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May 15 2012

The science of The Avengers. AICN's Copernicus discusses scientific accuracies and inaccuracies in The Avengers.

Spoiler tags aren't needed at this point.
This was a fun read. Being science inclined, I love it when people use popular culture to impart scientific ideas to the public.
This is the kind of thing I like. I too wondered about the "anti-electron" terminology in the movie.
But no griping about Iron Man 'falling' back through the wormhole? Hmm. I guess there are only so many nits you can pick while remaining entertaining...

(Actually, the 'timer' on the bomb did bug me too. Especially as by that logic it still should have detonated over Manhattan before it could be steered away, so it's not like they added a science hole to hide a plot hole.)
Only saw once, and wasn't interested in the science side of the story at the time, but I remember it as "it will reach you in a minute" not "the timer will blow in a minute". Obviously I'm remembering wrong, and don't have a great point to make, other than it didn't take me out of the movie because that's what I heard.
@ skittledog
You know I didn't particularly have a problem handwaving the whole gravity-in-space conundrum as earth's gravitational field having some sort of bleed over on the other side of the wormhole. Does that hold any mileage for you? Gotta love soft science!
If Earth's gravity can't bring Tony back, how does it keep our atmosphere from being sucked into the vacuum on the other side of the portal?
Wibbly wobbly spacey wacey stuff, I assume.

Could he have been blown back by the force of the explosion?
If the portal is right on the edge of space (could be, I can't tell), then gravity (and pressure differentials) keep hold of our atmosphere in just the same way they do with, you know, the bit of space we're actually in. That works for me (even though it looked kind of lower down than that).

Cinematically, I would probably have accepted him being 'blown back' by the explosion even though that also does not work at all in a vacuum... he would just keep going forwards until some particles from the explosion came out to hit him. But since he started 'falling' back towards the portal as soon as he let go of the missile (at least, as far as I can recall) that isn't what is shown anyway.

Gravity (if it's working through the wormhole, depending how wormholes work here) could indeed pull him back towards Earth, but he's going at missile speed away from Earth's atmosphere - unless the Chituari fleet is a lot further away than it looks and the wormhole stays open for a pretty long time and he's heading directly away from the wormhole when he lets go, no sideways motion vectors (incredibly unlikely even if he was trying for it, though I suppose Jarvis could probably manage it for him), then there just isn't time for gravity to decelerate his motion away from the Earth and then re-accelerate him back towards it in a pretty parabola whilst he blunders into various bits of shrapnel flying towards him from the nuclear explosion, and get him back to the wormhole in time to fall through it. Missiles can travel at multiples of the speed of sound at normal atmospheric pressure, which means even faster at the edge of space or in it... and if the wormhole is indeed at the edge of the atmosphere such that our air is not getting sucked into space, then they're travelling at escape velocity by definition and gravity isn't bringing them back.

I think. Been a while since I did this stuff in anger. But I can't find a way to make it work (especially not given the details of how it was depicted on screen).

Eh. It's not a big deal. And since comics storylines seem to all rely on 'it's gamma!' anyway, probably not something I should dwell on...
Yup, this is where I betray my knowledge of physics as reading a lot of Brian Green books but going a little dim when I try to think of the maths involved.

Appreciate the info though Skittledog!
Who says that gravity pulled Iron Man back to Earth? As he is pushing the missile, we also see parts of his armor (thrusters?) being ejected shortly before his power fails. IM had a chance to build up some momentum towards the portal.

Also, no timer. It exploded when it hit the alien ship. (Like CaptainB said, the minute was the time to reach the impact point, not a timer.)
The portal is clearly not at the edge of our atmosphere, as people on building-tops can see human-sized aliens emerging from it on compact-car-sized sled-things.
Yeah. The only way that works then is if the wormhole has a 'let Chitauri and nuclear missiles and men in metal suits through, but not air particles' setting. Pft. I will be ignoring that, I think.

OneTeV, my point was that when he releases the missile he is still travelling forward at the same speed as the missile. Nothing ejected from the suit before that point can possibly push him back towards the wormhole, because if it did he wouldn't still be holding the missile - we'd see him forcibly pushed backwards away from the missile as it continues on. Once the suit is dead, I don't remember anything more falling off it (and definitely not in an active way that would slow his forward motion or push him backwards).

[ edited by skittledog on 2012-05-16 18:05 ]
My go-to reference for portals is Stargate, and IIRC, there's something early on in the series where they mention that the gates have some sort of way to detect whether whatever comes up against the gate is actually "trying" to go through - ie, it will let solid objects through, but not air or (in a couple cases) water. Not really consistent though, because explosions and cores of suns and things still go through, as well as thrown objects. Also gravity, if it's really strong (black hole).

