One of the most exciting things about the November 4 (TODAY!) release date of Doctor Strange is getting to finally see how the new magical aspects of the Doctor’s world will mesh with the rest of the more science-oriented MCU where powered suits, super serums, high-tech alien “gods”, and self-aware AI are the order of the day. While Ant-Man may have briefly addressed the quantum realm, Doctor Strange doubles down on other “realms” by speaking openly about other dimensions, worlds, and the multiverse and the rules involved in traveling to these areas and what can or cannot be done.
At times it’s less about magic and more about…well…the science of magic.
Which should really come as no surprise since the film has a noted astrophysicist as consultant. Adam Frank from the University of Rochester in New York worked on the film and aided in keeping the mystical worlds of the film linked with the more science-heavy aspects of the rest of the MCU. The website Space.com sat down to talk to him about the movie, the science of philosophy, the multiverse, and, quite literally, everything (including his personal love of comics).
Space.com: How did you get involved with Doctor Strange?
Adam Frank: I’m a practicing astrophysicist; I do computational astrophysics studies, star formation, exoplanets and things like that. I’ve been writing about science and culture for a long time, and in 2007, I wrote a book on science and religion.
Someone put me in touch with Scott (Scott Derrickson, the film’s director), because he is religious but he has a strong respect for science, and I’m an atheist and I have a strong interest in human spirituality and respect for what goes on in human spiritual thinking. That’s the conversation between us that has lasted years.
When we started with Doctor Strange, he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested. And, of course, I was like, “Oh, yeah…” but inside, I was like, “Oh my God!” The thing you should also know is that I’m a massive Marvel fan; from age 14 on, I have been reading Marvel forever. And so we talked a little bit about the movie, and, of course, the real dilemma for Doctor Strange is that here is a character whose powers are based in mysticism and the occult, and you have to fit him in a cinematic universe that is very science-y. [You have to tell a story that] does justice to the character, but also doesn’t mess up the scientific universe they created.
Frank then notes that to build on to this universe takes more than science or magic, that really, it’s philosophy:
Space.com: So how did you do that?
Adam Frank: There are a lot of ways you could think about where his magic powers come from, and you could do things like, “Oh, it’s about the neurotransmitters.” But I didn’t want to go down that road. Because it’s about mystery. People often want to talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and science, but here’s a place where really, what we’re looking at is the Marvel Cinematic Universe and philosophy. The real question here is the mind-body problem, which goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but really to Descartes. What is the relationship between [the] mind — not just our thinking, but our subjective experience of the world — and matter? Many people in science will come at a reductionist perspective — that you are nothing more than your neurons, and your neurons are nothing more than quarks, so that the fundamental objects and their rules determine everything that happens on larger structures.
But a nonreductionist perspective says no, there’s actually something more going on there — that mind experience cannot be reduced just to gears in your head; there is some way in which there’s something fundamental going on about the universe at the level of experience that has to be included in the counts of atoms. That’s the way we talked about this; that’s the way in for Doctor Strange.
But, the part that is of real interest (and a potential rabbit-hole if handled incorrectly) is what is meant in the film with all this shouting about “the multiverse”?
Space.com: What about the concept of the multiverse?
Adam Frank: The scientific idea of the multiverse — there’s a couple of different multiverses in science. [One] idea for a multiverse is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every time a quantum event happens, the universe splits off into a parallel version of itself, and each one goes on evolving and splitting and evolving and splitting. This idea of extra, other dimensions, what you can think of as other universes — we talked a lot about that idea. And they draw on that pretty heavily [in the movie].
The comic book version of Doctor Strange, back in the ’60s — which was all trippy, definitely a countercultural thing going on from the ’60s — had this idea of dimensions, and here they make that a little more explicit. In science, in physics, we can think of each of these universes as being a dimension in an infinite-dimensional abstract space. That’s [how] the many-worlds interpretation views it. They’re just playing with that idea, and building a beautiful visual representation of this. A lot of the movie is concerned with what’s going on in these different dimensions and Doctor Strange being in them.
