Of Spies and Space-Time: The Science Behind Marvel’s Agent Carter

Original artwork by Stephanie DeMarco

From travel between universes to matter with other-worldly properties, the latest season of Marvel’s Agent Carter brings science into the spotlight by infusing the world of comic book heroes with real-life physics and scientists who subvert stereotypes. I sat down with the science adviser for season two of Agent Carter, Dr. Clifford Johnson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California, to talk about the show's scientific concepts and the characters who explore them.

 

Spoilers for season two follow.

 

Set in the late 1940s, Agent Carter follows the adventures of Peggy Carter, an agent at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). The SSR is a fictional covert government agency created during World War II to protect the United States from foreign threats. The first season of Agent Carter depicts Peggy struggling to be respected for her talents as a female agent at the male-dominated SSR. After proving her worth in season one by keeping dangerous weapons out of Soviet hands, season two finds Peggy jet-setting off to sunny Los Angeles on a mysterious new case: the body of a woman has been found in a frozen lake during a summer heat wave.

 

During their investigation, Peggy and her team discover footage of a failed atom bomb test from Isodyne Energy, a company owned by Calvin Chadwick and his wife, actress Whitney Frost. In the video, the bomb rips a hole through the fabric of space and time, revealing a massive rift that consumes everything around it. Just as quickly as the rift opens, it closes, leaving a pool of black liquid behind. While investigating Isodyne Energy, Peggy meets the charming scientist Jason Wilkes. He explains that the cold, black liquid from the bomb test is called “zero matter” (also known as “Darkforce” from Marvel’s Agents of Shield) and is thought to have come from another universe through the rift created by the explosion.

“Since the discovery of zero matter, I have been a vocal advocate for its research and development in the energy market, but I was wrong… This is not about energy. This is about power.” – Whitney Frost in Episode 6: Life of the Party

Jason remarks that while zero matter may not resemble any liquid Peggy has ever seen, it has characteristics of perfect fluids, which do exist in the real world but only in extreme conditions such as very high or low temperatures. Perfect fluids can be in various phases of matter including liquid, gas, or plasma, have almost no viscosity, and sometimes have no resistance to electric currents [1]. They can also have very high heat capacity, meaning that they are able to absorb huge amounts of energy without increasing temperature. This property is evident in zero matter’s ability to absorb massive amounts of heat from the lake, causing the surrounding water to freeze on a warm day.

To contain zero matter and prevent it from interfering with the matter that makes up our world, Dr. Johnson advised the writers to consider zero matter as existing in the plasma phase. Plasma forms by heating a gas so much that the atoms ionize, losing or gaining electrons, and thus exist as charged particles [2]. Taking advantage of the fact that ions can be influenced by magnetism, Dr. Johnson came up with a way to use various crossed and changing magnetic fields to hold zero matter: “They’re actually changing the magnetic field in a particular pattern. If you find the right frequency in the right sequence in which you’re changing it, you can hold [zero matter], neutralize its effects.” Methods like these are currently used to contain plasma in fusion reactors so that the atoms only interact with each other and not the walls of the reactor [3].

 

“It had consumed everything it could on that side. Now it’s looking for a new place to infect.” – Jason Wilkes in Episode 10: Hollywood Ending

 

From its appearance through the rift and exotic properties, Jason reasons that zero matter likely came from another universe. Multiple dimensions and universes are concepts that theoretical physicists currently study. Dr. Johnson points out that while we have equations that describe the universe as we observe it, the equations “don't tell us why those particular interactions are the way they are. Why is the strength of gravity the way it is compared to, say, the strength of electromagnetism? Why is nuclear physics exactly the way it is?”

 

One way theoretical physicists try to model how the universe works is through string theory. Instead of thinking about matter as single points, physicists consider matter to be made of tiny one-dimensional strings [4]. Experts develop predictions about how the strings interact with the surrounding space and with each other, and have proposed that it might be possible to have universes where the laws of physics are different from our own. Dr. Johnson elaborates that in string theory, “We do know that you can have entire families of different laws of physics. One possibility is that those other choices that we can see in our equations exist elsewhere, and maybe we just live in a particular pocket where we're seeing these particular laws of the universe.”

[Figure 1] A depiction of how zero matter could cross into our universe from a parallel universe. Copyright: Dr. Clifford V. Johnson: http://asymptotia.com/2016/02/02/it-came-from-elsewhere/. Reprinted with permission.

To understand how zero matter might move into our universe from its own, Dr. Johnson refers back to the ideas from string theory. String theory suggests that more spatial dimensions exist than the three in which we live [4] [Figure 1]. Dr. Johnson elaborates, “There's a dimension that's different from up-down, left-right, back-and-forth. If you could move in that [new] direction, you'd be then connecting to this other universe.” The blast from the atom bomb test must have somehow ripped open a chasm in our known dimensions to allow access to this new dimension where zero matter lives.

 

“It exists. By definition it must be observable.” – Howard Stark in Episode 3: Better Angels

 

As the investigation continues, Peggy and her team attempt to steal a sample of zero matter but are caught by Whitney Frost. In the ensuing scuffle, the containment chamber breaks and an explosion of zero matter engulfs both Jason and Whitney. As a result, Jason becomes invisible and intangible. Dr. Johnson comments that due to the exposure of zero matter, the atoms that make up Jason’s body have moved “sideways” in the direction of the universe where zero matter originates [Figure 1]. He adds, “Because the laws of physics change as you move in that direction, the properties that make him up are changing. His relationship to everyday matter has changed, so he's passing through it.”

