Astrophysicist Takes Deep Dive Into The Science Of 'Doctor Strange'

Nov 7, 2016
Originally published on November 7, 2016 6:50 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Marvel's latest superhero movie, "Doctor Strange," worked its magic on audiences over the weekend and led the box office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

TILDA SWINTON: (As The Ancient One) Doctor Strange, you think you know how the world works. What if I told you, through the mystic arts, we harness energy and shape reality?

SHAPIRO: And while many people might have gone to see Tilda Swinton there or Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange or perhaps the gravity-bending visual effects, I went to see it for the influence of NPR astrophysicist and blogger Adam Frank. How you doing, Adam?

ADAM FRANK: Great to be here again, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So you were hired on to this movie to advise them on the science of what exactly?

FRANK: It was both the science and the philosophy as well. I know the director from, you know, a few years back. My first book was on science and religion. And the director, Scott Derrickson, is a theist who also has great respect for science. I am a atheist who has great interest in the realms of human spiritual endeavor.

So we've been having this conversation for years about where the two overlap or don't overlap. And when he was tapped for this movie, one of the things he wanted me to come in was - and discuss this, these issues of where the two do or don't overlap.

SHAPIRO: There is a scene where Tilda Swinton's character, who is known as The Ancient One, sort of knocks Benedict Cumberbatch's character, Doctor Strange, out of his body. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Dr. Stephen Strange) There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. It's just another tiny momentary speck within an indifferent universe.

SHAPIRO: And that sound was Benedict Cumberbatch's character being knocked out of his body.

FRANK: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What kind of science advice do you give them on a scene like that?

FRANK: A lot of the discussions we had was - with the director and the writer was how to actually do that. And for me, the place narratively where you can do that is the idea, the question of the nature of consciousness. Because we don't really have a scientific theory of consciousness. We're doing great with neuroscience but, you know, this vivid first-person intimacy of our own experience, we don't have a science for that yet. And for me that was a great place to ground what you might want to do with "Doctor Strange's" story.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying we can explore this question because scientists don't really know what the spirit per se is on a scientific level?

FRANK: Well, spirit is a, you know, delicate word. It's not one I'm, as a scientist, necessarily going to buy into. You know, there's a lot of astral travelling in the movie. That's not something I'm going to buy into, either.

But the deepest question here is one that philosophers and scientists are really struggling with. And it's related to a term called reductionism. Right? Are you and all of your hopes and fears and dreams and experiences - the rich experiences you have, you know, when you have a wonderful meal, is that just neurons? Is that just, like, machinery in your brain? And, you know, the neurons are of course just atoms. And the atoms are just quarks.

So, you know, is everything - can everything just be reduced down to the behavior of the smallest particles and their laws? And I started out as a reductionist, many physicists do. But as time has gone on, I kind of feel that like, you know, science is going to have to - may have to add things to the account of the world to deal with consciousness.

SHAPIRO: There is a concept that is central to this movie, which I've heard scientists talk about before - the multiverse. Let's listen to a little bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

SWINTON: (As The Ancient One) You think that this material universe is all there is. But what if I told you the reality you know is one of many?

SHAPIRO: As I've heard it described - and tell me if I'm wrong - the idea of the multiverse is that with an infinite number of universes, there is one in which I'm wearing a blue shirt today and one in which I'm wearing a red shirt today and one on which I was sick to work today and every possible thing that could have happened at any given moment is represented in a different universe. Is that right?

FRANK: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that's - there is - it's interesting. Physics has a number of different versions of the multiverse. One comes out of cosmology and the big bang. And that's one - that's the one where each different universe has entirely different laws. But from quantum mechanics, which is the theory of the very small which has enormous interesting philosophical questions around it, there is the possibility that every time a quantum event happens, every time an atom radioactively decays, the universe splits into multiple parallel versions of itself. And that goes on and on and on. So, yeah, there's one universe this morning where you put on blue socks rather than black socks.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR blogger and now movie advisor Adam Frank on the new movie "Doctor Strange." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.