Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of “The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind” and produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(Warning: Contains mild spoilers)
As a scientist who has written about colliding black holes and alien space probes, I was already convinced I was pretty cool. But it wasn’t until I sat down to watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that I understood the extent of my own coolness. There on the screen was fictional scientific equipment that was clearly inspired by the actual apparatus that my colleagues and I use to try to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Amid the action, the coming-of-age story, a little romance and a few twists and turns, the movie shows a fictional gadget located in New York City called a collider, which connects parallel universes and brings many different versions of Spider-Man into a single universe.
The collider on screen was animated and cartoonish, but the real-world version of it is called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, which can be found at the CERN laboratory just outside Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC, which started operating in 2010, circulates beams of protons traveling in opposite directions near the speed of light and collides the beams together.
Using the data it generated, which is basically billions of photographs of particle collisions, we discovered the Higgs boson, the last missing piece of the standard model. The standard model is our best understanding of the subatomic world, which consists of particles far smaller than atoms. The scientific data we’ve recorded has resulted in over 2,000 scientific papers, with no signs of slowing down.
Visually, the part of the equipment seen on the screen in the Spider-Verse isn’t actually the LHC itself, but rather a particular piece of scientific apparatus called the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS. In the real world, the LHC accelerates protons and collides them together. In contrast, the CMS is essentially a super high-tech camera that records the collisions. Together, the LHC and CMS can literally create and record the conditions last common in the universe less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang and help scientists understand those conditions in detail. And they let us study a subatomic world, which is as small as compared to atoms, as atoms are to humans.
The real-world CMS is a five-story tall particle detector which can inspect collisions between pairs of protons 40 million times a second. And the equipment seen in the movie is visually true to life. CMS was built by scientists from around the world, but the parts that you see on the screen exist because of important contributions by my colleagues and me at Fermilab, America’s leading particle physics laboratory. The scientists and engineers that I bump into at the coffee machine would all recognize their handiwork.
Is there any truth to the science at the core of the movie? Well, yes. And no. And sort of.
The movie refers to alternate realities and multiverses as if they’re kind of the same, even though they are distinctly different when real scientists talk about them.
For instance, alternate realities arise from an idea that deals with all of the counterintuitive qualities of quantum mechanics. That idea is called the Many World Theory.
Our standard understanding of quantum mechanics says that, at the subatomic level, two mutually exclusive things can simultaneously exist until somebody looks. The most famous example of that is what is called Schrodinger’s cat. In this example, a cat is put in a box with a Geiger counter, a bottle of poison and a single radioactive atom.
When the atom decays, the Geiger counter clicks and the bottle breaks, killing the cat. Before the decay, the cat is alive and well. And, according to quantum mechanics, the atom exists both decayed and un-decayed until someone detects it (in the simplest case, by looking into the box). Because the health of the cat is tied to whether the atom has decayed or not, the cat is both simultaneously alive and dead until you open the box.
According to the Many World Theory, what happens when you open the box is that the universe splits into two universes; one in which the cat is alive, and a second universe in which it is dead.
The problem with the Many World Theory is that the universes are continually splitting. Tea or coffee? That’s one split. Cream or black? That’s another split. Would you like a cookie, yes or no? Yet another split. The constant splitting of universes from every different decision leads to an infinite number of universes.
There’s another semi-credible scientific idea that appears in the movie. Real-world scientists struggle to explain why the universe in which we live seems to be so suitable for our existence. Change one facet of reality, say the strength of gravity, and we wouldn’t exist.
One possible explanation is that there exist multiple universes, or what scientists call the multiverse. With multiple, indeed an infinite number of, universes, some are inhospitable to life and others aren’t. We just happen to inhabit one of the ones in which humans can thrive. For many scientists, the idea of a multiverse abdicates our need to understand the origins of our universe. Others think the multiverse theory makes a lot of sense. And, perhaps obviously, in a movie with the word “spider-verse” in the title, the writers clearly had this theory in mind when they wrote it.
Many Worlds and the multiverse are actually unrelated topics, although they are conflated in the movie. It’s a common occurrence, despite the fact that it can confuse people who are casually interested in advanced physics.
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So, as a scientist, am I offended by this overly-casual use of real scientific ideas? Heck no! I mean, not only is the movie science fiction, it’s an animated superhero movie which pays homage to the Spider-Man comic book franchise, which started before I was born. It would be awfully irritating to hear any scientist start a conversation with a stuffy and pretentious “Well, actually …” It’s not meant to be real. It’s meant to be entertaining.
And entertaining it is. I enjoyed “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” a great deal. The characters were interesting. The plot was engaging and respected the spirit of the 1960s comics. It also brought in other comic forms.
And, remember, it is inspired by a real scientific instrument.