The Real-Life Science of Opening Interdimensional Portals on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015 - 12:53PM
Physics
Tuesday, 13 October 2015 - 12:53PM
The Real-Life Science of Opening Interdimensional Portals on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
On last week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daisy opened an interdimensional portal by using her seismic abilities to emit a certain frequency, which the show explained with quantum physics, specifically "quantum harmonic oscillation." But is this an actual physical phenomenon, or just the show using quantum physics as an easy catch-all? According to Professor Chad Orzel, a physicist at Union College, it's a little bit of both.

First, he explains that quantum harmonic oscillation is a real thing, although it may not be able to open portals to other dimensions:

Opening quote
"Like a lot of TV techno-babble, this phrase is lifted from a real bit of physics," Orzel wrote in Forbes. "To the best of my knowledge, it has nothing to do with interdimensional travel, but the quantum harmonic oscillator is, in fact, one of the most important phenomena in quantum mechanics."
Closing quote

Orzel explains that a harmonic oscillator is a system that experiences an equal restoring force when it is displaced; or in other words, it moves up and down at a constant rate. The classic example is a mass on a spring, but the same mathematics can be used to explain many different kinds of motion, such as a pendulum swinging back and forth, or the vibrating string that creates sound in a musical instrument. Which brings us to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

Opening quote
"A particular pitch resonating in a creepy underground chamber, as in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode that kicked this off, is another example of a classical harmonic oscillator. There is a characteristic frequency at which air in a confined space will naturally oscillate, and if you make a sound of the appropriate pitch, it will get louder and louder in the same way that flexing your knees at the right rate will set a playground platform bouncing."
Closing quote

Orzel further explains that an analogue can be derived in quantum mechanics, although it's considerably more complicated. Since by definition, one can't determine the velocity or relative position in a quantum system, those two variables are replaced by total energy and probability that the object is in a certain location. Using those variables, the quantum harmonic oscillator has a characteristic frequency just as a classical system does, from which a fundamental energy unit can be determined. 

But of course, none of this has anything to do with what happened on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which portrayed a relatively simple case of a classical harmonic oscillator. So where did the quantum come from? Instead of referring to the actual quantum phenomenon, it was their shorthand for scientific magic, or "can open interdimensional portals":

Opening quote
"So, when Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went looking for a bit of jargon to explain their interdimensional portal, they happened to latch onto a very real and very important phenomenon. As TV technobabble goes, it's not even that bad a use– the resonating sound that they use is, in fact, an example of harmonic oscillation. They're using "quantum" as code for "magic," alas, but that's a common Hollywood trope, and hardly unique to them."
Closing quote
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