In a battle waged with popcorn, floodlights, chalk and star power, science and art squared off in a lecture hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology one recent evening.
On one side of a vaunted cultural divide were Doug Liman, director of the coming movie “Jumper,” about a young man who discovers he can transport himself anywhere he wants just by thinking about it, and Hayden Christensen, the film’s star.
On the other were a pair of the institute’s physics professors, Edward Farhi and Max Tegmark, experts on the type of physics the movie was purporting to portray, who had been enlisted to view a few scenes from it and talk about science.
In the middle were hundreds of MIT students who had waited for hours to jam into a giant lecture hall known as Room 26-100 and who proved that future scientists and engineers could be just as rowdy and star-struck as the crowds outside the MTV studios in Times Square.
“I guess I wasn’t expecting such a lively group,” Christensen said.
The evening was the brainchild of Warren Betts, a veteran Hollywood publicist who has helped promote a number of movies with scientific or technological themes, including “Apollo 13.” “Hollywood has gotten much smarter about bringing scientists in,” said Betts, who said he had gotten excited after a Caltech physicist told him that teleportation was actually an accomplished fact in the quirky realm of quantum physics.
Betts arranged for clips from the movie, scheduled for a Feb. 14 release, to be shown, and then inveigled Farhi, an expert on quantum computers, and Tegmark, a cosmologist, to participate in a panel discussion. They agreed, as long as they could talk about real physics.
“What do I know about movie production?” asked Farhi, who pronounced himself “clueless.” He said, “If the students learn something, it’s fine, I’m happy.”
The corridor outside MIT’s venerable lecture hall was transformed for the occasion into a red carpet — sans the actual red carpet — lined with television cameras and reporters. At the appointed hour, Christensen, who played the young Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” began to proceed slowly down the line.
Liman, the director, meanwhile, confessed to being nervous. “We’re about to see a couple of MIT professors rip me to shreds,” he said. “I hope they appreciate that I tried to respect the physics of the planet we live on.”
Liman, who directed “The Bourne Identity,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” said he had been a “physics prodigy” in high school, which had gotten him into Brown University despite a checkered adolescence. He never took a physics class in college, however. “Being good at it made it a little boring,” he said.
He said he had fallen in love with the “Jumper” script — adapted by David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg from a series of young adult novels by Steven Gould — because of its honesty. The first thing the new superhero does with his powers is rob a bank.
“The story was as honest as it could be,” Liman said.
He said he had spent a lot time trying to figure what teleportation would actually look like, never mind what causes it. If a body suddenly disappeared, for example, there would be a rush of air into the vacuum left behind.
Physics, Liman said, is more connected to filmmaking than one might expect. “I liked problem solving,” he said. “A film,” he added, “is one big problem.”
An hour later, Farhi and Tegmark, true to their words, let the air out of the “Jumper” balloon.
In real experiments recently, Farhi told the movie fans, physicists had managed to “teleport” a single elementary particle, a photon, which transmits light, about one and a half miles, “a little less exotic than what you see in the movie.”
What is actually teleported in these experiments, he explained, is not the particle itself but all the quantum information about the particle.
To accomplish this is no small matter. Among other things, the teleporters have to create a pair of so-called entangled particles, which maintain a kind of spooky correlation even though they are separated by light years. Both of them exist in a kind of quantum fog of possibility until one or the other is observed. Measuring one particle instantly affects its separated-at-birth twin no matter how far away. If one is found to be spinning clockwise, for example, the other will be found to be spinning counter clockwise.
In order to use this magic as a quantum telegraph wire to teleport the information about a third particle, Farhi emphasized, you have to send a conventional signal between the entangled twins, and that takes time, according to Einstein. “You cannot get that thing over there faster than the speed of light,” Farhi said, to cheers from the crowd.
The real lure, he said, is not transportation, but secure communication. If anybody eavesdrops on the teleportation signal, the whole thing doesn’t work, Farhi said. Another use is in quantum computing, which would exploit the ability of quantum bits of information to have different values, both one and zero, and at the same time to perform certain calculations, like factoring large prime numbers, much faster than ordinary computers.
As Tegmark said, “Nobody can hack your credit card, and then you can build a quantum computer and hack everybody else’s card.”
One student asked the physicists if they rolled their eyes at the scientific miscues in movies. That was too much like work, protested Farhi, who said he was more interested in the acting and the characters. “When I go to a movie I’m not that interested in scientific accuracy,” he said.
Tegmark said that even inaccurate science fiction movies could inspire scientists to think. You could see something that you think is impossible, he said, but that might start you thinking. “Why is that impossible? It can trigger a train of thought,” he said.
“The hard part of science is finding the right questions,” Tegmark said.
Asked if it mattered what scientists said, Liman said that he always tried to get to know the reality behind a film, but that it was not always so easy. One professor he approached for advice about “Jumper” threw him out of his office, he said.He went on to describe his attempts to portray the teleportation jumps realistically. Wind would rush to fill the vacuum left by the departing body, he said, and papers would fly around.
“Yeah,” Tegmark said.
Under some conditions moisture would condense out of the air into clouds.
The physicists nodded. “In any other place, I would sound very scientific,” Liman said, to laughter and applause.
By now the divide between the two cultures was getting as fuzzy and blurred as some quantum fog.
Tegmark asked what scientists could do to help the movie makers.
“Watch ‘Jumper,’” Christensen answered, “and then get to work and figure out how to do it.”