My long-winded point is that portals tend to have rules of their own for story convenience.
Wouldn't the nuke have been detonated several hundred feet above ground level for maximum effect?
Nice read. I'm no scientist, but I find no problem with Iron Man falling back to earth. There is still substantial gravity outside the atmosphere. The only reason why satellites can stay in orbit is because they are in circular motion and the centrifugal force offset the gravity. (that's also why they are weightless in orbit) So as long as he didn't fly far far off the earth (which seems to be the case in the movie) or start to circle the earth, he will fall back. He also didn't start falling immediately in the movie. They cut to Chitauri dropping dead. So that's all good.

The more unrealistic thing for me is when the Hulk catches him and glide a few floors down to break the fall. Iron Man started free-fall from the edge of the earth. He will gain insane speed from falling that much. Even if the Hulk is incredibly strong and the catch didn't chop off his arm and Iron Man's suit has super powers so that the catch didn't break his neck or spine, that little distance won't break the fall. I remember reading news about a sausage flying out of a window that landed on a pedestrian's head and killed him.

As for the A-bomb, it also bugs me because they usually detonate when they reach the target area. In the movie, it looks like it detonated on impact not with a timer though. But like the author, none of these takes the fun out of the movie for me.
Yeah, I was never expecting The Avengers to be as scientifically accurate as Firefly - not really the point of a superhero movie. I'm actually surprised at how much research Joss must have done to get so many things RIGHT, scientifically speaking.
Question: does anybody here happen to know if there were scientists in advisory roles on The Avengers? (I assumed so as soon as I heard the 'coulomb barrier' line in the cinema). I'm a science reporter (I work and write for a Dutch popular science magazine) and I'm currently writing a story on science advisors, and would love to include an advisor from The Avengers in my story. I've tried to get the info through a few regular channels (no luck so far), but maybe someone here just happens to know? :).

Anyway, back to the main point: this was a fun read - I love this stuff. I've organized (and done) a few public lectures over here in The Netherlands on the science in movies and am working on a (Dutch) 'science and movies' blog, so this is right up my alley :).

As for Iron Man falling down, I'm with skittledog. The scene pulled me out of the movie a bit in the theater, even if it is just a minor deal (and very acceptable from a dramatic standpoint).

I agree with QingTing that gravity probably works through the wormhole (which makes sense, as wormholes don't have an event horizon, like black holes do, which would effectively cut him off from the influence of earth when through the wormhole and vice versa) - if this even was a 'wormhole' in the physics sense, of course. I also believe the movie showed the wormhole to be up in the sky, but definitely within the earth's atmosphere. I'd say it was at the hight a commercial airplane might fly.

But, yeah, even assuming gravity works through the wormhole, there's no real reason to assume he slows down and starts to fall back to the earth within an instant of letting go of the missile. It felt unnatural while watching but again, just a minor detail :).
Iron Man started free-fall from the edge of the earth.

Did he? It looked to me like the portal was just about the height of low cloud-cover--not at the edge of the atmosphere. Not that it matters because it's still high enough for Iron Man to hit terminal velocity. You only need to fall about 1,500 feet to reach that (depending on your orientation etc.). So the Hulk catching Iron Man is no more (or less) unbelievable if he's falling from the edge of the atmosphere than if he's falling from the top of the Chrysler building.

Oh, and the sausage thing really wouldn't work unless it was a very, very large sausage and frozen solid. You could toss sausages off the Empire State Building all day long (kids: Do Not Do This!) without doing anything more than annoying (or feeding) the pedestrians down below. The urban legend I remember as a kid was that if you dropped a penny off the top of the Empire State Building and it landed edge first it would cut right through your entire body. That, too, is false. A penny, even if it lands on edge, has a very low terminal velocity (low mass, high drag coefficient) and you'd be quite safe having someone bounce pennies off your head from the top of the highest building in the world.
We should just reference the concrete science regarding wormholes...oh wait, there isn't any. None that isn't theoretical science, at least (since no one has actually seen a wormhole, any discussion as to whether or not the depiction of what happened to Iron Man in The Avengers is accurate is nothing more than theory and opinion and no amount of hypothesized "facts" changes that), so, in my humble opinion, looking for potentially trivial errors of science in a movie where there's a guy who is the end result of a super soldier serum experiment gone right, another guy who is the end result of a super soldier experiment gone wrong (if we are going by the movie's canon, as opposed to being exposed to a gamma bomb), a guy who created a suit of powered armor to prevent shrapnel from going into his hart while being help captive in an Afghani cave, an alien invasion, and 2 gods, seems really, really pointless and the very definition of nit picking.
The article was well-written, though.
It's a natural thing to do, though. Just the same as nitpicking out-of-character actions when the character is an entirely theoretical being such as a vampire. It's the difference between 'things we don't know about so they can work however the writers choose' and 'things we do know about and they don't work like that.'

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