum teleportation.

TRON: Legacy director Joe Kosinski (third from left) explains 3D cameras at "The Science of TRON" panel at the El Capitan Theatre.“For the first time with those two ideas [quantum computer and quantum teleportation] it’s physically conceivable to actually take a particle in the real world and teleport it into a quantum computer,” said John Dick. “The process for teleportation would likely involve sending the particle information into the computer, while the hydrogen and oxygen stays in the real world.”

The idea of digitization also brought up new questions of human behavior and computer programming.

“Is consciousness the same if it’s in a human brain versus if it’s in a computer? If you did get uploaded into a computer, would you be the same person? Or would you be different?” said Carroll. “The idea that you can take a person and put them in a computer is kind of an amazing idea.”

But as amazing as idea might be, filmmakers don’t want to feel limited by science.

“I never wanted to feel like we were a slave to [the science], ” said Kosinski. “The first goal is to create a great movie and tell a great story, so that’s got to be priority one. But I never felt hindered by [the science]. It always served as a springboard into some of our better ideas.”

Carroll agreed, “If you want to make TRON, it’s not helpful to have a scientist say ‘No, you can’t put a human being inside of a computer.’ But it is helpful to have a scientist say ‘Well, what does that mean? How can we imagine it being possible in a consistent way that you’re creating a world in which this does happen?’”

So, do movies have an obligation to get the science right?
“No,” said Carroll, “Movies have an obligation to be good movies.”

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The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.