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We spoke with the science consultant behind Doctor Strange’s mind-bending multiverse

You’d think that after 13 live-action movies and various tie-in television series, Marvel Studios would have explored every corner of its superhero universe. But Doctor Strange throws open quite a few new doors — particularly around the occult corners of the studio’s superhero worlds.

Ahead of the big debut for Marvel’s most popular magic wielder, the studio recruited Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, to serve as the film’s science consultant and help ease audiences into the heady supernatural concepts that Doctor Strange introduces. A self-described “evangelist of science,” Frank assisted director Scott Derrickson and the film’s creative team in finding the real-world science and concepts at the heart of some of the film’s time-and-space-twisting sequences.

Digital Trends spoke with Frank about his work on Doctor Strange and what it entailed, as well as how movies and television can (and do) endeavor to stay true to the science in modern science-fiction projects.

Digital Trends: So how does one end up becoming a science consultant on a superhero movie?

In many ways, my role was as both a scientific consultant for things like the multiverse and a philosophical consultant, too.

Adam Frank: In 2007, I wrote a book on science and religion. Even though I’m an atheist, I was sort of pushing back against [Richard] Dawkins’ sort of super-strident atheist perspective. I was put in touch with the director of the film, Scott Derrickson, because he is someone who is religious but has profound respect for science, and I’m an atheist who has a lot of respect for “spiritual endeavor,” if you want to call it that. So we started this long conversation over the years about the right way for these two domains to talk to each other. We particularly talked a lot about mystery and where that mystery appears in life. So in many ways, my role was as both a scientific consultant for things like the multiverse and a philosophical consultant, too.

What does one do as a science consultant – and as you mentioned, a philosophical consultant – for a film like Doctor Strange, which seems to be themed around bending or outright breaking the rules of science?

The way I saw fitting Doctor Strange into the Marvel universe was a philosophical question that goes back hundreds of years: the mind-body problem. What is the proper relationship between experience and matter? If you’re a reductionist, you say, “Oh, mind is just a bunch of neurons. You’re just your neurons, and your neurons are just your atoms, and your atoms are just made of quarks. So if I know the rules of the quarks, I know everything.

Many scientists are reductionists. I started off as a reductionist. And Doctor Strange starts off as a reductionist. There’s only matter.

So figuring out how to approach his “awakening” is where you come in?

One of the reasons I was brought in to do this is because the real problem is how to bring this character who gets his powers from a sort of mythical or occult source into a very science-based cinematic universe. The great thing about Marvel’s cinematic universe is that it has so much respect for science. It builds so much of what it does out of real world science – even though the science has been pulled way past its limits, you’re still building a coherent narrative.

We spent a lot of time talking about the conversation between Doctor Strange and The Ancient One – who is about to show him that the mind is one of the things you have to account for in the universe and doesn’t reduce to other things. What would that argument look like? As I said to the film’s writers, consciousness is the great undiscovered frontier when it comes to science. We don’t have a science of consciousness yet. We have neuroscience, but consciousness itself and the solution to the mind-body problem… we don’t have a science for that. We’re not even close. So that was a great opening to give Doctor Strange his place in the Marvel universe.

The multiverse is a key concept in the Marvel universe — particularly in the area of it that Doctor Strange inhabits. This appears to be the case in the movie, too. Is this something you were brought in to offer some insight on, too?

That was definitely a part of it.

Is there legitimate scientific theory behind the idea of a multiverse filled with alternate dimensions and such, like we see in Doctor Strange?

In a way, yes. Any idea of the multiverse suggests that there are universes other than our own that may have different rules or different histories. There could be other universes where gravity is ten times stronger or universes that are just like ours but the history is slightly different. In another universe, you and I could be talking on a Friday instead of a Thursday. It can be as subtle as that. And there are two ways in science that the multiverse is created.

The Big Bang didn’t create one universe it created many, many universes.

One version of the multiverse is a cosmological version where, after The Big Bang, our universe grew out of a sliver of post-Big Bang space and there were other parts of post-Big Bang space that sprouted their own universes with their own rules. So The Big Bang didn’t create one universe it created many, many universes.

Another way of thinking about the multiverse comes from quantum physics, where every time a quantum event occurs, the universe splits off into a number of parallel universes, each one with a different outcome of that quantum event. There’s the famous example of Schrodingers’s Cat, where you have a cat that’s either going to live or die based on radioactive decay. When the decay happens, the universe splits into one universe where the cat is dead and one universe where the cat is still alive.

So physics has a lot of different ways of thinking about parallel universes. What Doctor Strange is doing is not using those specifically, but using that idea that there can be multiple universes — they use the word “dimensions,” but they’re really universes — each with their own rules. And then it suggests that these universes can bleed into each other, and you can make connections between them.

When you work on a project like this, what is the reaction like inside the scientific community? Is there some skepticism toward scientists who get involved with sci-fi projects like this? Do you feel the responsibility of being an ambassador of sorts for science?

[Laughs] I think most of us now are all pretty into science-fiction to some degree. I have not had many people wonder why I’m doing this. Most people have thought it was really cool. And that’s the way I feel about it, being a Marvel fan from way back.

Do you feel like that’s changed over time — that respect for scientists who bring science into the mainstream?

These days, the distance between science and culture is so short now. Something that’s produced in a scientific laboratory becomes a driver of culture 15 minutes later via social media. Genetics, robotics, etc. … There’s a great need to have positive depictions of science out there. The Marvel universe is beyond science-fiction, but the great thing about Marvel is that they’ve been respectful of science; the characters value science. We live in a nation right now where half the country won’t admit that climate change is happening – they’re literally denying science. So these cinematic universes where the characters are scientists and respect the scientific process are very important. I think everybody understands that these are, of course, superhero stories, that they’re not serious in that sense, but they’re important in the way they represent science to us.

As a journalist, I occasionally find myself taken out of a movie-watching experience when characters do something that’s completely outside normal journalistic practice or simply wouldn’t happen in a newsroom. Over the last few years, we’ve started to see more scientists complain about this sort of thing when it comes to the way science (or lack thereof) is presented in movies or television projects. Is this the kind of thing you’re brought on to address from the start on a film like Doctor Strange? Does it bother you when you see that kind of stuff in movies?

It all depends on how they do it. Marvel’s universe is so clearly not based on current science. It’s not “hard” science fiction …

Marvel’s universe is so clearly not based on current science. It’s not “hard” science fiction.

like Apollo 13 or The Martian, you mean?

Right. Or The Expanse – I’m a huge fan of The Expanse. They’ve done a great job of trying to depict the science of the experience in that show. If you’re spinning on an asteroid, what science is at play there? When I watch a movie or television series, I keep in mind how seriously they’re taking the science and whether they respect the science. For example, in the first Avengers movie, the movie opens up and there’s a sign on the wall that says “Dark Energy Research Institute.” And I felt like, “Oh, that’s cool. Dark energy is a real thing. They didn’t just make up some crap.” So they clearly have people who, at the very least, know science. And they’re using that as a stepping-off point for their stories.

You mentioned The Expanse, but are there any other movies or television shows that you feel have a great grasp of the science aspect of science-fiction?

In general, Star Trek has been really good about it in the sense that it’s an extrapolation of science. It does a good job of playing with scientific ideas in a consistent way.

If you want stuff that’s really accurate, you can’t go too far into the future. That’s why I think The Expanse is so great, because it’s set just 200 or 300 years into the future. Once you get too far past that, you’re doing some serious extrapolation. The Martian was great, The Expanse is great… but if you want something that speculates in a very real way, it’s the Star Trek franchise.

Doctor Strange hits theaters November 4, 2016.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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