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'Ant-Man' science adviser explains the real-life physics behind the film

The quantum physicist says Superman may be powerful, but he wouldn't stand a chance against Ant-Man.

You may think that a movie about a superhero who can shrink down to the size of an ant doesn’t have much basis in reality, but according to Spyridon Michalakis, a quantum physicist at the California Institute of Technology, there is some fact behind the fictional world of “Ant-Man.”

Michalakis would know. He served as science adviser for both the original 2015 “Ant-Man” film and the new sequel, “Ant-Man and The Wasp.” In this role, Michalakis helped the filmmakers and actor Paul Rudd (who plays Ant-Man) tease out the real-life science behind the superhero's powers and the films’ so-called Quantum Realm, a place that isn’t governed by normal laws of physics.

But how much of the “Ant-Man” universe is steeped in science? Could a human shrink down to the size of an insect — and survive? NBC News MACH recently sat down with Michalakis to learn about some of the real-life physics behind the films.

Image: Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, and The Wasp, played by Evangeline Lilly
"Ant Man and the Wasp" stars Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly.Andy Park / Marvel Studios

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACH: Ant-Man doesn't necessarily get as much respect as other bigger-name superheroes, but since this is your area of expertise, can you make an argument for why Ant-Man could go toe-to-toe with some of the bigger guns in the Marvel universe?

Spyridon Michalaki, a quantum physicist at Caltech, served as science advisor for the "Ant-Man" films.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

Michalakis: There was an article a couple of years ago, around the time when the first “Ant-Man” movie came out, and I was quoted as saying that Superman, my favorite superhero growing up, wouldn't stand a chance against Ant-Man. People were like: "No. What are you talking about? This wouldn't happen." What I meant is that Superman is someone who [has] supreme powers within the realm of physics, with the laws that we understand.

Ant-Man, by going to the Quantum Realm and understanding how to work with the source code of reality at that level, he could rewrite the laws of physics. He could move within space and time in ways that no other superhero can do. It's not just a matter of power. He would change even what the notion of mass is, and lift things much more easily. It is a crazy place to be in the Quantum Realm.

Let’s go back to basics. What exactly is quantum physics?

Quantum physics is usually thought of as the physics of the universe at the microscopic level. This is kind of a misunderstanding. Quantum physics seems to be the foundation of all of physics, almost like a theory of knowledge — a way for us, as humanity, [to ask] questions that go beyond what we were able to ask before. Removing that filter allows us to see reality at its true form, and makes for some very weird things that end up happening, like particles being in two places at the same time [and] quantum entanglement, which is the ability of these particles to communicate with each other, somehow, over vast distances. When you study quantum physics, you try to understand how particles, but also larger objects in this world, behave when you have the ability to view them from many different points of view.

Are there aspects of the Quantum Realm in the “Ant-Man” movies that are actually rooted in real-life quantum physics?

When I was brought in for the first movie to discuss some aspects of quantum physics that might be relevant to the plot, one of the things that really resonated with the writers and Paul [Rudd] was this idea that, as you go deeper and deeper into the Quantum Realm, the things that we take for granted — the idea that there are laws of physics, that there is a dimension of time and we're moving through it in one direction — all of these things potentially dissolve. Reality itself is melting away and new possibilities appear. I find this interesting, that I have an opportunity as a consultant for the movie, to introduce the public to some really cutting-edge and kind of sci-fi-sounding ideas that are part of physics right now.

Image: Ant-Man/Scott Lang played by Paul Rudd
Some parts of "Ant-Man" are rooted in real science, but shrinking or enlarging humans remains science fiction.Marvel Studios

Are there specific contributions that you made to the film’s plot?

I ended up working on the script this time. One of the major driving points for the plot is a connection that Scott Lang [played by Rudd] has with the original Wasp, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, because there were some rumors that toward the end of the first movie, there was a reflection of the Wasp on Ant-Man's helmet when he was within the Quantum Realm. The idea is that they have been linked, somehow, through quantum entanglement, so he has these visions of Michelle Pfeiffer's character, which will allow the team to be able to go and retrieve her from the Quantum Realm.

Was that your idea?

That was all my input. [It] was a lot of fun to see the writers get excited about this, and that there was such a great mechanism from real science that could drive the plot forward. This was just one of the things that we discussed. Another one was, the main villain in the sequel “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a lady called Ghost. There was an accident when she was younger, and she ended up being stuck between our realm and the Quantum Realm, and phasing in and out of it, so I had a lot to say about how this works and what this meant and where her powers came from.

Will it ever be feasible to shrink humans down to the size of ants?

The idea of shrinking or becoming huge, like Giant-Man versus Ant-Man, these are definitely some of the more sci-fi aspects of the movie.

Ant-Man's suit allows him to shrink down in size and possess superhuman strength.Marvel Studios

There would be a lot of issues a human being would have if they were reduced to even a tenth of their original size — anything from breathing properly to keeping cool. Even their voice would sound as if they were inhaling a helium balloon all the time. It would be a pretty hilarious existence, if it didn't kill them too fast.

You could create "muonic matter," which is exactly like regular matter but instead of electrons you have particles that look exactly like electrons but they're 200 times heavier. They have the same electric charge, so all the chemistry is the same. The nice thing about this muonic matter is that the atoms would be 200 times smaller, which means that you could shrink an object for a very small period of time, beyond which these muons would decay back to their electron entities. You could shrink it by 200 times, or 1,000 times, depending on how heavy these new types of electrons were. This type of matter can only be created at cyclotrons, places where you have beams of particles traveling very fast and smashing [into] each other, and they wouldn't last very long.

Do you have any insight into how the Quantum Realm might play out in future Marvel films?

Right after the original “Ant-Man” movie came out, I read an interview with Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, where he said that the Quantum Realm would play a very important role for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I lost it, because I was the one to coin and describe this new realm. We are seeing right now — at least through the sequel within Ant-Man — that there's going to be an important role of this realm going forward, and also with “Captain Marvel” [scheduled to be released in March 2019].

If quantum physics is at the foundation of physical reality, you can engineer reality to be different than before, and not just ideas of space and time but things that we haven't even considered as human beings yet, like where the laws of physics come from. It's a great playground for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Additional reporting by Shivani Khattar and Brock Stoneham.

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