Superheroes and sci-fi have long been the canvas for imaginative and wondrous scenarios that break the laws of physics or are otherwise unfathomable in the real world. From otherworldly creatures to space exploration and technological magic, there seems to be no limit to what the creative mind can conceive when given a dash of science. And while we should be used to a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief when it comes to superhero movies, the recent introduction of “quantum” concepts, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), has raised some eyebrows. As a quantum physicist myself, I am happy that my brand of science is getting some of the spotlight, but one has to wonder, is it harmless cinematic fun or a more serious misrepresentation of real-world science?
Quantum In Front of Everything
The term “quantum” is bandied about so liberally in the MCU that Ant-Man himself asks, “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Although the latest movie in the Ant-Man franchise is literally called Quantumania, it oddly has very little to do with quantum physics. The second installment, Ant-Man And The Wasp, really should have been the one called “Quantumania.” As seen in the clip above, the movie makes use of both real scientific terminology and concepts, as well as some invented terms that, unfortunately, align with outright nonsense.
Quantum technology, broadly, is the application of the principles of quantum physics to engineering. That’s probably the only accurately used term in the movie. The so-called Quantum Realm is a place that can be accessed by shrinking down using Pym Particles to a subatomic size. Within this realm, time and space “work differently,” which gives Marvel writers more than enough freedom to have their characters do whatever they want there. Now, to be sure, quantum physics, the laws obeyed by subatomic particles, is very different than classical physics, the laws obeyed by everyday objects like Hulks and the things they smash. But, the movie does not actually apply any of the rules of quantum physics to simulate the goings-on of subatomic things. The artistic depiction of the Quantum Realm is not even fairly called speculation — it is pure fantasy.
Quantum tunneling is a technical term in quantum physics that describes certain aspects of the wave-like nature of particles. Loosely speaking, when a quantum particle passes through a barrier it would not have if it were just a classical particle, we say it has “tunneled.” By analogy, the device used to navigate the Quantum Realm is called a Quantum Tunnel — which is also used elsewhere in the MCU to travel through time.
At face value, this is all just good old movie magic — a fanciful explanation for the spectacular. But, by associating quantum physics with time travel and mystical realms, the MCU inadvertently perpetuates the notion that anything labeled “quantum” is mysterious, immensely powerful, and borderline magical. This can be problematic, especially when real-world “quantum” scams, like the Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface, are on the prowl, preying on people’s lack of understanding.
Of course, there’s an inherent understanding that superhero movies aren’t true-to-life documentaries. They’re meant to entertain, not educate. However, the problem arises when fictionalized concepts muddy the waters for the general public, leading to misconceptions about what “quantum” really entails.
The worst example in the MCU is the abuse of “quantum energy,” which is a magical resource, eerily reminiscent of the many scams surrounding quantum terminology in the real world. In the MCU, this energy is “harvested” from the Quantum Realm in various forms, including the too-good-to-be-true Quantum Healing Particles. Whereas, back in the real world, the term “quantum” has been co-opted by various alternative medicine proponents, pushing products that claim to harness the power of quantum energy for healing and well-being. Just like in the MCU, where quantum energy becomes a panacea for almost every conceivable problem, many real-world scams offer quantum solutions as a universal remedy.
The danger lies not just in the potential misrepresentation of science in popular culture, but also in how these depictions might inadvertently lend credibility to pseudoscientific claims. When audiences see quantum energy healing on the big screen, it becomes that much easier to believe the audacious claims of a “quantum” product peddler. The profound and complex realm of quantum mechanics — with its entanglements, superpositions, and wave-particle dualities — deserves a more accurate and respectful portrayal, one free from both cinematic and commercial exploitation.
A Teachable Moment
On the brighter side, the MCU’s penchant for quantum can be seen as a teachable moment. Physicists and educators can use the popularity of these movies as a platform to clarify what quantum physics really is and its potential applications. After all, the next best way to combat misinformation beyond simply ignoring it, is by listening to experts.
Furthermore, some might argue that such portrayals can inspire a new generation of scientists, much like how Star Trek’s vision of the future led many into space and technology fields. If “quantum” in Marvel movies stokes curiosity about real quantum physics, then perhaps it’s a win?
Is quantum bullsh*t in Marvel movies problematic? It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. While there’s a risk of fostering misconceptions, there’s also an opportunity for enlightenment and inspiration. As long as viewers remember to differentiate between cinematic fiction and real-world science, a little quantum magic on the big screen might just be the spark that ignites a passion for true scientific discovery.
What are your thoughts on quantum portrayals in films and media? Do you think it’s a gateway to genuine interest, or does it risk misleading the public?
You can read more about quantum nonsense, with a dash of humor and a hint of sarcasm, in my book Quantum Bullsh*t.
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Dr. Chris Ferrie