With a cinematic universe so grounded in science, even superhero science, the risk of introducing magic had to be weighed carefully. And, according to Frank, had to be given a framework…rules…a science of its own. It had to respect the scientific construct that the MCU audience has gotten used to.
Space.com: Do you think that this loose grounding in the ideas of science is something that really appeals to moviegoers right now?
Adam Frank: There’s the very famous essay by C. P. Snow about the two cultures: the culture of science and the culture of humanities. It goes way back. And the thing is, now, there aren’t two cultures anymore. The fruits of science turn into the drivers of culture 15 minutes after they’re discovered. We’re living in an age of miracles, and it’s just going to get crazier. Artificial intelligence, genetics — people expect to see amazing things happen from science. So by grounding your stories enough in science to not so much make them plausible, but to allow that science to open up new possibilities — people are used to that in their lives. So I think it makes sense to them, and it’s exciting to them — and scary.
The great thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, speaking as a scientist, is the respect they have for science. It’s not necessarily that they’re using actual science. It’s a superhero movie — what do you expect? But they build a coherent and consistent universe that respects the scientific process and that uses enough of real science to make things plausible or build off them. I always like, in the first Avengers, [that] the movie opens up with the “Dark Energy Research Institute.” And then, after that, you never hear about dark energy again. But as a scientist, I’m like, “Oh, look! They used the right term!”
Frank also notes the extensive use in the comics side of the Marvel Universe of beings who are actually forces of the universe.
Death is a character, the embodiment of which Thanos tries to woo and sparks his drive to get the Infinity Gauntlet; Eternity is also a character often seen in Doctor Strange comics who may have made a brief appearance in Ant-Man (though that’s not who I think it was); the Living Tribunal is one of these existential characters who was significantly name-dropped in Doctor Strange.
These new characters, realms, and likely the multiverse introduced in the film, are going to have some impact on the rest of the MCU it would appear…especially Eternity if this portion of the interview is to be read into to any degree:
Space.com: Is there any other Marvel area where the science themes in Doctor Strange could fit?
Adam Frank: In general, the multiverse idea is very much built into the Marvel comics; Marvel has Earth 226A, Earth 213B … You can expect it to show up in different places. What’s interesting about the Marvel universe is, they would have these characters which would be the embodiment of impersonal forces. There’s a character who’s like, “I’m Eternity,” and he’s represented as this outline. Marvel has no problem with taking broad, sweeping philosophical abstractions and somehow storifying them, which is awesome. And in some sense, that’s also what’s happening here: You’re taking this idea of [the] mind. “Mind” is a thing in the universe — not just a derivative of other things in the universe, but somehow, mind is being an essential player in the universe, and they’re storifying it. They’re making it an actor.
(So, really, he just drops Eternity’s name out of the blue like that? Really? Or were future story ideas talked about during his consulting gig?)
Of course, Adam Frank is an astrophysicist consulting on a comic book movie, so at some point you need to expect the talk to go full-on geek…and it’s really enjoyable when it does:
Space.com: Are there any visual “Easter eggs” in the movie based around astrophysics that people should look out for?
Adam Frank: This is something that the viewers will have to see for themselves. As a scientist, I deal with a lot of very abstract ideas about space and time, the structure of space. There’s an interesting idea I’m coming across now in my thinking about quantum gravity. I don’t do quantum gravity, but I think about it; I talk to people who do. [It’s] the idea of the basal structure, the fundamental structure that is responsible for reality. There’s ways in which the way they play the visuals in the movie — and people will understand what I’m saying when they see it — that really reminded me of atoms of space-time, or the fundamental nature of how you unzip reality. Some of that stuff was really evocative for me.
What do you think about the multiverse concept and how it may apply to the MCU? Is there an aspect of these new magical realms you’d like to see? Let us know in the comments below!
Doctor Strange opens nationwide on November 4 (which, again, I would like to calmly point out, is TODAY!) and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Doctor.