January 28, 2007


EXCERPT: Introduction: Welcome to the Buffyverse (The Physics of the Buffyverse by Jennifer Ouellette)

"Hell's empty, and all the demons are here."
--Ariel, The Tempest

It begins with the sound of shattering glass. A young man and his pretty blond date break into the science lab at the local high school late one night for a bit of mischief -- most likely to engage in some extracurricular hanky-panky on the roof. The girl appears nervous, starting at every sound, fearful that someone, or something, with evil intentions, is lurking in the darkened school. The young man has all the arrogance of youth, dismissing her fears and assuring her with an insinuating leer that they are quite alone. Whereupon the girl's face transforms into that of a fanged, yellow-eyed demon, and she sinks her teeth into her soon-to-be-former date's neck.

This is the weird yet wonderful world of the Buffyverse, where magic, vampires, and demons are real, and mystical convergences and otherworldly phenomena are everyday occurrences. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted as a midseason replacement in 1997, few industry insiders expected it to do well. After all, the campy film version had tanked at the box office. Actor Kiefer Sutherland -- whose father, Donald Sutherland, co-starred in the film -- reportedly was so pessimistic about its chances that he told the show's star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, not to worry, because she was bound to get another series later on. But the TV show defied the naysayers and ended up running for seven seasons. While it never achieved the blockbuster popularity of mainstream sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld, Buffy quickly attracted a strong cult following, drawn by its unique blend of horror, science fiction, and high school melodrama. The show also became a critics' darling, thanks to generous sprinklings of mythology, literary allusion, biting wit, and a lexicon of its own hip teen lingo (dubbed "Buffyspeak").

The premise is simple enough: "Into every generation, a Slayer is born, one girl with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires." That girl is fifteen-year-old Buffy Summers. In the pilot episode ("Welcome to the Hellmouth"), Buffy moves to the fictional town of Sunnydale, California, with her divorced mother, Joyce, after Buffy is expelled from her former high school in Los Angeles. (She burned down the gym, but there were extenuating circumstances: It was full of vampires.)

Sunnydale is not the picture-perfect town that it seems to be on the surface. It is located squarely on top of a Hellmouth, a mystical portal between the world of Sunnydale and a separate hell dimension. The Hellmouth emits all kinds of bad juju, and its energy draws evil beings to the area like a giant magnet of badness. Buffy's job is to keep the demons at bay and prevent hell from erupting on Earth. She does so for the next seven years, beating back everything from vampires to hell gods to the very First Evil, while simultaneously grappling with the usual travails of high school, college, and the onset of young adulthood -- all of which can be scarier than any demon horde.

Fortunately, she doesn't fight alone. Buffy is aided by her oh-so-British Watcher, Rupert Giles, and her new friends: Willow, Xander, and Angel -- a reformed vampire cursed by gypsies who restored his human soul. In 1999, Angel became the star of his very own eponymous spinoff series (Angel). He sets up shop as a private investigator to fight injustice and help the hopeless in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles -- which usually involves killing demons and battling other forces of evil. The characters and events that populate these two series make up what is known as the Buffyverse.

On the surface this surreal, fictional world would appear to have very little to do with the world of science. Science, especially physics, views the universe as a gigantic, complex machine that operates in accordance with a handful of underlying fundamental principles: the laws of physics. Magic and superstition rightly have no place in serious science. Tell a physicist that you're interested in exploring the physics of the Buffyverse, and the most likely response will be a blank, puzzled stare, followed by a dubious observation: "But vampires aren't real . . ." The skepticism is understandable. But look a bit closer, and you'll find that science lurks everywhere in the Buffyverse, from the "Big Picture" framework to the nooks and crannies. It's not just relegated to Sunnydale High School's science lab.

For instance, many of the monsters' traits are drawn from real-world biology, such as demons that inject their victims with poisonous toxins to paralyze them before they feed. Vampirism could be viewed as an infectious disease, spreading through contamination of the blood, almost a modern metaphor for AIDS. The ancient demon Illyria reemerges from a multimillennium-long sleep in "A Hole in the World" (Angel, Season 5, or, henceforward, A-5) as a form of biological warfare. Just like a virus, she infects her host, killing that host so that she can inhabit the shell that remains. The host becomes a potential weapon of mass destruction. Any attempt to extract Illyria from her victim would make the virus "airborne"; thousands would die, instead of just one person.

