Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Physicists: The Bane of Batman?

WARNING: Here be spoilers! 

This article contains facts, information, analysis, speculation and references to events in the most recent Batman movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go see the movie now so you can finish reading this post. What are you waiting for?! GO! 

Christopher Nolan’s third and purportedly last Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, pits good against evil, hero against villain, Batman against Bane. What’s often missed is that this great showdown over the future of Gotham City, hinges on the work of a small but important character, physicist Dr. Leonid Pavel.

What I find so fascinating about Dr. Pavel is that he’s not your typical Lex Luthor or Dr. Frankenstein-style mad scientist that used to be ubiquitous in movies and comic books. In the film, he publishes a paper postulating that a fusion reactor being secretly built by Bruce Wayne’s company could be turned into a nuclear weapon. He’s then kidnapped by the villain Bane, and forced to build the weapon, threatening Gotham City.

“He sort of lost control of his work,” said David Kirby, a professor of science communication at the University of Manchester and author of the book Lab Coats in Hollywood. “The notion of [Dr. Pavel] being a comic book-y mad scientist character just wouldn’t have played.”

Though a masked villain imposing martial law on an American metropolis isn’t the most likely scenario, the idea that a scientist’s work could into the wrong hands is a very real worry. Kirby added that over the last 15 years or so, movies have started portraying scientists more realistically and fundamental issues faced by scientists in films have likewise gotten more grounded.

The undertone of realism in The Dark Knight Rises is at times chilling, because it touches on a deep issue that scientists have always faced. How personally responsible is Dr. Pavel for unleashing this new weapon into the world by publishing his work? It is a very real question for scientists who are developing new and potentially dangerous technologies or lines of research.

 “There’s always going to be similarities when it comes to ethical conundrums that scientists can face,” Kirby said. “What are the dangers of a particular kind of research that a researcher is doing?”

The film implicitly draws on the very real fear that an atomic bomb could fall into the wrong hands. Like many technologies, nuclear power has turned out to be a double edged sword. It can be used to generate electricity and power Mars rovers, but it has also been used to make the most powerful weapons the world has ever known.

By an eerie coincidence, The Dark Knight Rises was released in the midst of a controversy over similar dangers in biological research. While trying to stay one step ahead of bird flu’s possible mutations, researchers in the Netherlands bred a strain of the deadly H5N1 virus that could easily jump amongst ferrets in his lab, and could likely spread to people if they were exposed.

The U.S. government originally didn’t want the scientists to publish their research, because of fears the knowledge could also be used to create biological weapons. Ultimately the National Institute of Health relented, and articles appeared in both Science and Nature, but the debate over research into bird flu continues.

That’s an uncomfortable bit of life imitating art.

Though Dr. Pavel is critical to getting the plot of the film rolling, he is not the focus of the movie. He probably has less than ten minutes of total screen time throughout the film and questions about his responsibility for Bane’s misuse of his discovery are not brought up in any depth.

“The movie never really resolves that. It never just comes out and says ‘that’s the wrong thing for him to do,’ or just ‘the wrong people exploited it,’” Kirby said.

It’s an interesting ambiguity with no easy resolution, just like in real life.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Pavel reminded me a lot of Oppenheimer. He created this devastating weapon, but didn't really think what would happen after it was used. He was more interested in the science. Nice to see a realistic depiction of scientists.

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