The real science in the new Ghostbusters

The Ghostbusters in the lab.

In a film about the paranormal, what possible role could science play behind the scenes? As it turns out, several scientists were involved in the creation of the new Ghostbusters film.

Physicists James Maxwell, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s Jefferson Lab, and Lindley Winslow, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, both got the call to bring their expertise to the big screen. 

Maxwell had coil magnets from the polarizer in his lab used as set props and both scientists were consulted on set design.

"They needed to understand what the lab looked like," Winslow says. "There's junk all over the place. [When they saw] my lab, [it] was really filled with junk … and so actually they took two boxes of junk from my lab, and instead of getting recycled, it went to the Ghostbusters set. So I thought that was pretty cool — my junk made it on camera.

Winslow and Maxwell say they also spent time thinking about the scientific properties of ghosts. 

"Obviously they're neutrinos," Winslow says. "They go through anything, but if you get them really mad, they'd blow up stars. And so I think there's a good comparison to the ghost in Ghostbusters."

Maxwell put his theories about ghosts into building prop weapons to fight them. 

"We think that the laws of physics apply everywhere all the time, but these ghosts clearly change these rules," Maxwell says. "They're not everywhere all the time, so what in Ghostbusters you call these manifestations of ghosts on our planet, existence, or something I saw as like an isolated visible phenomenon in which there's this significant coupling between standard model particles and this spectral other stuff. And so with this idea, I set out to try to spec out all the props that they showed me and build a cohesive framework of what is the science of ghost busting and how would you actually attack these things."

Maxwell is also responsible for coming up with the Ghostbusters' spectral-fighting synchotron, which is based on a fan's recreation of the original proton pack. 

"I took the cyclotron idea and I tried to expand on it and tried to make it a little more legitimate," Maxwell says. "We're going to use a synchrotron. Where do you get the protons? You have to have some kind of proton source — maybe an electron, cyclotron residents like plasma source. You feed that into a miniature super-conducting proton synchrotron and you have to tune the beams to hear the beam and put in a wand that you can then point at the ghosts." 

Both Maxwell and Winslow say that, amongst all the science fiction comedy, there was a lot of real-life science in the film. The equations on Kristen Wiig's character's whiteboard, for instance? Winslow made sure they were accurate. And the science labs in Ghostbusters were more similar to real-life labs than many movie portrayals.

"In some movies there are these like pristine [labs] — lots of stainless steel and acrylic and everything is put away in their drawers," Winslow says. "Other movies there's junk all over the place. Unfortunately the latter is more like what our labs were."

Maxwell agrees. 

"We got to step into these sets that were just so amazingly realistic and…gritty," Maxwell says. "And it's real because scientists are not necessarily clean people all the time…it felt like, you know, like totally legitimate science that leaked into this paranormal comedy somehow." 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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