Chemistry is plainly evident in the concoction of brews and potions for the casting of spells. In "Witch" (Buffy, Season 1, or, henceforward, B-1), Xander and Willow make use of the ingredients in their science class to concoct a potion that will tell them if their classmate Amy is a witch -- although they have to improvise a bit, obtaining the "eye of newt" during their dissection of a frog. When Buffy's mother becomes mysteriously ill ("No Place Like Home," B-5), Buffy suspects that it might be the result of a magic spell. She performs her own spell called tirer la couture -- literally, "pull the curtain back" in French, although Buffy (who didn't do well in French class) mistranslates it as "rotate many foodstuffs." All spells leave a trace signature normally invisible to humans, and her spell enables Buffy to see these traces to determine whether a spell has been cast. The concept is very similar to chemical elements' having distinct "signatures," in the form of emitted light (electromagnetic radiation) that is undetectable to human eyes. We can detect this light with instruments called spectrometers. The color of the light tells us which elements are present in a given sample, while the intensity of that color indicates how much of a particular element is present.

As for physics, writers for both series have openly drawn on specific concepts in quantum mechanics, relativity, and string theory to develop innovative plots for episodes. A high school girl becomes invisible after months of nobody noticing her -- a clever twist on the quantum notion that observation determines the outcome of a subatomic-scale experiment ("Out of Mind, Out of Sight," B-1). There are teleporting demons, temporal folds, time loops, and dimensional portals, conceptually similar to the hypothetical wormholes proposed by real-world physicists. And one critical scene in an Angel episode takes place at a scientific symposium on string theory ("Supersymmetry," A-4). The Buffyverse has seeped into physics in turn. In December 2005, astronomers found that a small object in a ring of icy bodies near Neptune (known as the Kuiper belt) had an unusually tilted orbit. They dubbed the object "Buffy," in part because -- like many things in the Buffyverse -- its orbit can't be explained by the prevailing scientific theories of how the outer solar system formed.

More generally, Buffy and her entire gang of "Scoobies" -- a reference to those meddling kids in the cartoon Scooby-Doo -- know the value of doing their homework. When some new evil comes to town, the first thing they do is launch into "research mode." Angel and his team of fellow demon hunters adopt the same approach. Skipping that vital step is usually a recipe for failure. In the same way that scientists must first understand the nature of a problem before they can design successful theories and experiments, the Scoobies and "Team Angel" understand that they must first understand the nature of the thing they are fighting in order to defeat it.

There are technological parallels as well. The books in the library of Wolfram & Hart (aka "the devil's law firm") on Angel are blank until someone asks for a specific tome. Then the pages fill with the requested text. Electronic paper is a similar real-world technology that is already being used for commercial signage in the marketplace. In "Witch" (B-1), Buffy uses a mirror to reflect the energy of a witch's spell back onto the witch. The technique is similar in concept to Alexander Graham Bell's photophone, an early forerunner to fiber optic communication. The photophone transmitted sound on a beam of light to a mirror, causing the mirror to vibrate in response. The instrument then captured the vibrations that reflected off the mirror and transformed them back into sound.

Even the most familiar technology gets a new twist. The demon puppets in "Smile Time" (A-5) use the TV signal of their hit children's show as a two-way conduit. They graft a hidden carrier signal onto the regular broadcast signal -- camouflaged by a magic spell -- that enables them to communicate individually with their young viewers and sap their innocence away. In "I Robot, You Jane" (B-1) a demon who has been bound into an ancient mystical book goes binary, unleashed on the Internet when Willow scans the text into a computer. The demon's essence is broken into electron "bits," much like radio and TV signals, and then digitized into the "bytes" used in computers. Giles and the school's computer science teacher, Jenny Calendar, must combine magic with information technology to defeat the demon: They form a virtual mystical circle in an online chat room to cast a "rebinding" spell.

This melding of magic and science is a defining feature of the Buffyverse. Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon has said that the original series was intended as a metaphor for how high school can sometimes seem like hell to teenagers. He made his fictional high school a literal hell, with vampires and other monsters embodying humanity's inner demons. The same can be said for the physics in the series. Sometimes it takes center stage, but more often than not, it's woven into the fabric of the fictive framework, and works best on a metaphorical level. The Buffyverse is ruled largely by metaphysics. Try to interpret things too literally, and one quickly runs into absurdities, much the same way that attempting to precisely determine two mutually exclusive properties of a subatomic particle leads to unwanted mathematical "singularities."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2007 2:38 PM
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