What made Doctor Strange so successful was, in part, its willingness to open up to other subject areas that the 13 previous Marvel movies were either unwilling or uninterested in going – namely, such scientific and philosophical territories as the multiverse and the nature of consciousness.
Helping to steer director Scott Derrickson and his co-writers through these unexplored waters was science consultant Adam Frank. A theoretical/computational astrophysicist, professor, and head of his own research group (which is attempting to develop a “supercomputer code” to study the birth and death of stars), Frank is also a contributor to NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog and the author of an upcoming book on climate change.
Oh, yeah – he’s also a self-described Marvel Comics fanboy (“I don’t love DC,” he says) who can name the entire pantheon of superheroes. Which means, in short, that Marvel Studios chose the absolutely best candidate to advise on Strange’s way-out-there explorations.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Frank and chat about his personal evolution as a scientist, what future topics he’d like to sneak into a potential Doctor Strange 2, and why Marvel’s canon of characters has become so dominant in our cultural landscape.
I understand you spoke with Scott Derrickson about the multiverse theory and reductionism and the role of the spirit and all that fun stuff. I also saw that you said you weren’t the biggest fan of the multiverse theory. I was just curious if you discuss that.
Adam Frank: Well, this sorta goes back to my role as a physicist and a commentator on physics. First of all, there’s a bunch of different versions of the multiverse within physics. One of them, the oldest one, goes back to the 1950s, and it’s an interpretation of quantum mechanics. [This one] says that every quantum mechanical event leads to the universe splitting off into parallel versions.
A more recent version comes from cosmology, where people are studying what happened after the Big Bang or, even, what happened before the Big Bang. And there, the idea is that, out of the Big Bang, you got a whole bunch of different universes which all have different physical laws in them. And that’s the one I’m particularly critical of, because, basically, it comes out of people trying to mend problems with things like string theory or inflation theory, and the multiverse is kind of a Band-Aid being put over bad features of those theories. And, most importantly, there’s not a single shred of evidence for the multiverse. If, in order to explain this universe, you need a theory that invents an infinite number of parallel universes – that’s not a very good theory.
It’s a cool idea – it is a great idea to use for fiction. And people have been talking about multiverses as a philosophical idea for a long time. But the current incarnations in physics, I think, are more indicative of problems with some things going on at the frontier of physics than ideas that are gonna last.
You were more of a reductionist when you were younger, and now you find yourself being an anti-reductionist. Can you speak to that evolution?
AF: Like most young physicists, when I was a kid enraptured with physics, I thought, “Everything can be explained by the theory of the atom!” But as I’ve gotten older, and I look at the world, I think there’s a lot of ways in which that kind of building up from the smallest building blocks doesn’t actually account for the world. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also become sensitive to the ways – to all that is not amenable to explanation. Things that, even if you had an explanation, what good would it be?
Probably, right now, I’m found of what’s called emergence – as the universe gets more complex, new laws can emerge. Like evolution – there’s things that you just aren’t able to explain, even if you had an understanding of atoms. New laws, new kinds of things can emerge as the universe evolves. The more moving parts you have in something, the more possibilities there are. There’s a whole new science now of complexity, and what we see is that complexity requires a very different approach than the kind of bottom-up approach that fundamental physics has always used. We’re gonna have to think about the world in a different way if we want to address complex systems.
If you do have the opportunity to consult on Doctor Strange 2, is this maybe one of the things that you’d want to talk to the filmmakers about?
AF: That’s an interesting idea. Sure. That might be a nice way – it depends on what the story is, right? The ideas always have to be in service of the story. And that’s what Scott and the writers did – they weren’t trying to beat you over the head with an idea; they had a story they wanted to tell, and they had ideas, so they used the story as a way of fleshing out the ideas. It all depends on where they want to go with it.
But Marvel has been so good about bringing interesting ideas about technology and science and reality into their movies that I’m sure the next one will have – I mean, you can imagine they’re going to want to explore the multiverse more, as well. Whether or not I believe in it scientifically, there’s rich things to sort of be done with it, maybe just in terms of the mathematics of dimensions. What does it mean to have different spatial dimensions? So that would be an area that would be fun to explore, also.
So, you don’t have a secret little hidden list of ideas that you’d want to try and sneak in there?
AF: If I did have secret ideas, it’d be more in the realms of philosophy and science. It’s not necessarily specific science ideas – for this kind of movie. There’s other movies where there’d be more pure science ideas I’d love to explore. But for this one, because consciousness was such an important part of it, I would want to explore more explicit ideas about mind and matter.
How much do you think the current socio-political and scientific conversations leak into your work and, in turn, leak into Doctor Strange?
AF: Scientists and artists are both living in the cultural milieu that they come up in. They’re always responding to what is happening culturally. And, right now, culturally, we’re seeing a really interesting evolution in ideas about spirituality and the world, right? The number of people who consider themselves to be religious and going to services is dropping, and the number of people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious is increasing. Millennials, in particular, consider themselves to be spiritual, but they’re not necessarily going to anybody’s church. It’s not like the world is becoming hardcore, Richard Dawkins-atheist, but people are looking to sort of synthesize science – people love science, especially the millennials. People love science and all it offers, but they also feel a calling in themselves to the sense of what’s deeper. And I think that’s exactly kind of what [Doctor Strange] speaks to, in a way.
Do you think this is one of the reasons why Marvel’s been so successful, that it fills a certain – not a certain philosophical or, maybe, scientific itch, but a certain mythological void that we may have in our modern lives?
AF: That raises the whole question of superheroes, the way superheroes dominate the fictional landscape now, along with dystopian futures and zombies. Yeah, definitely – I think these stories function as a kind of mythology for us.
I think the interesting thing about Marvel is, sometimes – not always – these are superhero movies about people who can fly or have laser beams in their eyeballs. You don’t want to take ‘em too seriously. But I think it’s been interesting with Marvel, in particular, the way – the second Captain America was also about the security state, and it was also about the difficulty of vets coming back [from war]. It was just cool that they managed to work that in there, into this movie about a guy who has [taken] a supersoldier serum.
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