The science behind Ant-Man: Did they really just put 'quantum' in front of everything?
Ant-Man and the Wasp is the latest Marvel superhero film to hit multiplexes this summer. And while there are the requisite car chases, fight scenes and CGI magic, the movie has a lot of scientific themes too — or maybe we should call them "science-adjacent" themes.
[The quantum realm] is a fascinating space, full of possibilities. A place you can think of as the source of the code of reality where all superpowers come from.- Spiros Michalakis
As Ant-Man himself says in the movie, there are times when it seems the film's science-types just put the word "quantum" in front of everything.
But while the film is mostly fantasy, thanks to Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist at the California Institute of Technology who served as the film's science adviser, when the characters say "quantum," there's at least a taste of real science behind the story.
'Spooky action at a distance'
The "quantum realm" is a term that Michalakis came up with to describe the subatomic world that's central to the new Ant-Man film.
The main mission in this story is for Ant-Man (a.k.a. Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd) and the crew — Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — to bring Hope's mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp, back from the quantum realm. In the story she was stranded there while on a mission 30 years years ago to disable a Soviet nuclear missile.
Back in the real world, Ant-Man is discovered to be somehow mentally connected to Janet van Dyne and they use that connection to track her down and bring her back.
According to Michalakis, that mysterious connection is based on an actual quantum physics concept called quantum entanglement, which Einstein famously referred to as "spooky action at a distance."
"It's this idea that somehow particles can become entangled, connected, correlated in a way that it doesn't matter how far away they are from each other, but they will know about each other," said Michalakis.
If something happens to one particle, the other will change its own internal state to reflect what happened to its partner. And the interesting thing is the empty space we typically think of as the vacuum in our universe is actually full of entanglement, said Michalakis.
Every superhero film has a villain. In this movie, Hannah John-Kamen plays a woman who can walk through walls, and is appropriately known as Ghost.
After learning about the character (who first appeared in an Iron Man comic in 1987), Michalakis introduced the film crew to the concepts of quantum tunnelling and quantum superposition to explain and elucidate her powers.
"The idea is that she was out of phase with this reality because she was entangled with multiple different realities very strongly," he explained. "It's actually what happens when you isolate a system from the rest of the environment and all of a sudden that system reverts back to its nascent quantum state, a state of superposition between multiple realities."
Ghost is often seen fading in and out and popping up all over the place in the film. That's precisely because she's entangled with multiple realities, explained Michalakis.
"The world that you're interacting with is trying to place the Ghost in a specific reality. As it's trying to do that, the light that is bouncing off of her body ends up getting mixed up and confused, creating a human superposition at the macroscopic scale."
Quantum realm in future Marvel movies
Michalakis hinted that the quantum realm he named will be an important feature in future Marvel movies, especially after the shocking ending to Avengers: Infinity War.
As for the next Ant-Man film, he would love to see the producers and writers really get their teeth into the quantum realm.
"[The quantum realm] is a fascinating space, full of possibilities," said Michalakis. "It's a place you can think of as the source of the code of reality where all superpowers come from."