Even the craziest of science fiction and fantasy movies usually attempt to keep at least one foot based in reality, but when you throw the added spice of a superhero universe movie into the mix, that can become pretty difficult.
Enter Doctor Strange, the next instalment in the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. The upcoming movie is set to be unlike anything we've seen in the MCU before, as it introduces magic and dimension hopping to the world, adding yet another fantastical layer to the superheroic franchise.
From the very first trailer Marvel Studios have been teasing something quite special here, an Inception-style journey through the MCU as we are introduced to a host of new characters. But even as physics gets stuck in a blender in Doctor Strange, there's still going to be the smallest connection back to reality there. How do we know? Because Inverse recently held an interview with someone involved in the production of the movie in a very interesting way.
Adam Frank — professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester — was enlisted to the Marvel train to help out as a scientific consultant on Doctor Strange. His role was to provide feedback on the way the movie uses space and time, largely because the entire focus of the movie is upon "the nature of reality and consciousness" and the producers wanted to get at least a grain of real-life science in there.
In Frank's interview with Inverse he spilled some beans regarding how exactly Marvel have hammered these real-world laws into that of Doctor Strange, and indeed the wider MCU itself.
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The Marvel Universe & Science
Frank begins by laying out a quick run down of how the MCU has handled science so far. When we see Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) flying around in his mechanical suit, watch Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) smash and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) cast spells, the whole thing can feel very far removed from anything scientific.
So you might be surprised to learn that — in Frank's opinion — Marvel Studios have demonstrated a "a respect for science" in their movies. It may not be science as we know it, but there's a strong backbone of rule running through the MCU.
"[Marvel have] built a consistent set of rules, and they’ve obeyed them throughout most of the movies. Compared to [the DC movies], they’ve imagined there’s a science at work. You know, Tony Stark and what he can do with the devices he builds and the idea that Thor, the inhabitants of Asgard, are actually aliens, magic … a number of times they’ve used that Arthur C. Clarke quote: "Any advance of technology looks like magic to other people."
And it's not just science which has been hammered down in the MCU so far. Frank later draws attention to how the laws of physics have been addressed, pointing to Thor's Bifröst Bridge as a "real life" version of the theoretical Einstein-Rosen Bridge (better known as a wormhole). And then of course Ant-Man brought in the notion of quantum mechanics, which we'll see built upon in Doctor Strange.
So, given the MCU's backstory of using fantastical and theoretical forms of real-world science, what was the biggest trouble Frank had as a consultant for Doctor Strange?
"The dilemma with 'Doctor Strange', to me, was to find a way to embrace that vision and that respect for science for a character who — in the comic books at least — is a magician, an occult master. And so how do you get that into the Marvel Universe?"
Consciousness In Doctor Strange
How indeed? So far the closest we've come to having magic in the MCU has been through the character of Scarlet Witch, but she's far removed from the sorceress which is her comic book counterpart, drawing her powers instead from the Mind Stone — one of the six Infinity Stones. And the Infinity Stones may be alien, but they're not quite magic.
According to Frank, he spent a lot of time discussing the nature of consciousness and neurological forces with the producers, the concept of consciousness being the way Frank believed they should go with the magic of Doctor Strange. Because, unlike physics, consciousness is something which is still largely unknown in the real-world scientific community.
"Consciousness is not like [physics]. We don’t really have a handle on what consciousness is. We don’t have a scientific, materialist, reductionist account for consciousness yet. Maybe we will have one, but it’s also entirely possible that we will not have one and we will need to add other things to have a proper science of consciousness."
The problem of consciousness lies in the nature of individual perception, as Frank explains. While we may be able to scientifically see how vision works by looking at how the visual input stimulates different areas of the brain, we still cannot understand an individual's "personal vividness of experience," a problem termed the "hard problem" by philosopher David Chalmers.
This was the question Frank and the producers tried to get a handle on for Doctor Strange. Not only the nature of individual consciousness and how that experience affects individual's perception of space and time, but also what consciousness is in the first place, and where it lives within us.
"It’s not just the mechanics of perception, it’s what is consciousness tapping into? What is consciousness part of? The typical materialist account of consciousness is you’re just your neurons. That’s it, end of story. You’re just the equivalent of a bunch of little springs and balls in your brain moving back and forth, or gears. For many years, people imagined that you could think of consciousness as just being the effect of the clockwork in your head. But people have always been pointing out the problems with that idea."
One concept Frank played around with in the Doctor Strange process was the idea that consciousness is not merely a biological system of neurons moving inside of our brains. They asked, what if there's more to an individual's system of perception than can be measured quantifiably. What if, within each person, there are entire universes?
"The neurons are [just] one way of describing what’s happening with consciousness, but that’s not all of it: There are other, so to speak, universes that can be opened through what we don’t understand about consciousness."
The MCU Multiverse
Speaking of universes, a staple of comic book superhero storytelling has long been the concept of the multiverse. Employed by both Marvel and DC Comics, the multiverse is very important when it comes to superhero media, and even more-so when we look at Doctor Strange. Dimension hopping has always been his jam.
And whilst Frank doesn't personally believe in the real-world concept of the multiverse himself, he enjoys it as a theoretical idea — especially when it comes to storytelling:
"The multiverse is such a rich idea. I don’t think it’s true, but that doesn’t matter. It certainly is discussed by physicists, it’s received a lot of attention by physicists, and it’s a really potent and rich thing to bring to your fictional universe. The scientific account of the multiverse is that after the Big Bang, you didn’t get one universe, you got lots of different universes. And each universe was separate from the others and had different physical laws."
Frank explains how the multiverse concept itself ties into that of quantum mechanics, proposing one theory that every time an event occurs on the quantum level it causes the universe to split off into multiple parallel dimensions, each of which then goes on to multiply off into many more possible realities. What Frank envisioned for the movie was coming up with a means by which to access all the other interconnected universes:
"So the multiverse is all the possible universes, and all these different universes have utterly different kinds of laws, different behavior, so you can use that idea in a story to allow your characters — especially as they’re using consciousness, using this openness of consciousness in the story — to be able to have access and move between these different universes.
In the Doctor Strange comics, he’s always going to these different dimensions. And that was very 1960s, totally groove-orific, trippy. So a way of bringing that into modern physics parlance is [thinking about how the] different dimensions become the different universes in the multiverse."
This may sound a bit far out there, but it does chime with the most recent issue of Doctor Strange (Vol 4), in which the titular Doctor Stephen Strange explains how magic in the universe is as interconnected as the blood vessels of the human body — calling back to his surgical origins.
It's all pretty mind bending stuff, for sure, but appropriate when drawing from the equally weird stuff that is the Doctor Strange source material. Thankfully we don't have much longer to wait before we find out just how much Frank's consultation influenced the movie, as Doctor Strange releases in the US November 4, 2016.