The silver-screen science that is becoming a reality

9 Mar 2015Bristol, UK

With science-themed movies making a big impact at this year’s Oscars, we explore the research that is helping to turn science fiction into science fact.

For some, 2015 will be seen as the year in which science made a lasting impression on the film industry.

Eddie Redmayne’s depiction of Professor Stephen Hawking earned The Theory of Everything a hatful of awards at both the Oscars and BAFTAs, while the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, fared similarly well.

The work of Christopher Nolan and his visual-effects team will live long in the memory, as their sci-fi epic, Interstellar, took intergalactic space travel to another level. It will also be remembered for spawning some new science, which led to the publishing of a paper by the film’s visual-effects team in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

The computer code that the team used to create the movie’s iconic images, such as the supermassive black hole Gargantua, led to new insights into the powerful, light-bending effects of black holes, and was one of the first instances in which the making of a film actually led to new discoveries.

Yet as technology advances rapidly, the science that we see in our everyday lives is beginning to catch up with the science fiction that is projected onto the silver screen.

Now you see it, now you don’t

Perhaps the most anticipated piece of technology is a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak, which regularly captures the imagination of the news media as physicists make steady progress towards hiding a range of objects from electromagnetic waves.

Traditionally, metamaterials have been proposed as a means of guiding light around an object – like water flowing around a rock in a stream – to make the object invisible. However, research published in New Journal of Physics has demonstrated how “plasmonic cloaking” and “mantle cloaking” could work as alternatives. In both instances, a material is used to “cancel out” the scattering effect as electromagnetic waves bounce off an object.

Research published in Nanotechnology has also shown how heat can be used to cloak objects through something known as the “mirage effect”. In this paper, the researchers explain how carbon nanotubes were heated to high temperatures, causing surrounding areas to heat up as well. This, in turn, causes light rays to bend away from an object, making it invisible.

Scaling the heights

The comic-book superhero has become a staple of modern cinema, and while many of the characters possess skills that are hard to imagine existing in real life, there are some that scientists believe could one day become a possibility.

In 2007, Professor Nicola Pugno, from the Polytechnic of Turin, described in the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter how a “Spider-Man suit” could be realistically fabricated by weaving millions of carbon nanotubes into threads about 1 cm thick.

Inspired by the feet of the gecko, Professor Pugno calculated that a person wearing boots and gloves made from the woven material could remain safely attached to a wall, and even hang from a ceiling. Professor Pugno also explained how the single strands of carbon nanotubes could be used to create artificial cobwebs, giving users the full Spider-Man experience.

While a complete Spider-Man suit may be many years away, researchers are already producing vehicles inspired by nature that are able to climb walls, such as this gecko-inspired robot presented in Smart Materials and Structures.

Rise of the machines

From C-3PO and R2-D2 to Wall-E and Johnny 5, robots have been present throughout the history of cinema. None have been more iconic – and chilling – than The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Terminator robot was characterized by its ability to track down individuals using “info-vision”, which was explored, on a much smaller scale, by an international team of researchers in 2011, who published their findings in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

The researchers presented a “proof-of-concept” computerized contact lens that could project a single pixel into the line of vision of the wearer. They showed how the device could be safely inserted onto the eye, and suggested that if the contact lens could include hundreds of pixels, a user could easily read e-mails and text messages right in front of their eyes, and even use it as a navigation system, like we see in The Terminator movie.

Researchers are also making strides to create individual robotic limbs that could be controlled by amputees and people with severe debilitating illnesses.

The idea of a robotic limb was first brought to life in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker was fitted with a robotic hand after his own was cut off by Darth Vader. Since the movie’s release in 1980, technology has advanced so rapidly that there are now numerous examples of patients being able to control a robotic arm to perform a number of different tasks.

A paper published in the Journal of Neural Engineering in 2014, for example, describes how a woman with longstanding quadriplegia was able to control a robotic arm, in more than 10 dimensions, using just her thoughts. This enabled the patient to grasp and move a number of different objects, as well as to perform “high fives” and a “thumbs-up”.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

An exploration of science and the movies wouldn’t be complete without consideration of time travel, especially as 2015 is the year that Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future II.

Although there is much debate as to whether time travel will ever be possible, in 2013 researchers from Germany decided to create visual representations of objects travelling through time in a theoretical version of our own universe – called Gödel’s universe – that would permit such a feat.

Writing in the New Journal of Physics, the researchers explain how this universe would allow the existence of closed time-like curves (CTCs), which would make it feasible “to go on a mind-boggling journey into one's own past”. The visualizations created peculiar optical effects that can be viewed in the video below.

The visualizations are a far cry from the iconic images of Marty McFly and Doc Brown cruising in their DeLorean in the Back to the Future series, and demonstrate that directors often need a bit of creativity to bring scientific ideas to life in the movies.

The final scene…

If the research discussed above has got you in the mood for a trip to the local cinema, then this paper from the New Journal of Physics may help you to predict which upcoming films are going to be most popular.

Using information on word-of-mouth communication and advertising budgets, the researchers were able to accurately predict the revenue of 25 different movies including The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, Transformers and Avatar.

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This article was written by Michael Bishop, Senior Press Officer at IOP Publishing. For more information contact: