Since this is my first article looking at the science in a movie on Film Threat, it is worth an introduction. While my main job is staff astronomer at Las Cumbres Observatory, and physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I’m also sometimes a film critic, TV host, and film consultant. From time to time, I take a closer look at the science in movies, sometimes on my show Science Vs Cinema, and sometimes in articles like this.
My feelings about science in art are similar to how I feel about grammar in writing. Once you know the rules, you can break them to tell a better story. Just don’t screw up out of ignorance. My goal in writing about it is not usually to nitpick, but to use movies as a jumping off point to talk about the related real world science.
“My feelings about science in art are similar to how I feel about grammar in writing…”
Marvel does a surprisingly good job of rooting their universe of superheroes in real science, since they usually consult leading scientists on their films. Filled with cool technology Black Panther is no exception. I’ll explore the technologically advanced world of Wakanda in five sections: the meteorite that started it all, how vibranium could work, their interactive holograms, how realistic is isolationism, and the film’s portrayal of scientists. Each section has a corresponding Science Vs. Cinema video segment.
In the prologue to Black Panther, it is explained that a meteorite hit the Earth, depositing the metal vibranium in what would go on to become the nation of Wakanda. The people living there mined this metal, and its special properties gave them a technological advantage over their neighbors.
In the actual history of the Earth, access to metal tools and weapons gave societies such an astounding technological advantage that we divide historical eras by them — the stone, bronze, and iron ages. In the neolithic era, tools and weapons were hewn out of rocks and minerals. But beginning in about 3200 BC some societies discovered how to smelt copper with tin or arsenic to produce bronze. This ultimately gave rise to durable swords, armor, and eventually professional armies.
Iron is superior to bronze, especially if you add carbon to it, producing steel. Though we take iron for granted today, it doesn’t usually naturally exist on Earth as a separate element. That’s because it so easily binds with oxygen. Instead it is found as one of various iron ores, combinations of iron, oxygen, and sometimes hydrogen, like magnetite and hematite. The technology of iron smelting, heating the ore in the presence of carbon to extract the iron, didn’t exist until about 1100 BC.
“How then can we explain the Gerzeh beads — tubular iron beads from an Egyptian necklace…”
How then can we explain the Gerzeh beads — tubular iron beads from an Egyptian necklace dating from around 3200 BC? The composition of the iron beads, including a significant amount of nickel and cobalt, matches what we find in meteorites. This would have been the most precious of metals at the time, and were fittingly accented with lapis lazuli and gold.
There are other examples of meteoric iron artifacts, including a pendant from 2300 BC in modern Syria, axes from the Shang dynasty in China (1400 BC), a dagger from Turkey from 2500 BC, and even King Tut’s dagger (below), bracelet and headrest from 1350 BC Egypt. Just imagine ancient blacksmiths crafting these advanced weapons from new technology they received from space.
Examples of this process in action have even survived to the modern age. Thousands of years ago the Cape York meteorite crashed into Greenland. For centuries the Inuit mined the iron from the pieces, totaling more than 57 metric tons in all. Though they had otherwise stone-age technology, they were able to make metal tools and harpoons from their legendary rock. The same happened with the similarly sized Campo del Cielo (Field of Heaven) meteorite, first documented by Europeans in Argentina in 1576, after hearing that natives used it to make tools. The same has happened in Africa — the Gibeon meteorite fell in Namibia in prehistoric times, and was used by the Nama people. It was identified as extraterrestrial in the 1830s by the famous astronomer John Herschel, who also named many of the moons of Saturn.
“…the best way to preserve Africa’s meteoric resources was to keep them hidden from colonizers…”
Notably, in all these cases, colonialists took the meteorites, or large parts of them, from the native people who had made use of them for centuries. The one case where this didn’t happen was the Hoba meteorite, also located in Namibia. Estimated at more than 60 tons, it has remained too heavy to move since it fell 80,000 years ago (see image). But it helps that it stayed buried until being hit by a plow in 1920. Just like in Black Panther, the best way to preserve Africa’s meteoric resources was to keep them hidden from colonizers.
Though iron seems mundane today, meteoric iron is wondrous thing. The other major type of meteor is stony, which can be hard to tell apart from Earth rocks. The iron-nickel meteorites, on the other hand, can have a beautiful octahedral structure to the metal. They’re rare too — only 6% of shooting stars are iron-nickel. But the most interesting thing about meteorites is that they are left over bits from the formation of the solar system. Whereas the truly ancient parts of the Earth have long ago been churned under through tectonic activity, meteorites are more than 4 billion years old. They cooled and condensed out of the cloud that became the sun and planets, the iron having been forged in a prior stellar explosion — a supernova. But even then, how did the iron molecules know how to stick together? Only gravity could do that. The heavy iron atoms sank to the bottom of a small planetary body when it was molten, before it cooled and was smashed apart by a collision. These were common during the world-building phase of “heavy bombardment” at the dawn of our solar system.
Meteoric weapons then are the records of creation and violence of two timescales — the human and the cosmic. They are witness to our birth in violence, and fittingly, to the relentless weaponization of technology. But that tells just half the story. We only know this because we put our swords aside for long enough to develop science. In this respect again, Black Panther has it exactly right. Their meteoric vibranium makes a fearsome weapon. But it is the advanced science and technology of the civilization that has truly endeared the idea of Wakanda to audiences around the world.
The fictional metal vibranium is said to absorb energy, store it, and redirect it. Captain America’s shield (also made of vibranium) is shown absorbing a blow from Thor’s hammer (then blasting him backwards), or absorbing the energy of his fall from a height of a few stories. And T’Challa, whose suit is made of vibranium, is unharmed when hit by machine gun fire, but then uses the energy to flip a car. How would this work? Are there real-world parallels?
All the examples above — bullets, a hammer, or falling — are kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Stored energy is known as potential energy — energy that can later be used to do something. A ball on the top of a hill has potential energy. Push it, and gravity causes it to roll down, converting it to kinetic energy. If it rolls back up another hill, it is converting kinetic energy back to potential energy. So nature has ways of converting kinetic energy to potential energy and rereleasing it, but can we do this with a material?
There are plenty of cases where we want to dissipate kinetic energy over a short distance to stop a fast moving object. Bulletproof vests have woven layers of the polymer kevlar to slow down bullets. The International Space Station has a Whipple shield — several layers of protective metal and kevlar shielding offset from each other. The outer layer breaks up the hypervelocity micrometeorite on impact, dispersing it over a large area, while subsequent layers stop it. And on highway off-ramps we’ve all seen yellow barrels with black tops, called Fitch barriers. They’re filled with sand — if you run into them with your car, the kinetic energy goes into breaking the barrel and dispersing the sand. They were developed by race car driver John Fitch after his co-driver veered into a crowd killing 85 people.
But what we really want to do is store that kinetic energy. Could we store it, in say, a battery for release later? Yes! Take the piezoelectric effect. Certain materials generate an electric current when you squeeze them. When you put you put them under mechanical stress, the positive and negative charges shift, generating an electric field. In fact, this is how electric cigarette lighters work. When you push the button, a hammer strikes a piezoelectric crystal, which generates a high enough voltage that a current flows across a spark gap. That then ignites gas. Piezoelectric sensors are also used in microphones, guitar pickups, and medical imaging.
So you can indeed turn impacts into stored energy. DARPA experimented with using this technology in soldier’s boots to generate energy. However, it was abandoned because it was uncomfortable. There is even a dance club partially powered by the people dancing.
“Maybe that explains why the suits got depowered in the train tracks fight in Black Panther…”
Piezoelectric materials also display the inverse effect. If you apply an electric field, they deform. Maybe that explains why the suits got depowered in the train tracks fight in Black Panther.
As a proof of concept, piezoelectricity is pretty cool. The problem is, you can only generate a tiny amount of electricity with it. Fortunately, there’s a better way — induction!
A changing magnetic field can induce voltage across a conductor. This is how generators work. You spin a magnetic field around to generate electricity. Windmills do it with the wind, and hydroelectric dams do it with flowing water. Tesla and Westinghouse built a power plant to do this using Niagara Falls in 1893. Today, all the Niagara hydroelectric stations generate a quarter of the electricity in New York State and the Canadian province of Ontario. When I used to live in Toronto, at first i thought the “hydro bill” was the water bill, but nope, that’s what they call the electricity bill.
We know Black Panther’s suit is made from nano-particles. Maybe some are magnetic and their relative motion is what partially powers his suit.
The Wakandans have a technology that creates 3D holograms that you can not only see without glasses, you can interact with. They even go a step farther and use it as a virtual reality control system to pilot remote vehicles. The idea of remotely operating machines is an old one — astronomers have been remotely controlling telescopes for years. The Keck telescope is at the top of a volcano in Hawaii (Mauna Kea), so high up, above the tree line, that it is hard for humans to breathe there. Even when astronomers travel to Hawaii to use it, we stay at sea level and operate it remotely. But we don’t even really need to do that — we can operate it remotely from campus in Santa Barbara. And of course pilots have been remotely operating drones flying in other countries for years. In fact, remotely killing people during the day, then going home to your family at night, has caused new forms of psychological distress.
But what about the Wakandan holograms? It seems that the interactive parts are formed by somehow suspending particles in 3D space. We can in fact do this today, though only in a very limited way. Magnetic fields make three dimensional patterns in space, which can be traced out by iron filings.
“Maybe the the Wakandan technology uses very complicated magnetic fields to generate things like aircraft cockpits, in conjunction with holograms…”
Maybe the the Wakandan technology uses very complicated magnetic fields to generate things like aircraft cockpits, in conjunction with holograms. But could you levitate a person? Many people have tried to build magnetic levitating chairs and beds, but they never really get beyond the prototype stage. They are wildly impractical, but most importantly, the rare Earth magnets involved have to be ridiculously strong to bear that much weight. If you get them flipped around they attract each other with as much force as they were just repelling. If you get a body part in between them, well you can lose fingers and break bones.
So I don’t think the Wakandans are rearranging their nanoparticles with magnetic fields. I think it is the same thing going on in the Black Panther suit. Somehow these particles know how to arrange themselves next to each other and interlock to create a very strong material.
The Wakandans keep their resources and technology secret from the rest of the world, because they are pacifists and they’ve seen the war, devastation, and exploitation that resulted when colonial powers raided other African nations for their resources and enslaved their people. Of course this happened all over the world starting in about the 15th century — European powers had a head start in technology, notably with ships, steel, germ immunity and guns, and used this advantage to crush and exploit other cultures. The reasons it happened this way are complex — you could write a whole book about it. Indeed, a fascinating one is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. He argues that Europe and North Africa had an advantage in geography, crops, and domesticable animals that allowed rapid population and technology growth. Proximity to domesticable animals was quite important, as Europeans became immune to diseases that crossed from animals, while other cultures did not.
I saw evidence of this myself on a recent visit to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. It isn’t precisely known when Polynesians settled the island, though for a time they had navigational abilities well beyond the Europeans. What is known is that the island had a population of around 3000 at first contact with Europeans in the 1700s. They had quite an advanced society, with a division of labor that included miners, stone cutters, transporters, and artisans, and featured some technologies the Europeans did not possess. By the third European visit, the society had been decimated — the population was reduced to only about 700 people, and their moai statues had been overturned. Society had collapsed into civil war. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but likely included an upheaval in social order following their worldview being challenged by contact with Europeans, combined with a large death toll caused by new diseases. On subsequent trips the Europeans looted some of the moai, and captured almost all surviving residents of the island and sold them into slavery. By 1877 only 111 remained. In a span of only about 150 years, a prosperous, technologically advanced society was utterly destroyed following contact with colonialists. This is but one example — versions of this story played out in North and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia.
“I saw evidence of this myself on a recent visit to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island…”
So, have any societies successfully isolated themselves like the Wakandans? While far more extreme than “modern Wakanda,” there are estimated to be about 100 tribes around the world with limited to no contact with global civilization. Take, for example the Sentinelese people from the North Sentinel Island near India. The size of their society and the origin of their language are not known. A half-dozen attempts have been made to establish contact since 1880, and most have been met with a hail of arrows, or threats of violence. They seem to be hunter-gatherers, with no known signs of agriculture. They may have been isolated for thousands of years.
That’s a proof of concept that cultural isolation can exist into the modern era, but isn’t a great analogy for Wakanda, a country whose people are aware of the modern world, but choose not to reveal their secrets. The closest parallel to that may be the Tokungawa shogunate of Japan.
“So, have any societies successfully isolated themselves like the Wakandans?”
From the 1630s to 1853 Japan maintained a “closed country” policy known as sakoku. If any Japanese citizen went abroad, they would be put to death upon return. The same fate would meet foreigners who tried to stay in Japan. There was a limited amount of trade, but only with China, Korea, the Dutch, the Ainu people, and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and only through four gateway ports. Japan prospered, resisting the influence of Christianity and colonialism, built cities, developed a healthy agricultural trade, and developed its own print culture.
As a young country, the United States wanted to establish trade relations with Japan, and for the first 75 years or so of its history sent ships periodically to try to engage the Japanese. They were always rebuked. Ultimately this ended when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with four “Black Ships” in 1853, and delivered a message saying basically become our “friend” or we will destroy you. Japan sent samurai Einosuke Moriyama to negotiate. Having been isolated for centuries, Japan had almost no English speakers. Moriyama had studied under the one “American” who had actually made his way into the country without being executed. He was a half-Scottish, half-Chinook man born in what is now Oregon in 1824, named Ranald MacDonald. To effectively sneak into Japan, MacDonald had become a sailor on a whaling ship, and convinced them to leave him on Rishiri Island, where he would pretend to be shipwrecked. The gambit worked, and instead of executing him, the Japanese sent him to Nagasaki, the port where the Dutch were allowed to trade, and had him teach a handful of samurai English. MacDonald was sent back to America in 1849, and wrote a letter to Congress which helped pave the way for Perry’s expedition.
There are of course more recent examples of cultural isolation, the most famous of which is North Korea. It illustrates the downsides — it can’t be done in a truly free society, and trade limitations can result in a lower standard of living.
But Wakanda doesn’t have cultural isolation so much as technological secrecy. That certainly exists today in the form of classified technology. Nuclear weapons, classified aircraft, and spy satellites all show that it is possible for countries to develop advanced technologies and keep it (mostly) secret from the rest of the world.
I really don’t like it when movies stereotype scientists as old white guys in lab coats. Science is a global enterprise — I lead a 150+ person collaboration called the Global Supernova Project with participants from every continent and too many countries to name. I have personally traveled to dozens of countries to either do or talk astrophysics. That’s one of the amazing things about science — it transcends political and cultural boundaries. No matter our upbringing or language — when we’re studying a physical phenomenon with only one correct explanation, over the long term we all come to the same conclusion. This isn’t to say we give up our culture when we become scientists. We all have different ways of looking at the world, each with their wonderful perspectives, but also their own human biases. Having many different points of view can help us overcome our blind spots and find the greater truths.
This isn’t just some feel-good wishful thinking — science is demonstrably better when we have many perspectives worldwide. Think about how many cultures contributed to our concept of time — the Egyptians gave us a 24 hour day, the Babylonians gave us divisions of time into 60 and probably the monthly organization of days, the Norse gave us the names of the week days, the Romans gave us the modern calendar, the British gave us time zones, Americans gave us the atomic clock, and a German Jew working in Switzerland gave us relativity. Since much of this is based on astronomy and physics, many cultures came to similar conclusions. But no one culture had all the answers.
“…the Egyptians gave us a 24 hour day, the Babylonians gave us divisions of time into 60 and probably the monthly organization of days.”
Independent efforts can be a bulwark against catastrophe too. Persians kept the study of math and astronomy from the Greek and Roman tradition alive after it was neglected in other countries in the Middle Ages. Parallel and independent discoveries were being made worldwide. For example, the Chinese recorded a supernova in 1054 and could predict eclipses. The Maya had a better conception of certain concepts of the lunar cycle and the year than the Spaniards when they arrived.
There are too many modern examples to name, but I’ll give one from my own research. Last year, when the LIGO and Virgo experiments detected two neutron stars merging together by measuring the distortions in spacetime from their gravitational waves, six groups from around the world co-discovered a new kind of explosion from the merger — a kilonova! These kind of explosions produce most of the heaviest elements on the periodic table, including gold. My research group was one of those six, and we were the only ones to catch the explosion rising to peak brightness before declining. That’s because we had telescopes placed all over the world. As the Earth rotated, we could catch the explosion in Chile, then see it again when it got dark in Australia, and again in South Africa. We got three images of it every 24 hours when people who weren’t working together internationally only got one. This turned out to be critical, because this kind of explosion faded faster than anything we had ever seen. We also split the light up into a rainbow — a spectrum. When we were writing our paper about this, we initially thought we had missed the earliest behavior. But our African colleagues came to the rescue with a spectrum they had obtained hours before us. We wrote a paper together, and as a result we all came out stronger by putting our data and heads together.
“There are millions of Shuris out there today…”
Because I’ve been on TV shows about astronomy that are shown internationally, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited all over the world to talk about astronomy. The enthusiasm I’ve encountered from young people about science is breathtaking. SciFest drew 60,000+ school kids over several days from all over Africa. Another science festival in Saudi Arabia drew 200,000 people, over just one week. The young people in particular are just rabid to do science, and it is about equally divided between boys and girls. As anybody who’d ever talked to an elementary school class about planets or dinosaurs knows, young kids just think science is amazing and their natural enthusiasm for it is contagious. But then something tragic happens as they get older. Some of the older girls think it isn’t for them. A lack of role models plays a role. Even though some of the African kids I talked to had a world class observatory and astronomers in their community, they just didn’t see themselves as scientist because that wasn’t the message the media (often American media) had shown them. But there are also darker forces at work — active oppression. In Saudi Arabia, the girls’ science fair projects were kept hidden from all men. Women had to go to separate universities where the science subjects they want to study aren’t offered. Many were threatened by the religious police for even talking to me about science. And yet, many risked being thrown in jail to do just that. It makes me tear up every time I think about it.
This is why Wakanda being shown as world leaders in science is so important. And it is why Shuri is now my favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What a performance by Letitia Wright! She sounded convincing with the technical jargon, while still being able to convey humanity and humor. White men have been vastly overrepresented as scientists in comic books and cinema. But here’s a character who can go toe to toe with Reed Richards, Tony Stark, or Bruce Banner, and is someone Africans, African-Americans, and girls all over the world can see themselves in. Science is already a global enterprise, but it is still biased from a gender and cultural perspective. The more new voices we can inspire and bring into the fold will improve science worldwide. And that improves everyone’s lives, whether it is through new discoveries, or by increasing science literacy. In that sense, Black Panther isn’t just escapist entertainment, it is a turning point. These things matter — I was inspired to be an astronomer after seeing Star Wars as a kid. There are millions of Shuris out there today who just got permission to change the world.
Dr. Andy Howell is an astrophysicist at Las Cumbres Observatory, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, host of Science Vs. Cinema and other TV shows, and is a science consultant for books and movies. He’s on Twitter as @d_a_howell.