Inventor Howard Stark thinks that Jason’s atoms have shifted out the visible light range and concludes that by spraying him with a “developing” solution, Jason’s atoms can be coated in a substance that will make him visible. This idea of adding a marker to something that is otherwise unobservable is a common practice in everyday life. For example, adding a scent to natural gas, which is poisonous and odorless, enables us to detect a dangerous gas leak.

 

The developing process makes Jason visible again but not tangible. While thinking about what makes objects solid, Howard covers his chalkboards in equations related to the Thomas-Fermi Model, which explains how electrons in atoms exert forces on each other and thus influence how matter is held together [5]. Dr. Johnson expands, “This was a problem people were studying in real physics in the 1930s and 1940...Why is stuff solid? As a scientist in that time, he would have written down the Thomas-Fermi model, which is the best thing we had at the time. And going, well, what's going wrong with this model to make me fall apart, to make me pass through things? Has one of the parameters changed?” While physicists have since improved on the Thomas-Fermi Model, studying how different forms of matter interact at the atomic level is still an active field of research today.

 

The remote trigger you designed, it’s on a radio frequency, correct? Which means you can block it.” – Peggy Carter in Episode 9: A Little Song and Dance

 

In addition to a focus on science, the writers of Agent Carter break from the typical depiction of scientists in the media by creating diverse and complex characters who actively participate in the scientific process: an Oscar-nominated actress, an African-American physicist, a billionaire playboy, an SSR chief, a butler, and a secret agent.

 

In Jason Wilkes, an African-American physicist, Agent Carter depicts a racially underrepresented person in science and does not shy away from the racism of the 1940s. On a date with Peggy, Jason describes how he moved up from washing floors at the Griffith Observatory to a Navy engineer during World War II. After the war, he says, “I applied to sixteen companies when I got home. Isodyne was the only one that was willing to put one of my kind in the lab.” By writing one the main characters as an African-American physicist, Agent Carter provides a way for young African-American people to see themselves as scientists. Dr. Johnson emphasizes this point in reference to his own identity as a black scientist. “It is one of the things I do as a scientist out there in the world especially in the public eye, which is that I help people realize there are other models of being a scientist.”

[Figure 3] Figures 1-3 from Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s patent for a “Secret Communication System” Image Source: U.S. Patent No. US2292387 A [6].

The villainous mastermind behind Isodyne Energy, Whitney Frost, is both a Hollywood actress and a scientific genius. After being exposed to zero matter, Whitney assess its effect on her body according to the scientific method. She orders a box of mice and makes notes in a lab notebook after she sees how zero matter from her body affects them, and when she wants more zero matter, she replicates the exact conditions of the first atom bomb test. In a series of flashbacks we discover that Whitney, while growing up, liked to fix radios and wanted to study science but was told by everyone around her that her only value was in her beauty. Whitney continued to do science in secret and was awarded a patent for the invention of a radio frequency hopping device, in a nod to the real contributions from famous actress Hedy Lamarr and her friend George Antheil, who invented the device to stop Nazis from eavesdropping on US radio communications [Figure 3] [6]. Although the device was not used in WWII, the concepts are the basis for Bluetooth and GPS [7]. Whitney, just like her real-life counterpart, demonstrates that anyone with a curiosity about how the world works can be a scientist.

 

Rich in fascinating science and delightfully intricate characters, Marvel’s Agent Carter is a bright star in the television firmament. Although it has unfortunately been announced that the show will not be renewed for a third season, Agent Carter will stand as an example of a series that was unafraid to explore complicated scientific concepts and demonstrate that anyone, no matter what they look like or what others perceive them to be, can be a scientist.


Special thanks to Dr. Clifford Johnson for taking the time to answer my questions about multiple universes, the representation of scientists in the media, and everything in between. Dr. Johnson was first put in touch with the writers of Marvel's Agent Carter through the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Seasons 1 and 2 of Agent Carter are available on DVD, Blue-ray, and iTunes.

 

Stephanie DeMarco
Staff Writer, Signal to Noise Magazine
Graduate Student, Molecular Biology

 

References:

[1] DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. (2014, October 2). Exotic matter: A closer look at the perfect fluid sheds light on what happened microseconds after the Big Bang. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 12, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141002141858.htm.

[2] Hutchinson, I.H. (2001). What is a Plasma? Introduction to Plasma Physics. Retrieved from http://silas.psfc.mit.edu/introplasma/chap1.html#tth_sEc1.1.

[3] Bradley, L., Kimura, Y., Lomont, T., & Shum G. (2014, June 10). Science Action: How does a magnetic field confine a plasma? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWCqwZoE0FY.

[4] Greene B. (2005). Brian Greene: Making Sense of String Theory. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brian_greene_on_string_theory?language=en#.

[5] Thomas, L. H. (1927). The calculation of atomic fields. Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 23(05), 542-548. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0305004100011683.

[6] Markey, H. K., & Antheil, G. (1942). U.S. Patent No. US2292387 A. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[7] Adams, J. (2011, December 15). Hedy Lamarr’s World War II Adventure [Review of the book HEDY’S FOLLY: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by R. Rhodes]. The New York Times, BR1.