The Watchmen movie is released tomorrow (6th of March) with the world waiting to see what director Zack Snyder and co. have in store for the graphic novel that broke all the rules in the 1980s.
Rowan Hooper and Sumit Paul-Choudhury look into what is scientifically and technologically possible from the Watchmen universe and what is going to take a bit more work (because nothing is completely impossible). This article was originally published on NewScientist.com.
It's 1985. Nixon's still in the White House and Zeppelins fill the sky. And a motley crew of costumed heroes have come out of retirement to unravel a mystery that starts with the brutal slaying of a former colleague and ends with… well, that'd be telling.
This is the alternate world of the new movie Watchmen - a world populated by ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and one extraordinary person who has forgotten what it's like to be ordinary.
That person is Doctor Manhattan, formerly physicist Jon Osterman, whose body is destroyed by an "intrinsic field subtractor" before he somehow learns to reconstruct himself as an omniscient blue giant who can teleport, replicate himself, manipulate objects using only his mind, and see through time. He's basically a giant Smurf with spooky quantum powers.
Not impossible but…
Teleportation, for example, is currently impossible on a macroscopic scale, but researchers are making progress. It's been possible to teleport the quantum states of photons from one side of a lab to another for some time, but earlier this year, researchers succeeded in teleporting information about the state of an ytterbium ion. Physicist Michio Kaku, of the City University of New York, now says macro teleportation may be only a "class I impossibility" - something that requires sophisticated engineering, rather than rewriting the laws of physics.
Doctor Manhattan can also see into the past and future, making him somewhat indifferent about the fate of lesser mortals, which he believes to be predetermined. (He's in some ways a caricature: the aloof scientist for whom the pursuit of pure knowledge trumps all human considerations.) Given how poorly we understand time, it'd be a mistake to write this off as pure fantasy - it sounds a little like the world envisaged by independent physicist Julian Barbour, in which time really is just an illusion.
World on the brink
Even Manhattan has his limits, however: he can't see into his own future, thanks to a flood of tachyons - theoretical particles that move faster than the speed of light, and therefore travel backwards in time. This blindness is one of the factors that persuades him to abandon his fatalism and intervene in humanity's affairs - along with a meditation on the astonishing fact of life's existence (specifically, his former girlfriend's) that sounds a lot like a rediscovery of the anthropic principle.
Humanity certainly needs the help. As in our own world, the hunt is on for a source of energy that will meet the world's growing need for clean, safe power. To make matters worse, the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation - a threat that's considered more remote in our own world, but certainly hasn't gone away.
That provides Ozymandias - the smartest man in the world - with the excuse he needs to build a chain of power generators based on Doctor Manhattan's powers. Ozymandias' intellect doesn't seem to be a result of superpowers; rather, his extraordinary mental abilities are the result of extensive training - a feat that autistic savant Daniel Tammet suggests we could all replicate if we put our minds to it.
Ozymandias' work sets in motion a chain of events that draw in the film's other protagonists: the Comedian, a (literally) lady-killing bad boy; the sociopathic vigilante Rorschach; everyman Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl; and Doctor Manhattan's former girlfriend, the Silk Spectre.
Many of these characters have their own characteristic takes on morality. Rorschach, for example, is a sociopath whose strong identification with the victims of crime leads him to mete uncompromisingly brutal justice to wrongdoers.
The Comedian believes ideas of morality are just a figleaf covering up humans' innate, animalistic brutality. That makes him a "veneer theorist", whose ideas contradict those who accept the animal roots of morality, but believe they exert a positive, rather than a negative, influence.
And Ozymandias believes that humanity must be coerced into cooperation by the threat of war - an idea supported by one theory of social evolution.
The complex journey these characters take before ultimately coming to a consensus on the threats facing humanity is part of the appeal of the seminal 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons on which the movie is based - and one of the reasons it's often been described as "unfilmable". It's certainly had a long and troubled journey to the big screen: directors have come and gone, lawsuits have been filed and settled, and the notoriously perfectionist Moore has disowned the end result without even seeing it.
He probably won't be kicking himself for making that decision. Zack Snyder's adaptation is faithful to a fault, but it's true to the letter rather than the spirit of the book, collapsing the latter's dense, multi-layered storytelling into a relatively conventional - if bleak - Hollywood narrative.
Nonetheless, it's still a thought-provoking exploration of the compromises that must be made by those who wield scientific and social power. And Dr Manhattan is the best quantum-mechanical superhero - in any universe.
This article was originally published on NewScientist.com.