Tony Stark's Science

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If you’re one of the millions of people who flocked to the cinema this weekend to see Iron Man 2, you’re no doubt wondering how much of the plot is based in fact, and how much is pure science fiction.

Discover’s 80 Beats blogand Popular Mechanics both offer nice analyses of the science behind the movie: namely, that some version of the Iron Man suit is in development; yes, you canbuild your own particle accelerator; and yes, new elements can be synthesized in such an accelerator. But much of what actually happens in the film remains in the realm of hypothesis.

While the film naturally took some liberties with the details — sci-fi has the luxury of not having to pass peer review — Marvel Studios nonetheless cared enough about plausibility to ask the Science & Entertainment Exchange for a suitable scientist with whom they could consult.

We recommended Mark Wise, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. Wise met with producer Jeremy Latcham and other members of the production team — even bringing along a lucky grad student for good measure — to offer some insights specifically on the laboratory scene where Stark builds his homemade particle accelerator and creates a new element. Per Inside Science News Service:

Wise was surprised by Latcham’s and the film crew’s interest in the actual science, “I attempted to present the science in a way to the help the movie, but still get a little science in,” said Wise. “They wanted the scenes to look good, but they also wanted elements of truth in what they did, it was nice.”

“They wanted to use the science to show what it (a particle accelerator) would really look like and they also wanted to do it in a way that was entertaining,” said Wise. “They even wanted to know the behind-the-scenes stuff — stuff that you wouldn’t see.”

During a follow-up visit to Marvel, Wise met with Latcham and the film’s crew while they were building the set in Tony Stark’s lab. Wise also had a chance to meet with the film’s director, Jon Favreau, and view the set of scenes that he consulted on after they had been filmed. “The scenes looked fine,” said Wise, “I hope people enjoy the film.”

In the end, it all comes down to the willing suspension of disbelief, although the best science fiction does what marvel did: it grounds the fictional science and technology firmly in real-world research, even if the fictional version takes it to not-yet-possible levels. Emory University’s Sid Perkowitz, X-Change Files blogger and author of Hollywood Science, explains:

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.