Theoretical Man: A Caltech Particle Physicist Comes to Iron Man's Aid

May 24, 2010
Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., uses brute force rather than a physicist's skills to put the finishing touches on his new power source. [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

(PhysOrg.com) -- When Iron Man can't do the job, who ya gonna call? Well, how about Caltech theoretical physicist Mark Wise? In Iron Man 2, the blockbuster science-fiction film based on the comic book superhero, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is slowly dying from the palladium that gives him superhuman strength. He must come up with a new element to power the portable nuclear reactor attached to his chest so that he can defeat the evil Russian physicist Ivan Vanko. But how?

Enter Wise. Back in February 2009, Caltech's McCone Professor of High Energy Physics was working on theoretical models on the nature of matter in the universe when he got an email from the Science and Entertainment Exchange. That's a program of the National Academy of Sciences that hooks up scientists with Tinseltown types when Hollywood folk require quick answers to science questions. In the case of Iron Man 2, the film's producers wanted advice on how their superhero could realistically recharge his nuclear-powered chest protector.

Although Wise is not an experimentalist, his that contain exotic forms of matter are currently being tested at Europe's new particle accelerator, the , which sends proton beams smashing into each other to investigate fundamental questions of physics. So volunteering his expertise did not seem a stretch. He and one of his graduate students, Tim Dulaney, went to Marvel Studios in Manhattan Beach to give the filmmakers a crash course in elementary particle physics.

Wise and Dulaney met for two hours with a group of producers as well as the film's screenwriter. The filmmakers wanted input on a scene in which Stark finds clues hidden in a model of buildings that his father used long ago to design a science theme park. "We discussed using the buildings to represent electrons in an atom," Wise says. In a later scene, in which Stark produces the mystery element, the filmmakers sought Wise and Dulaney's advice on what type of apparatus you'd need to build if you wanted to discover a new element.

"I don't remember how much of our input was used, and it's hard to remember who contributed what," Wise says, "but I enjoyed the discussion. In the movie, they're not too specific on what they're building. Being vague is to their credit."

The end result is a scene in which Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr.—who might himself be considered an exotic form of matter—constructs a particle accelerator in a few hours, using parts that are conveniently stored underneath his living room floor. The apparatus is completed when Downey—sweating, straining, and using a massive pipe wrench—unleashes a particle beam that destroys everything in its path before it locks on and recharges his power pack.

Wise was invited back to the studio to view the completed scenes and to meet the director, Jon Favreau. About a week after the film opened in early May, Wise went to see it.

"I actually liked it a lot," he said. "But I'm a huge fan of these kinds of movies."

Explore further: Thermoelectric power plants could offer economically competitive renewable energy

Related Stories

Inside Science Of Iron Man 2

May 05, 2010

When Iron Man 2 opens in theaters this Friday, you probably won't notice the science consultant who helped bring real science into the world of science fiction.

The joy is in the social hunt

Apr 23, 2010

The popularity of social networking websites has grown dramatically in recent years. One of the most popular sites, Facebook.com, now boasts more than 350 million users worldwide. With so many people interacting with each ...

High-energy physics at the highest level

Mar 27, 2006

It will be the most powerful particle collider on the planet. And Iowa State University physicists will be right there working with it. The European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland, is ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

in7x
5 / 5 (2) May 24, 2010
Not sure why they wasted their time talking to this guy Mark when they just made up a bunch of non-sense anyway.

They couldn't have an intern do an internet search?
rhenretta
not rated yet May 24, 2010
I love they used what appeared to be a prism to redirect a proton beam. Either that, or he used a particle accelerator to accelerate photons to near the speed of light... Nothing wrong with that.

Oh yeah, and the next element in the periodic table had to be discovered in the layout of buildings? Who would of thought take the last discovered element, add 1 proton...

Good movie though :)
Mr_Frontier
not rated yet May 24, 2010
Accelerate photons? Seriously?
jimbo92107
5 / 5 (1) May 24, 2010
Photons, protons...what's the difference? This is Hollywood, baby! Never let scientific details get in the way of a ripping yarn!
Mr_Frontier
not rated yet May 24, 2010
My apologies. Nothing serious here. Rock on.
KronosDeret
not rated yet May 25, 2010
i saw iron man 2 and i thought that tony didnt just added one proton to heaviest known element to create slightly heavier lump of protons and neutrons...

he created sphere of protons that was held together by balancing the strong and weak forces geometricaly giving out a lot of energy virtualy from vacuum.

It was great sci-fi, i like when people think outside of the box even if its fantasy. :)
rhenretta
not rated yet May 25, 2010
@KronosDeret
Your post is highly amusing, and reminds me of a song you should look up: "Voltaire - The USS Make Sh*t Up"
KronosDeret
not rated yet May 26, 2010
Thank you rhenretta :) Scifi should be amusing, i wrote few short stories myself.

But to be sure... i know its just a storywriters fanatsy okey? What i wrote was just how i understood the movie trick.
JimB135
not rated yet May 26, 2010
So what if it's all a bunch of made up nonsense with just a drop of science thrown in. I thought it was great when Tony was cranking the particle beam around and vaporizing everything in it's path. Now that looked like fun. Oh yeah .. I also think the item he used to level the particle accelerator was Captain America's shield. It was all great fun.
Objectivist
not rated yet Jun 08, 2010
To be fair -- if it was all science it wouldn't be science fiction. It would be... well... science reality(?).

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.