Panel Recap: The Science of Wonder Woman
As a pop-culture geek, I’m all about the suspension of disbelief. Give me mythical creatures, interdimensional travel, and fireball explosions in the vacuum of space—I prefer creativity to realism. But I also enjoy digging into whether or not fictional realities play by their own rules, and GeekGirlCon ‘17’s “The Science of Wonder Woman” panel did not disappoint.
“The Science of Wonder Woman” was a fantastic discussion of the Wonder Woman film from a scientific perspective. The panelists included astronomer and physics professor Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, forensic chemist and GGC DIY Science Zone project manager Dr. Raychelle Burke, and science writer R.K. Pendergrass.
Diana and her Bullet-Deflecting Bracelets
The panelists began by talking about a scientific aspect of the film that stood out to each of them, either because it was completely factual, or because it was completely fake. For Nicole, one of the film’s most interesting scenes was when Diana deflects bullets with her bracelets while walking across No-Man’s Land.
Nicole pointed out that Diana would need faster-than-human reflexes to see and deflect each bullet as it came. While humans—and human-sized half-gods—have enough momentum in their whole bodies to stop a bullet, Diana is blocking the bullets with just her forearms, meaning either her bones are incredibly strong, or the bracelets are incredibly durable.
Raychelle agreed. She added that she’s experienced being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest for training purposes, and she’s seen firsthand that the wearable bullet-stopping gear we have today is very one-and-done. You can overwhelm it with more bullets, and Diana doesn’t seem have any backup bracelets with her when she goes up against high-energy rounds fired from mounted guns.
“Even though she looks humanoid,” Raychelle pointed out, “getting shot, even with armor, is still incredibly painful and can knock you down—she must have key physiological differences from normal humans.”
Raychelle added that the show Luke Cage brings up the issue that deflected bullets don’t just disappear; they have to go somewhere. So not only is Diana deflecting bullets, she’s purposefully deflecting them at angles where they won’t hit anyone else.
It’s possible, she continued, that some of Luke and Diana’s abilities could be explained by them having more mass than the average person. However, that change in mass would cause them to have an increased impact on the world around them, which we don’t see, except when Diana punches out handholds as she’s climbing the wall in Themyscira.
Diana’s powers aren’t constant, they’re emotionally activated, R.K. explained. William Moulton Marston, the original creator of Wonder Woman, decided that powers, emotions, and reproductive tendencies are all tied together for women.
You can’t separate Wonder Woman from the culture and time period she was created in, Raychelle pointed out.
The Lasso of Truth
R.K. said she found the Lasso of Truth fascinating. Prior to creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston invented an early prototype of the lie detector test, and he brought that concept to the comic.
Lie detectors are not used in the US criminal or civil justice system for a reason, Raychelle noted. They are unreliable and depend on your overall emotions and level of stress. “Even though Wonder Woman is the hero,” she said, “is the lasso an ethically-okay thing?”
It’s a consent issue, R.K. added. The Lasso is a form of truth serum, which is non-consensual. The U.S. still uses truth serums, although that’s also shaky science. Twilight Slumber, the first truth serum, was made to help pardon people, not condemn them, in the era that Wonder Woman was first created.
The Chemical Warfare of WWI
You can’t separate science from morality, Raychelle pointed out. Wonder Woman takes place during World War I, also called the Chemists’ War. Even though the chemistry in the film was fake, she explained, “what was absolutely correct was the dawning sense of horror and the growing arms race. It was unparalleled the number of scientists coming up with chemical weapons and counter-weapons. Many of the chemical weapons we are still dealing with, such as in Syria, were created in this era.”
The film’s concept of ‘hydrogen-based mustard gas’ was both nonsense—you don’t make hydrogen-based anything—and unnecessary. Traditional mustard gas is already the worst it can be. It takes out every living creature in its path and causes total ecological destruction for weeks.
Also, mustard gas doesn’t kill you immediately. “If you want people to die, you use other things,” Raychelle explained. “If you want people to suffer, you use mustard gas. And the fact that they used mustard gas in the movie says something about it. The representations of mustard gas victims in the movie were inaccurate—they should have been much, much worse. For me, the real villain of the movie was not Aries, it was the chemical weapon.”
Nicole added, “The scientists who create these things aren’t cartoon villains like the woman in the movie; they’re people working in labs who maybe don’t intend to kill people, but who are creating weapons. With the atom bomb, there were plenty of people working on it who didn’t know exactly what they were working on—they knew they were making something for the war, but they didn’t know what. That’s why young scientists need to look into the ethics of what they’re doing.”
