for National Geographic News
A few years ago, the filmmakers behind The Hulk began surfing the Internet in search of some real-life science to update the classic comic book story about a shy scientist who transforms into a raging beast.
On the Web site for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, they found what they were looking for: the Gamma Sphere, a super-advanced spectrometer designed to detect gamma rays, extremely powerful radiation.
With its vivid colors and angled metal supports, the hulking machine looked the perfect part. Hollywood technology wizards quickly built their own replica of the Gamma Sphere. In the movie, the monster within Bruce Banner is unleashed after the scientist is hit with gamma rays during an experiment.
"The Gamma Sphere in the movie is very realistic and looks the same as the real one," said I-Yang Lee, who heads Berkeley's nuclear physics program. "But there's one big difference. Our Gamma Sphere doesn't emit radiation, it detects it."
OK, so there may not be a real gamma ray machine that occasionally zaps poor scientists and turns them into giant green monsters. Hollywood can still twist the truth to fit or embellish a story.
But the science behind Hollywood movies is turning increasingly sophisticated. As audiences grow more science savvythere are even Web sites rating movies based on the plausibility of movie physicsfilmmakers strive to make their movies as scientifically realistic as possible.
In The Hulk, Banner's father, David, an Army scientist, gets a little carried away with an experiment to boost his immune system by mutating his DNA. He survives, but passes on the mutated DNA to his son, Bruce.
When Bruce, who grows up to be a scientist, is hit with a massive dose of gamma radiationfatal to anyone with a normal genetic makeuphe doesn't die. Instead, the accident triggers the mutated DNA and unleashes the Hulk within Bruce.
To ensure that the story was based on accurate science, Universal Pictures hired a science consultant, John Underkoffler, to work on the movie.
"The first thing they wanted me to come up with was an explanation for the research that the scientists in the film were pursuing, which would then lead to the accident that creates the Hulk," said Underkoffler.
"[The director] also wanted all the background, the techniques and gestures, from how to hold a beaker to the more theoretical, to be as realistic as possible."
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