If part of your work is explaining complex scientific ideas to a popular audience, then it makes intuitive sense to try to connect those ideas to popular culture. By definition, pop culture commands a large audience, so hooking a scientific topic to, say, a science fiction movie or a comic book makes it easier to repackage it for the maximum number of readers. That’s how you end up with books like The Physics of Star Trek or (less plausibly) The Science of Harry Potter. And if that sort of book helps people understand scientific principles, so much the better.
As with any genre of didactic writing, it’s always important to keep your eye on the prize. That’s not always easy for populists who go the pop culture route. The stories they rely on to make their introduction to new audiences tend to play loose and fast with science, which sometimes leaves actual science writers scrambling to correct the misconceptions they spread.
It makes for a sometimes antagonistic relationship. Take, for example, a recent post on popular biologist P. Z. Myers’ Pharyngula blog, which points out the implausibility of Spider-man’s prodigious web-fluid production. “Part of that is plausible,” he writes; “spider silk is amazingly strong stuff, and if you could produce it, sure, thin strands would support your weight. The problem is the volume.”
A bigger problem, it would seem, is engineering a human body to produce silk in the first place, but sure, let’s stick with volume. To make his case, he quotes some figures provided by Mark Lorch, a fellow biologist. In a fit of geekery, Lorch set out to calculate how much protein Peter Parker (Raimi’s Parker, that is – Spidey’s first trilogy nixed Peter’s homemade web shooters for organic webbing) would have to consume in order to catch Mary Jane after a fall from a balcony and stop their combined fall with a strand of webbing.
To pull off that feat even once, Lorch concludes, Peter would have to eat the equivalent of “about 900 eggs for breakfast.” So the answer is that it’s not plausible for a person to produce that much web-fluid. To which any reasonable person would respond, “Yes, P. Z., we know.”
People generally don’t read costumed superhero comics for scientific rigor. Marvel Comics in particular made its name by mixing pulp heroics with sci-fi so far-flung as to veer into myth. When Stan Lee partnered with Jack Kirby, Marvel’s handling of science bordered on the surreal.
Even when it remains somewhat grounded, the standard is almost always narrative, rather than scientific, plausibility. Spider-Man captivated audiences by melding the vine-swinging action of Tarzan to the more mundane drama of a boy trying to navigate the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. To make the combination of those elements narratively plausible, Lee initially wrote Peter Parker as a scientific prodigy.
Even as a child, though, I never imagined that the science of web-shooters and radioactive spider bites was methodologically sound. It was little more than a nimble contrivance, agreeable enough to ward off serious questions about how a high school nebbish ends up with the proportionate strength of a spider, without demanding that I dig too deep into how it all worked.
The point, for Myers, seems to be simply that we’re better off without that sort of nonsense.
“This is the kind of thing that just ruins comic book movies for me,” he says. “Good thing I really enjoy reality.”
While that’s a stauncher position than most scientific populists would take, he’s not alone in approaching pop culture from a position of skepticism. If nothing else, his post relies entirely on calculations provided by Lorch at The Conversation . But there’s also Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the most popular representative of science at the moment, who has recently kicked up several dust storms by criticizing representations of science in high profile movies like Gravity.
If the purpose of all this curmudgeonly joy-killing is to push for better portrayals of science in popular stories, so be it – though superhero movies are probably a lost cause and likely better loved for their hopelessness in that regard. On the other hand, if the point is to draw popular audiences to science, then people like Tyson and Lorch are undermining themselves every time they make hay over the implausibilities. The message their audiences are likely to infer is that science forces us to make a choice: a better understanding of the natural world or your enjoyment of works that use science as stage dressing. You can have your swashbuckling heroes when you can make them eat 900 eggs for breakfast.
That’s a needless dilemma that science writers could avoid by being clearer with themselves about what they hope to achieve when they write about pop culture. A better strategy is to look for opportunities that bridge fiction and nonfiction without denigrating either. It’s entirely possible to make Spider-Man into a jumping off point for talking about the physiological demands of being an actual spider without suggesting that we should be considering the biological disparities when all we want is a little wise-cracking, web-slinging adventure.
If you can’t do that, it’s probably best to leave it alone. When you force a choice, there’s always the chance fans will choose fantasy over reality.