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May 18 2012

The science of The Avengers (part two). AICN's Copernicus continues their look at the movie. This time the focus is on the characters.

Part one can be found here.

Wheee! Good stuff, very cool.
Now that was fun!
Enjoyable reading, as the first one was. (And agreed that Banner was a very convincing scientist.)

If they wanted a cool video for non-Newtonian fluids, though I'd have gone with cornflour and water on a speaker, courtesy of QI. Morphs making love!
skittledog, thanks for the great link. That was wonderful and makes a change from the usual running across a pool footage (which is also very impressive).

This was another fun article. Copernicus explains aspects of the science very well, but I thought his explanation of that sense of confident authority that experts have was particularly striking.

I didn't think he was always so good on the characters abilities. For example, Steve Rogers abilities are very unlike what you would find with steroids and the idea and potential for super-soldiers is surely a topic that some scientists could say fascinating things about.

Of more particular interest to me were his remarks on magic. I'm not an expert on magic, but I have studied it a little as part of a project I worked on considering the rationality of magical practices. There are a lot of fascinating elements concerning spirituality, subjectivity and personal transformation, as well as different kinds of knowledge. As a rough analogy, to think you can capture all of that by expanding our scientific understanding of the universe is a little like thinking that literary criticism can be reduced entirely to the language of physics. This doesn't mean that they are competing discourses; just that literary criticism can't be fully captured in the terms and methods of physics.

More dramatically, Copernicus also misses ideas from the literature on miracles, which are very often (but not always) taken to involve not just divine intervention but intervention that requires the breach or the suspension of ordinary scientific laws in a way that is not governed by them. Perhaps all these things are bunk; but if they are not then they are not the sort of thing that can be subsumed under the methods of science. Science is a particular cultural development, it can change over time, but 'science' isn't just a word that covers any effective means of understanding and investigating anything. And even if the meaning of the word were to expand, it doesn't mean that science, as we mean it today, has the potential to cover anything and everything.

I also rather hoped that Thor's claim (in his own film) that on Asgard magic and science are one and the same is supposed to mean something more interesting than the claim that their scientific knowledge outstrips ours. That's just a hope, though, not a conviction; I don't know what Thor (or the script writer) meant.

Or, to come at it another way, Copernicus isn't just saying that magic is automatically subsumable under the business of science, he is actually expressing scepticism about magic and optimism about science. I'm not sure if he realises he's doing this, as his comments on reversing Clarke's observation about talk of 'magic' are ambiguous; and his remarks about the Marvel universe suggest he thinks he's making a logical point. In the real world, I lean towards sharing his scepticism and a little of his optimism; but I don't see why that should carry over into the fictional Marvel universe. That's because I don't think it is a matter of logic, or the meaning of the terms, that everything magical is potentially perspicuous to scientific investigation.

Nevertheless his comments on magic were very interesting and they do capture one aspect of occult causation that makes it so hard to define magic in any precise enough way that we can pose nice neat general questions about whether magical causation is real, or exists, or not. What kind claims about the scope and variety of causation would we be making? It is easier in relation to more specific causation claims, though. Like, 'I can kill you with my brain' or 'Dance a jig at dawn and Amy Acker will fall in love with you' (it didn't work). Thor, at any rate, could kill me with a headbutt.

Sorry, that went on a bit. In any case, it's certainly lovely to read an article like this.

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