September 27, 2014 @ 12:12 pm
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started up again last night (at least, on my DVR it did). The baddie du jour was Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man. Like Colossus becomes solid metal, Creel can become whatever he touches. In the comics, he's an Avengers-level badass, like DC's Metamorpho but dumber. Metamorpho at least took high school chemistry and knows how to apply it. Creel just bulks up and punches things. In the show his transformations were usually partial, to limit him enough that the SHIELD team could kind of handle him, which was probably a good decision.
In the comics, Creel's powers were magical, the result of some weird Asgardian potion, if I remember correctly. In the show, they wisely just said, We don't know how he does it. A technobabble explanation would just alienate the scientists and the continuity geeks, and the muggles everyone is now trying to recruit to watch all this geek-porn that's being produced wouldn't care, anyway.
Much of science fiction is only flavored with science, anyway. Some of that is cynical, but there are people who are interested in the real science but not trained as working scientists. I think I met one of those last night – Piper Kessler, who writes the web series Frequency, which is a romance between psychic time-traveling lesbians.
There are certain non-scientific phenomena that get updated whenever new science appears to maintain plausibility. It's the same emotional issue to deal with, but the metaphors used to explore the issue shift over time. Aliens are one. They used to be fairies and angels and demons; and then they were extraterrestrials, or time travelers; and now they're often extradimensionals. Psychic powers are another.
In the earlier part of the 20th century they were imagined to be based on electromagnetic waves, like radio (thus blockable by hats made of tinfoil). Marvel Comics, using a particle physics metaphor, invented the psion, a subatomic particle that psychics could manipulate with their minds. They also had a villain called Graviton, who was based on the real theoretical subatomic particle of the same name. I don't mean the particles are real (noone's found them), I mean that the theory was proposed by professional physicists in a serious way, not as a jokey plot device by a bunch of comics guys. Confusing, I know. Nowadays psychic phenomena are more often presented as phenomena somehow related to quantum physics, except on a human scale, like in this video, "Alice in Quantumland," last year's runner-up in a contest run by the journal Nature.
And that's a good thing, as far as it goes. Stories are a really useful tool for thinking about unintuitive phenomena. Not as good as mathematical models for prediction, but much better than nothing. Probably better than mathematical models for helping people think about the meaning of unintuitive phenomena.
Anyhow, Piper Kessler's psychics are based on brainwaves. When many thousands of neurons are spiking in synchrony, those tiny electrical disturbances add up into larger voltage changes that can be measured on the scalp through a machine called an EEG. When they're out of synchrony, the spikes average out. Different behavioral states tend to have different synchronous frequency bands. For instance, deep sleep is usually marked by average frequencies of less than 4 cycles per second, called delta waves. It's kind of like watching the clouds from an old-school weather satellite. You can see big things like hurricanes and the jet stream but not what's going on at street level, not traffic patterns within a single city. Modern spy satellites, of course, have much better cameras and can supposedly read license plates. You can read a lot more detail about EEG on Wikipedia.
Ms. Kessler's metaphor is unrealistically fine-grained. For instance, during her talk on Thursday about her fictional psychics she described telepathy is the same frequency as happiness, exactly 30Hz. Clairvoyance (displayed by Meredith Sause's character Claire) uses a different frequency, time travel another, and memory wiping and magical healing still others. That is sort of logical, as far as it goes, but it doesn't take into account most of the complexities of EEG, like it varies with different locations in the brain, or that those powers don't have anything to do with one another.
And you know what? That's OK. Many years of educational research have shown us that our undertanding of the physical world is based on internal mental models. Those models are never perfect, but they get better with experience. Making wrong predictions and updating the models based on the results of our experiments is one very important way of learning about complicated topics. Ms. Kessler played around with her fictional model in a logical, narrative way, and she predicted that if her character Deena the dentist practiced trying to control her brainwaves, she'd be able to achieve a particular frequency and learn to time travel. What she actually got (at first, at least) was telepathy.
That particular hypothesis was in fact correct. Not the telepathy, but the ability to shift the dominant frequency band of brain activity. It's been shown in controlled experiments that trained meditators can enter different attentional states more or less at will. These states display specific frequency bands. There's even a New Agey biofeedback-based video game called Wild Divine that's designed to teach people to manipulate their attentional state. There's also some evidence that trained meditators have more control over their moods, that they can deliberately generate positive emotions, which shift activity to the left hemisphere of the brain. So Ms. Kessler was right about the phenomenon, but wrong about the basis (location, not frequency alone).
Again, that's good. That's all any of us science types are ever doing, telling stories to ourselves and our students about our data. We just have special cultural rituals and tools for doing it that are more effective for the specific purpose of making predictions. Those rituals and tools are not very useful for people outside the trained “priesthood,” and they aren't very good for coming to terms with difficult situations on an emotional level. Stories are better for that.Share | Comments