Saturday, November 19, 2011

Size Matters

As a kid growing up in L.A. county, my family and I were able to visit Disneyland about once a year. It still seems like a dream being able to get in for $12.50 back in '82. One of my favorite rides at the time (second after the old Submarine Voyage) was called Adventure Thru Inner Space. It was a perfect mix of serious science and fascinatingly creative theater. There is a really accurate digital re-creation of the ride here on Youtube that I think anyone who's never experienced it should take a look at. It remains a neat experience, even if the science is a bit outdated by today's standards. Its entrance way is now replaced by the Star Tours ride, but most of it originally went underneath Tomorrow Land and came out on the other side of the walkway. The fact that the bulk of that space has been converted to a ride modeled after a video game (Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters) illustrates the chasm between Walt Disney's original vision for Tomorrow Land, which was to inspire people's imaginations about the future of our society, versus what it is today.

I was able to finally introduce my 4 year old to Disneyland recently and unlike back then, now have the opportunity to let him re-live the experience of his favorite rides via online videos. I found myself also showing him the rides his Dad went on when he was a kid, and he really loved Adventure Thru Inner Space too. Now he asks me questions about atoms and molecules, which is pretty cool. But the point of all this is to talk about the possibility of miniaturization, the basic premise of that old Disney ride, and the topic of several science fiction films over the years. The one in particular that I think stands out above the rest is 1966's Fantastic Voyage, about a journey into the human body.

What makes Fantastic Voyage unique is that it could possibly be the only attempt by a science fiction film to take the idea seriously and remain successful for its time. Miniaturization has been the realm of fantasy since as far back as Lewis Carroll's trip to Wonderland. But most attempts at mixing the idea with science today end up as comedy. The reasons for that will be touched on later, but the opening text in Voyage (quoted below) makes clear the intended purpose:

"The makers of this film are indebted to the many doctors, technicians, and research scientists, whose knowledge and insight helped guide this production"

You can sense here a certain pride in being affiliated with science that permeated the Apollo Program era. It's no coincidence that the tone of Fantastic Voyage feels similar to the Inner Space ride which opened at Disneyland a year after the film came out. In it, the team that is sent out to save a diplomat's life by entering the man's body is made up exclusively of scientists of different disciplines, and you can just watch how the plot is designed to illustrate all the latest medical knowledge of that time, much of which is still basically accurate even though we've come quite a long way since. Unfortunately, the film was too ambitious for the special effects capabilities of the day. It is rather amusing now to watch various body parts and functions resembling cellophane and cotton balls, the clumsy overlays, and the obvious wire suspensions. That said, some of the footage still holds up well even today. Plus, it has a pretty good dramatic profile based on both the perils of the journey and some Cold War Era spy infiltration themes, performed by some then big names in film like Stephen Boyd, Edmond O'Brien, and of course, Raquel Welch in her heyday. The trailer below illustrates the visual effects well, but you have to see it to get the more scientific side.

Although miniaturization is a fun concept, its biggest problem is being really tough to swallow scientifically. The problems are just too numerous to go into, but let's look at a few. Most stories depict the shrunken targets as being much lighter than the originals. That not only violates the conservation of matter and energy law, but the masses of all the fundamental particles, like electrons and protons, are physical constants tied up with all sorts of atomic and chemical processes. Thus, the idea violates the entire basis of particle physics. If you ignore that, the fundamental forces like gravity and electromagnetism fortunately scale down just fine, but then you have the interface issue to deal with. A shrunken person's tiny molecules would no longer be able to chemically interact with the larger ones in the environment. They could not breathe normal air or eat normal food. They could not even expose their bodies to a normal environment due to the enormous relative pressures and temperatures provided by the larger molecules with huge relative momentum. In Voyage, the crew is miniaturized inside a vessel with a closed environment. If that environment were miniaturized along with them, it could push the problem out to the hull, but there are even worse issues after that. If the molecules had reduced mass, that would affect their energy levels and completely change how they interact with light and other EM radiation, making it impossible for their retinas to see anything. All this just represents the problems inherent with the final miniaturized state, but what about the miniaturization process itself? What possible mechanism could accomplish such a feat? I should also add that each of these issues apply just as well to the opposite process, namely, expanding things to larger than life size. Is there a name for that like "enlargification"?

Apparently, James Cameron and Shawn Levy are working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage as we speak. I'm not expecting the scientific angle of any remake to measure up even to its 1966 inspiration, but I believe there is a way one could pull it off. There is a hot area of research today where the word "miniaturization" meets reality, namely, Nanotechnology. This is where people are actually building machines at the molecular level. Often featured in sci-fi stories are armies of nano-robots that work together to accomplish a task. Although it would require more advancement in tiny antenna and data storage and processing technologies, it is not inconceivable that a remotely controlled mini-robot could become a reality. The next step might be using the mini-robot as a surrogate so that you could experience the world from the robot's perspective, and do things like travel vicariously into a human body to assist medical treatments. Given Cameron's past disregard for real science in his sci-fi undertakings, I don't expect he'll take anything close to that approach for his remake, but it might be an interesting idea on which to base a novel. Any takers?