From The Editor | February 24, 2023

Quantum, Ant-Man, And The Wasp

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


Hollywood has a long history of, let’s say, twisting facts. So how did they do with Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania? (Hint: not so good.)

Have you checked out Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania yet? According to Marina Charalambous, “THIS MOVIE DO BE FIRE!!!!”*

I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t confirm if it “do be fire,” but I have seen the first two – and heard enough about Quantumania – to wonder about the science behind the film. Specifically, what’s the deal with quantum?

So, let’s go ahead and that answer question with the help of the National Science Foundation (NSF), The University of Chicago (go Maroons!), Medium, GeekWire, and BBC Science Focus.

* All caps Marina’s, not mine.

Tomasz Durakiewicz And The ABCs Of Quantum**

** For those of you who are fully quantum capable, feel free to jump ahead to the part about the truth behind Ant-Man’s science. Everybody else, buckle in.

The NSF article linked above notes, “Breakthroughs in quantum promise tantalizing advances in computing, healthcare, energy, communications, and industrial materials – and it will make us more secure as a society and a nation.” It’s a Q&A with physicist and NSF Program Director Tomasz Durakiewicz (and he’s legit – check out his bio!).

According to Durakiewicz, “The word ‘quantum’ might sound mysterious, but it is commonly used to describe the world on the very small scales of atoms, electrons, and molecules. We live and experience the ‘classical realm,’ which is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 electrons at once. Under classical rules, such as the laws of classical mechanics, objects made of those many electrons exist in a specific place at a specific time. But when we zoom down into the quantum realm, the laws of physics become peculiar, and certainty is replaced by probability. This is the mysterious world of ‘quantum mechanics.’”

Physics is studied both through particle physics and theoretical quantum physics, as well as through condensed matter physics, quantum chemistry, computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering. “The beauty of the quantum world is that all areas of science and engineering can be explored there,” says Durakiewicz. “Quantum computers use quantum algorithms designed by mathematicians; code prepared by computer scientists; materials prepared by condensed matter physicists; and operational devices designed by engineers. Whatever you want to explore is limited only by your imagination.”

Devices such as lasers and MRI machines currently operate using the principles of quantum mechanics and, of course, quantum computers and networks will have a major impact on society once they are a reality. What “blows Durakiewicz’s mind” however is the Majoran particle.

“These particles, also called Majorana fermions, are theoretically indistinguishable from their own antiparticles,” Durakiewicz says. “It's postulated that once we learn how to generate, control, and manipulate Majoranas, we can build a topological quantum computer — a machine based on manipulation of intrinsically protected quantum states, providing a powerful platform for information processing with very long lifetimes. Also, Ettore Majorana, the physicist who proposed those elusive particles, took a ship cruise and was never seen again. Another mystery!”

The biggest obstacle the quantum area is facing, according to Durakiewicz, is developing a skilled workforce. “It's a challenge because we have about 2,000 active job offers in this area, with five new appearing every day, and not enough qualified people to fill them. It's an opportunity because, with a deliberate and well-planned effort, we can mobilize, include and broaden the participation of a vast cadre of students from institutions, communities, and states traditionally underrepresented in sciences.”

The Truth Behind Ant-Man’s Science: A Play In 3 Acts

Act 1: Superposition

UChicago hosted, in collaboration with Marvel Studios, Argonne National Laboratory, UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE), Quantumania followed by a discussion about quantum science on film and in real life.

“Quantum science operates on rules that seem strange and counterintuitive, and yet we’re making great strides every day,” says David Awschalom, professor at the UChicago’s Pritzker Molecular Engineering, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Quantum technology is being developed right now around the world. Here in Chicago, a quantum network is running beneath us, creating and distributing quantum entanglement across the suburbs, transmitting quantum states tens of thousands of times per second.”

That’s in the real world. In the movie, Ant-Man encounters a “probability storm” which is a “creative representation of superposition, a quantum principle in which objects can exist in multiple states simultaneously, and it’s only after they are measured that their probability collapses and they are reduced to a single state.”

Awschalom and other panelists discussed superposition and other phenomena depicted in the film, including time travel. “I won’t say that we can travel through time,” said panelist Gregory Grant, a Ph.D. student studying quantum science and engineering at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and Argonne National Laboratory, and sci-fi enthusiast. “But quantum and time is a really interesting question. I can tell you that one thing we’re attempting is to put a photon into a superposition of right now and a time shortly in the future, between early and late. So, while there is no multiverse that we can access, we can nudge particles so that they arrive at different times.”

Act 2: Quantum Realm – Life Imitates Art

Quantumania, writes Creighton University (go Bluejays!) physics professor Tom Wong for Medium, “Makes no claims of scientific accuracy, opting to be more fanciful than realistic. Despite this, the motion picture references several real scientific terms, while making others up.”

