2011 Summer Movie Smackdown: Unraveling Science Fiction From Fact

Five summer blockbusters get a shot of reality

This summer there’s an excellent line-up of films full of mind-blowing technology. A stealth aircraft makes an appearance in X-Men: First Class, while the Green Lantern will travel between worlds using a ring that can open up wormholes. Although some of these gadgets remain far beyond the realm of possibility (at least for now), here’s the science behind Hollywood’s awesome line-up of wrist lasers, vibranium shields and X-jets.

Click here for the summer movie science smackdown.

X-Men: First Class

June 3 X-Men: First Class The fifth in this popular series of comic-book spin-offs is a prequel: In the early 1960s, super-psychic Charles Xavier secretly establishes a school for genetic mutants with extraordinary powers. As the young mutants learn to harness their abilities, they form alliances that will divide the group into the well-meaning X-Men and their nefarious rivals, the Brotherhood of Mutants. Science Fiction To shuttle the mutants around the country, Xavier commissions the creation of the X-Jet, a stealth aircraft that has the coast-to-coast range of an SR-71 Blackbird and the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities of the V-22 Osprey. It can also reach a top speed of 3,234 mph. Science Fact a€œA plane with some combination of these qualities is technically possible, but it would be practically useless,a€ says Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine, a history of the V-22 Osprey. To take off vertically, the X-Jet would need to generate a pound of thrust for every pound of aircraft, he says. This would burn so much fuel that the plane’s range would be limited to a few counties, not a full country. Instead, the X-Jet would most likely resemble the V-22, which has a 1,000-mile range and a top speed of about 300 mph, and took 25 years and $22 billion to design and build. How do the X-Men overcome such incredible constraints? a€œWith Beast’s technical wisdom and Magneto’s ability to move metal around, you can accomplish a lot in a short time,a€ says the movie’s producer, Bryan Singer.

Green Lantern

June 17 Story: After chasing down a fallen spacecraft on the California coast, pilot Hal Jordan discovers a ring that grants him extraordinary powers. In accepting it, Jordan becomes the first human to serve as a Green Lantern, a guardian that protects the universe from evil–in this case, the mad scientist Dr. Hector Hammond. Science Fiction: The ring takes its orders from Jordan’s mind, enabling him to fly, knock multiple bad guys off their feet, and even create wormholes through which he can travel thousands of light-years within minutes. Science Fact: People can indeed control machines with brain signals. Johns Hopkins University scientists are conducting clinical trials for the Modular Prosthetic Limb, a robotic arm operated by the user’s thoughts. But the ring’s ability to generate shortcuts across the universe raises more questions. a€œWormholes are possible in principle,a€ says physicist Eric Davis of the Institute of Advanced Studies, a think tank in Austin, Texas, but creating them takes a tremendous amount of negative energy. It would take the mass equivalent of a€“71 percent of Jupiter to create a wormhole suitable for travel. Producer Donald De Line explains that a Green Lantern’s ring derives its energy from a battery on the alien planet Oa. a€œThe battery stores the collected willpower from around the universe,a€ he says. Note to NASA: Find Oa, solve energy crisis.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

July 1 Story: The Autobots, the good half of a race of shape-shifting alien robots, learn of a secret spacecraft hidden on the moon. The vessel’s contents, which may include former Transformer leader Sentinel Prime, could decide the outcome of the imminent war between the Autobots and their evil half, the Decepticons. Science Fiction: Autobots and Decepticons rapidly transform from two- to three-story-tall humanoids into cars, trucks and fighter jets. Science Fact: a€œWe’re a long way from Transformers,a€ says Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Seth Copen Goldstein, but radically shape-shifting machines are on the distant horizon. He suggests that instead of sending several specialized rovers to Mars, NASA could dispatch a multipurpose robot that could morph from a rover into a hut. These machines would be made from millions of autonomous, adjustable modules. Goldstein’s group is already developing such a module: a millimeter-scale cylinder made from a rolled-up computer chip. He hopes to program several of them to form simple shapes, such as a pyramid.

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 22 Story: During World War II, wimpy soldier Steve Rogers volunteers for a scientific experiment that transforms him into the hulking super-trooper Captain America. In addition to battling the German army, Captain America goes up against the monstrous villain Red Skull, the product of a Nazi super-soldier experiment gone awry. Science Fiction: Captain America’s iconic shield is made of a material called vibranium. The shield absorbs the shock of machine-gun bullets and tank shells, but Cap can also hurl it to cut through enemy weaponry like a razor Frisbee. Science Fact: No material can be simultaneously hard enough to slice metal and soft enough to usefully absorb shock, says University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes. Even if vibranium were actually an alloy of hard and absorptive materials, the combination, he says, would probably just end up averaging their properties. The comics explain that vibranium came from outer space, which might at least account for the shield’s slicing ability: One of the hardest known real-world minerals, lonsdaleite, forms when meteorites containing graphite strike Earth.

Cowboys & Aliens

July 29 Story: In 1873, Arizona outlaw Jake Lonergan awakens in the desert with a strange contraption locked onto his wrist. As marshals take him into custody, the gadget begins beeping, a fleet of alien ships arrive, and Lonergan uses the mysterious weapon to fight off the invaders. Science Fiction: Lonergan’s wrist-mounted laser cannon has a holographic targeting system and enough firepower to bring down an alien gunship with a single blast. Science Fact: It’s not easy to disable airborne threats with lasers. The Pentagon has been developing its $5.2-billion Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) project, which can take out ballistic missiles midflight, for more than a decade. Even if such a device could be made, says Stanford University physicist Jan Stupl, it would have to be pretty biga€”the ALTB takes up an entire Boeing 747. It would also need a water cooling system and a power source, which would probably require a tanker truck worth of fuel: a€œWe are not talking about anything remotely wrist-mounted.a€