Duality and computation in the MCU

I  took my kindergartener to see Avengers: Endgame recently. My son was a little disappointed, complaining that the film had too much talking and not enough fighting. To me, the immense popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe series and so-called science fiction/fantasy in general is an indicator of how people think they like science but really want magic. Popular science-fictiony franchises like MCU and Star Wars are couched in scientism but are often at odds with actual science as practiced today. Arthur C Clarke famously stated in his third law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A sentiment captured in these films.

Science fiction should extrapolate from current scientific knowledge to the possible. Otherwise, it should just be called fiction. There have been a handful of films that try to do this like 2001: A Space Odyssey or more recently Interstellar and The Martian. I think there is a market for these types of films but they are certainly not as popular as the fantasy films. To be fair, neither Marvel nor Star Wars (both now owned by Disney) market themselves as science fiction as I defined it. They are intended to be mythologies a la Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. However, they do have a scientific aesthetic with worlds dominated by advanced technology.

Although I find the MCU films not overly compelling, they do bring up two interesting propositions. The first is dualism. The superhero character Ant-Man has a suit that allows him to change size and even shrink to sub-atomic scales, called the quantum realm in the films. (I won’t bother to discuss whether energy is conserved in these near instantaneous size changes, an issue that affects the Hulk as well). The film was advised by physicist Spiros Michalakis and is rife with physics terminology and concepts like quantum entanglement. One crucial concept it completely glosses over is how Ant-man maintains his identity as a person, much less his shape, when he is smaller than an atom. Even if one were to argue that one’s consciousness could be transferred to some set of quantum states at the sub-atomic scale, it would be overwhelmed by quantum fluctuations. The only self-consistent premise of Ant-Man is that the essence or soul if you wish of a person is not material. The MCU takes a definite stand for dualism on the mind-body problem, a sentiment with which I presume the public mostly agrees. 

The second is that magic has immense computational power. In the penultimate Avengers movie, the villain Thanos snaps his fingers while in possession of the complete set of infinity stones and eliminates half of all living things. (Setting aside the issue that Thanos clearly does not understand the the concept of exponential growth. If you are concerned about overpopulation, it is pointless to shrink the population and do nothing else because it will just return to its original size in short time.) What I’d like to know is who or what does the computation to carry out the command. There are at least two hard computational problems that must be solved. The first is to identify all lifeforms.  This is clearly no easy task as we to this day have no precise definition of life. Do viruses get culled by the snap? Do the population of silicon-based lifeforms of Star Trek get halved or is it only biochemical life? What algorithm does the snap use to find all the life forms? Living things on earth range in size from single cells (or viruses if you count them) all the way to 35 metre behemoths, which are comprised of over 10^{23} numbers of atoms. How do the stones know what scales they span in the MCU? Do photosynthetic lifeforms get spared since they don’t use many resources? What about fungi? Is the MCU actually a simulated universe where there is a continually updated census of all life? How accurate is the algorithm? Was it perfect? Did it aim for high specificity (i.e. reduce false positives so you only kill lifeforms and not non lifeforms) or high sensitivity (i.e. reduce false negatives and thus don’t miss any lifeforms). I think it probably favours sensitivity over specificity – who cares if a bunch of ammonia molecules accidentally get killed. The find-all-life problem is made much easier by proposition 1 because if all life were material then the only way to detect them would be to look for multiscale correlations between atoms (or find organic molecules if you only care about biochemical life). If each lifeform has a soul then you can simply search for “soulfulness”. The lifeforms were not erased instantly but only after a brief delay. What was happening over this delay. Is magic propagation limited by the speed of light or some other constraint? Or did the computation take time? In Endgame, the Hulk restores all the Thanos erased lifeforms and Tony Stark then snaps away Thanos and all of his allies. Where were the lifeforms after they were erased? In Heaven? In a soul repository somewhere? Is this one of the Nine Realms of the MCU? How do the stones know who is a Thanos ally? The second computation is to then decide which half to extinguish. The movie seems to imply that the choice was random so where did the randomness come from? Do the infinity stones generate random numbers? Do they rely on quantum fluctuations? Finally, in a world with magic, why is there also science? Why does the universe follow the laws of physics sometimes and magic other times. Is magic a finite resource as in Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away. So many questions, so few answers.

6 thoughts on “Duality and computation in the MCU

  1. One can learn alot and gain interest in sciences from ‘pop culture’ (i think i first got an interest in it partly from books like ‘Felix crull—confidence man’ by Thomas Mann , ‘sirens of titan’ (vonnegut), and ‘gravity’s rainbow’ (Pynchon).
    The Matrix seemed to be based on a popular presentation of quantum theory. But modern movies are too violent for me–got enough of that in the ‘real world’ —and there is more violence in them than theory which i also dont want to pay to see. (There are some excellent nature videos of things like bobcats fighting housecats, tigers going after crocodiles, etc. those are nice, along with some music videos–eg rap.) . Old good movies with science themes like David Lynch’s ‘eraserhead’ and F lang’s ‘metropolis’ seem more nuanced than the matrix.

    I sort of call science ‘postmodern alchemy’ (it seems quantum theory showed alchemy was viable. and some theories in physics might also be in part ‘postmodern astrology’).

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  2. I would challenge your premise with regards to Star Wars. While it is lumped into the genre of science fiction, I would posit that what made the original Star Wars movies of the late 1970’s & 1980’s (& Rogue One) was their plots being intertwined with MystIcism/philosophy and the vision of the future. There is only a slight tip of the hat to science.
    In fact that is why all of the new Disney Star Wars movies are so AWFUL. They have gotten away from the depth of the story and character development necessary to sell the Mysticism of The Force and the JEDI and Sith. Now they are shallow re-treads of the old stories with new faux science toys/ship. Just BIGGLY done. And without interesting creativity’.

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  3. I was a senior in high school when the first Star Wars film came out. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t impressed with it. By that age, I’d already read quite a bit of good science fiction and I expected more from the film. There was very little real science in it. It was just cowboys and Indians in outer space. (I’m not sure if that idea is original with me or if I got if from somebody else, but it sums up my feelings about the franchise perfectly.) I do like the MCU movies. For whatever reason, the mix of science and magic doesn’t bother me too much. Maybe it goes back to the Arthur C. Clark quote. There’s a lot of humor in the films. That definitely helps.

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