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.
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.
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).
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.