Columnist Wil McCarthy watches the Watchmen break the laws of physics

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Well, they've finally done it. Thanks to Warner Brothers, Alan Moore's Watchmen—often regarded as the greatest graphic novel of all time, and among the least filmable—has actually been made into a movie. Of course, Hollywood reached in its mutagenic tendrils and brought back something with the casual violence of Natural Born Killers, the cowboy apocalyptica of Dr. Strangelove, the political intrigues of the Watergate era, the sex appeal of 9 ½ Weeks, the poignant musical sensibility of Scrubs and the whimsy of none of the above.

Fully deserving of its R rating, this is a sad, violent film about sad, violent people where the only one actually saving the world is the villain. While most superhero movies are about action and drama, this one's a straight-up tragedy and definitely not for kids. And yet it works very well, both as a movie and as an adaptation of the comic book. Director Zack Snyder (300), along with screenwriters David Hayter (X-Men) and newcomer Alex Tse, deserve credit for remaining faithful to the mood of Watchmen while ditching its most comic-booky elements in favor of something a little more cinematic.

Come on, seriously, the movie audience was never going to buy the Trans-Dimensional Psiono-Squid-That-Mind-Melted-Manhattan, and even if it did, the results would have looked a bit too much like Cloverfield.

Now, as the resident science geek, I'm tasked with deconstructing this story on its technical merits, and I have to say I'm of two minds about it. Given that most of the superheroes have no actual superpowers, there's not a lot to argue about with them. Nite Owl is basically a Batman pastiche, and I've gone on record many times saying Batman is fine with me.

But the Owl Ship pushes the boundaries awfully hard; it has no wings, no rotors and no obvious fuel tank. In the book it's just a hollow metal egg that is somehow capable of loitering silently in midair for hours at a time. It sports twin vector-controlled rocket exhausts in the movie, but these just raise additional questions, because what the heck is powering these things? Where is the energy that drives them, and where do they get the reaction mass they're ejecting as white-hot plasma?

And of course, Dr. Manhattan is something else altogether. He can teleport and levitate objects, he can change size, he can kill with his thoughts and rearrange atoms to reformulate matter into anything he likes. What's more, he doesn't seem to eat or drink or breathe, relying instead on some sort of cosmic energy for his sustenance. I'm sorely tempted to declare him impossible and leave it at that, but it's more fun and more challenging to put on my apologist hat and, you know, find a way to explain him.

In the movie, all we're really told is that physicist Jon Osterman was disintegrated by nuclear radiation and reborn as a sort of nuclear ghost. Now this is just plain silly; the 20th century saw all kinds of nuclear experiments—including the vaporization of a hundred thousand Japanese citizens at the end of World War II—and no object or person or animal ever acquired superpowers or came back from the dead as a result.

However, to understand the apparatus that ended Jon's human existence, we need to look at what the book actually says: The chamber contains a particle cannon designed to "separate objects from their intrinsic fields." This actually makes a bit of sense, and for 1985 it's a particularly advanced concept, as this didn't make its way into mainstream physics until the late '80s and did not find much public awareness at all until the early aughts. Indeed, unlike other advanced physics concepts such as black holes, wormholes, hyperspace, time travel and chaos theory, the "vacuum energy" has not become a household term, and possibly it never will.

The earliest hints of this theory date all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who hypothesized an invisible substance called "ether" or "aether" that permeated space. Isaac Newton further refined the concept as a "lumineferous aether" whose vibrations carried light and heat around the cosmos. After all, sound waves travel in air, and water waves travel in water. Shouldn't light waves have a medium of their own? Could they move through space and time if they didn't? But if that were true, there should be perceptible currents in the aether—and thus changes in the speed of light—as the Earth swung its way around the sun every year.

Alas, experiments in the 1880s were unable to find any evidence of this effect, and in the 1900s the theory was demolished by Einstein's relativity and quietly abandoned. But in 1948, a physicist named Hendrick Casimir discovered what is known today as the Casimir effect: an invisible attractive force between two metal plates that grows stronger as the plates are brought closer together and becomes extremely powerful as the distance between the plates shrinks to microscopic dimensions.

As weird as it sounds, this attractive force actually turned out to be a repulsive force exerted by the entire universe, pushing (rather than pulling) the two plates together. It turns out the "vacuum" of empty space is full of virtual particles that can also be thought of as vibrations in an invisible energy field, known today as the Zero Point Field. Not unlike Newton's aether, the ZPF permeates all of space and serves as a carrier for electromagnetic radiation. The only differences are abstractions only a physicist could love: the field is isotropic (i.e., the same in all directions) and Lorentz-invariant (meaning the same at all velocities). Other than that, it's actually not so different from the mystical "fifth element" described by Plato in 300 BC.

Needless to say, this came as a bit of a shock to the physics community; it's like a fish discovering that the empty space around it is actually filled with the complex brew of ocean water. Then again, by understanding this new medium the fish can learn more about its own limitations and even find clever ways around them. To his fishy fellows, an air bubble is something as exotic and mysterious as Dr. Manhattan is to us, and if that glowing blue naked body is actually a bubble of Casimir supervacuum—a region where part of the Zero Point Field has been forcibly excluded—then a lot of strange things really would be possible in its vicinity.

What survived of Jon Osterman after his accident is an energy pattern—a stable imprint on the Zero Point Field that retains not only a human shape but the basics of human anatomy, along with much of the ebb and flow of Jon's mind and memories. And when you think of it this way, Dr. Manhattan stops seeming completely ridiculous and starts seeming, say, three-fifths ridiculous. Because, you know, even if it were possible to create self-aware eddies in the vacuum energy, it seems a little far-fetched that it could happen by accident.

Indeed, the book notes in passing that the U.S. military has been unable to replicate the conditions of Dr. Manhattan's birth. One shudders to think how many volunteers they vaporized before finally giving up, but it seems Jon's ability to reassemble his components in the correct sequence was a kind of superpower he had inside him all along. Because of his superior intellect? Because of his training in nuclear physics and watch repair? Because he ate his spinach the night before? Sadly, the world may never know.

Anyway, the movie shorts most of the details, but Dr. Manhattan's research has yielded not only electric cars but also "safe, economical airships" that stay aloft by some means other than a bag of helium. Which of course explains the Owl Ship, and makes further nonsense of its rocket thrusters unless they were installed purely for dramatic effect (something I wouldn't put past Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl's obsessive secret identity). These technologies probably are possible, and it does make sense that a superpowered physicist—one who can actually see and manipulate subatomic particles and gaze into his own future—would have an edge over the rest of us in discovering them.

So while I wouldn't recommend using a particle cannon to detatch your intrinsic field—at least not anytime soon!—I do think there's enough plausibility here to make for a pretty decent comic book. Call me crazy, but I think this Watchmen story might just have enough legs to carry it past its Cold War roots and into the 21st century.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia: "aether", "Casimir effect"
Britannica 2009 Ultimate Reference Suite: "ether", "Hiroshima and Nagasaki"
The Internet Movie Database: "Watchmen"

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.