Doctor Strange, the highly anticipated Marvel film that will premiere on Friday, has already received acclaim among critics. However, there is more science to the film than meets the eye. Astrophysicist Adam Frank held a phone conference to discuss his work as a science consultant for Doctor Strange, answering questions from college newspapers nationwide.
The biggest focus of the conference was the presence of scientific and philosophical concepts in Doctor Strange, as well as how these elements can broaden the minds of audiences without sacrificing the fantastical elements of the source material.
As a superhero film with both scientific and mystical elements, Doctor Strange was a multifaceted project for a science consultant to tackle. Nevertheless, Frank’s accepted the position from director Scott Derrickson due to his interest in issues of science and spirituality as well as his lifelong love for Marvel.
Frank’s work consisted of making comments on the script and discussing everything from specific scenes to philosophical ideas with Derrickson, writer John Spaihts, and producer Kevin Feige.
Frank emphasized that one of Doctor Strange’s prominent characteristics is its presentation of various scientific and philosophical ideas. Through its medium, Doctor Strange was able to visualize exciting concepts that expand on scientific theory, such as that of the “multiverse” and the folding of space and time. Scientifically minded films like Doctor Strange, Frank claimed, help broad audiences become acquainted with challenging theoretical concepts.
“The representation is really a place where the art comes in,” Frank said. “Art is going to have to really lead the charge to giving us creative representations for things that, unless you’re a mathematician, you really can’t see —and when you see it as a mathematician, you’re seeing it through the lens of mathematics. But here, what they did in the film was create a version that anybody could see.”
These captivating visualizations are also important, Frank said, for their abilities to spark a person’s curiosity and even cause them to develop a lifelong interest in science. Frank himself was motivated as a child to study astronomy because of movies and comics; he cited the exciting covers of his father’s pulp science fiction magazines as a major influence behind his interest in learning more about the world.
“These movies can go beyond being just superhero movies,” Frank said. “Doctor Strange has that possibility of getting people to think about, for instance, the nature of consciousness and the maps that we use to represent the world and where those maps are partially incomplete.”
Doctor Strange in particular not only has the potential to pique interest in science, but it also introduces audiences to scientific philosophy. The particular viewpoint related by Doctor Strange is “emergence,” the idea touted by cognitive scientist and philosopher David Chalmers that an entity, such as a human being, exhibits properties beyond those of its smaller components. In fact, Frank spent more time talking to the filmmakers about philosophy, consciousness and individual experience than fact-checking the script for scientific accuracy.
“The open question here was really a philosophical question,” Frank said. “It’s the question of the nature of consciousness, or in philosophy what we call the mind-body problem. We often talk about science in the Marvel universe, but here was a place where explicitly we could touch philosophy.”
Frank also claimed that science fiction in particular has played pivotal roles in predicting future societal trends. He cited William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk trilogy Neuromancer, which foretold today’s cyberwarfare and coined the term “cyberspace.” Works of fiction such as these exemplified how creative minds can influence scientific and technological fields through fiction.
“William Gibson was not a computer scientist at all; in 1982, there were barely even dial-up modems,” Frank said. “But from that, he imagined the world that we live in now. Good science fiction not only educated the public, but it also creates the universes that we end up living in.”
Frank ultimately asserted that the main purpose of a fictional work is to tell a good story. A good story is one that incorporates science in a way that is consistent with its own world. For instance, Star Trek frames itself in a way that lends itself to an extension of science, whereas The Martian has the duty to be more scientifically accurate because it seeks to reveal what would actually occur if a man were stuck on Mars. In this way, fiction can be scientifically faithful without sacrificing the fantastic qualities of their world.
“This is what’s important for movies: it’s that they have respect for science,” Frank said. “They have respect for the scientific process, they represent that process and that excitement and that promise well. They represent it in a way that does homage to what science has given us … I want a good story where the science is incorporated in a way that is thoughtful.”