One made-up term is Quantum Realm, coined by Dr. Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist and staff researcher at the California Institute of Technology (go Beavers!), who served as a scientific advisor on several Marvel movies. Michalakis suggested the term instead of the comic book name “microverse,” which could not be used due to legal issues.

Today, “Thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more and more quantum scientists are using the term ‘quantum realm’ to refer to the domain where nature is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, especially when communicating with the general public,” writes Wong. “This real quantum realm is a part of our universe, however, not an alternate one like the movie. In fact, quantum mechanics enables everyday technologies like computer chips, lasers, LEDs, solar panels, GPS, and smoke detectors. The use of ‘quantum realm’ in formal scientific settings remains limited, however.”

Quantumania also makes references to a “subatomic Hubble telescope,” a telescope for the quantum realm capable of sending and receiving signals. In this manner, the device is “more akin to radar or sonar, which transmit radio waves or sound waves, respectively, and after the waves have bounced off objects, the device receives them to learn about the objects,” writes Wong.

There are references to “the void” and “sub-atomica,” as well. Wong notes “the void” is a philosophical concept without wide acceptance in physics. And while “Sub-atomica” is a Marvel term, “they seem to be playing on the scientific term “subatomic” to describe a place smaller than atoms.”

Finally, the quantum realm is described as a “secret universe beneath ours” which, Wong writes, “Could be similar to string theory, an unverified theory of physics that requires extra dimensions for mathematical consistency.

“These extra dimensions might only be accessible for the very small. The standard analogy is to imagine a straight garden hose. From a distance, the garden hose only has one dimension, corresponding to movement along its length. Close up, however, an ant walking on the garden hose has access to two dimensions: it can walk along the hose’s length, or it can walk around its circumference. Similarly, by becoming small, the heroes may be able to access additional dimensions — a ‘secret universe.’”

Act 3: Then Again, It Could All Be Bullsh*t

There’s a phrase, applicable to business, life, mental well-being, and more: know your truths. This is exactly what GeekWire does, writing, “So you might think ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ will be going all-out to feature real-life advances in quantum physics. If that’s what you’re expecting from the movie, think again. ‘There’s no connection to real physics or our understanding of reality,’ says Chris Ferrie, a quantum physicist at the University of Technology Sydney (go Bats!?) and the UTS Center for Quantum Software and Information.”

Ella Meyer, an outreach coordinator at the University of British Columbia (go Thunderbirds!), agrees, saying Quantumania is making her job more challenging. “I don’t know if anyone’s seen trailers for ‘Ant-Man’ recently, but it’s undoing years of my work by using ‘quantum’ incorrectly,” said Meyer. “And so, it’s harder than ever to get people to properly engage with this word.”

Ferrie says physicists “look at the real world in the context of the uncertainty principle, quantum entanglement, quantum teleportation, and other Q-word concepts. It’s a world that’s completely different from Ant-Man’s Quantum Realm. ‘We can’t really experience that world,’ Ferrie says. ‘So, we’re projecting our own way of looking at the world and communicating about the world into a fictitious sort of scenario.’

Still, Hollywood’s misrepresentation of quantum doesn’t upset Ferrie, who says, “I don’t think people are going to sci-fi movies that involve, like, superheroes and people flying and traveling at faster than light speed and coming away from it thinking they understand something about physics,” according to GeekWire.

We’re Talking About Thanos’ Butt?

Wait. What?

BBC Science Focus enlisted the help of James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota (go Golden Gophers!) and author of The Physics Of Superheroes, to look at the science behind shrinking people. So, is that even possible?

“My first thought is: I wish. My second thought is: no,” says Kakalios. “The size of atoms is determined by quantum mechanics and electrostatics, which involve a set of fundamental constants and fundamental interactions. Constants are constant; they don’t change. Without being able to change those constants, and without being able to change the nature of the electrostatic interaction, there’s no way to reduce the size of an atom.”

But let’s say for a moment that the science of Dr. Hank Pym – the original Ant-Man – is … real. If it were, and if Pym invented a way to manipulate the Higgs field, then increasing ant-sized Scott Lang’s mass at the same time he is throwing a punch could make him deadly. “He would have to be careful,” says Kakalios. “You could punch a small hole in their neck and pierce the jugular vein. It would be like being struck with a bullet.”

Oh yeah, Thanos’ butt. One fan theory about the Marvel universe is that Ant-Man is the most powerful Avenger and, as such, only he has the “power to kill Thanos and stop all the events of Infinity War and Endgame from happening. All he would have to do is to shrink down to the size of an ant, climb inside Thanos from a certain orifice, and then blow up to full size, theoretically destroying Thanos in the process. What does James Kakalios, a distinguished professor, think of that theory?

“’Oh god,’” he says. ‘You’re talking about Thanos’ butt! What I will say is that Thanos is very strong, possibly inside and out. Say that Scott, initially the size of an ant, expands in a room that is surrounded by miles-thick concrete walls in all directions – all he’s going to do is crack his own skull.’”

So, there is – the science behind Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania. And yeah, some days I love my job more than others.