“Fritz Haber, who won a Nobel Prize and helped mass food production, made some of the most atrocious chemical weapons we have ever seen,” Raychelle noted. “[the U.S.] made and stored a lot of chemical weapons that are still being used, in spite of the current ban on making chemical weapons.”
Do humans deserve Wonder Woman? Nicole asked, and R.K. pointed out that Diana is flawed, too.
Raychelle agreed, asking, “How many of us have had a hero who has turned out to have committed grievous acts? It’s the same with Fritz Haber—when we chemists think of him, we think of his nobel prize and his help with food production, we don’t think of the chemical weapons right off the bat. You can’t separate science from the people who do it. Everyone in this movie is convinced they are on the right side.”
Doctor Poison, though, was all about making the best bombs and killing people in the movie, R.K. countered.
“Why do we [chemists] get the bad rap in movies?” Raychelle asked with a laugh. She added that doctors used amphetamines to manage soldiers’ lack of sleep and help inhibit their pain. Troops came back from World War I, World War II, and Vietnam with drug addictions, and those addictions were by design. Even though the U.S. has done some incredibly shady stuff during wartimes, we are still benefitting from the resulting medical discoveries. “That makes me feel really gross,” Raychelle noted, “but we [chemists] have to reconcile that for ourselves.”
Batman’s Parking Tickets
“Regarding the ethics of the lasso of truth that were touched on,” an audience member asked, “do you think that Batman’s parking tickets and things are ethical?”
Batman is not ethical,” R.K. responded. “Batman has white privilege.”
Raychelle added, “I think the question then is, why do we let certain people, like cops, get away with certain things? […] It seems like sci-fi and horror right now are letting us ask these difficult questions, and I think we should keep asking why.”
Diana’s Bracelets, Round Two
An audience member brought up that, during the discussion of Diana using her bracelets in No-Man’s Land, there was a question about where the bullets would go. Earlier in the movie, we see Steve catch a crushed bullet after Diana deflects it when they’re ambushed in an alleyway.
“So the question is, would she absorb the momentum or deflect it?” Nicole said, adding that Diana must be absorbing the momentum of the bullets.
“But are the machine gun rounds different enough to change that?” R.K. asked. “The answer is ‘narrative magic’,” she added with a handwave.
Battle Training and Physiology
“Could you speak more to the physiology of the continuous training at the start of the movie and how that changes bodies to maybe be able to absorb the momentum of multiple bullets?” An audience member asked.
“Bones can only break and reset so much,” Raychelle explained, “but with muscle and tissue and training, you can absolutely get to the level that we saw in the Amazons. Women can absolutely train on that level. […] This is just like what our armed forces do.” She added that microfractures in bones do help make the bones stronger, which might be another contributing component.
What Do the Amazons Eat?
An audience member asked, “What are these women eating on this island? They must have a very high caloric intake, but see no agriculture—there’s a goat in one scene and that’s it! Where is their food coming from? Also, they have one boat and it gets taken.”
“I think they have a very high Mediterranean diet; lots of fish,” R.K. replied.
“What if they’ve figured out hydroponic farming?” Raychelle asked. “Clearly there’s a whole underground component with the bath, and they’re clearly intelligent. I can see Amazons in space stations with their hydroponic farming.”
“I think we made movie three,” Nicole said with a laugh.
R.K. quipped, “Mark Watney is going to be out on Mars and the Amazons are going to rescue him.”
“Can you save the end of the movie and explain how a gas that has to be exploded on the ground can be exploded in a plane in the air?” asked an audience member.
“Yes, it’s called nonsense!” Raychelle said, adding that they really wanted the devastation of both mustard gas and a hydrogen bomb. “Mustard gas is not actually a gas and not flammable, so it wouldn’t work. Just like Jack could have gotten on the plank in Titanic, Steve did not need to be on that plane. They had invented rockets at this point and there was no reason for his death.”
The Invisible Jet
“How does a visible person exist in an invisible jet?” an audience member asked. “How can Wonder Woman be invisible in an invisible jet?”
“One word answer: lasers,” Raychelle said. “But it’s literally smoke and mirrors. Part of it is just a trick of the light; you can hit things in the right way with the right material and your eyes can’t process it.”
R.K. added that it’s actually, technically speaking, a visible jet. While human eyes can’t see it, the jet still has a physical presence.
Raychelle agreed, noting that cameras might be able to identify it, depending on the camera.
And with that, the panel ended. For me, “The Science of Wonder Woman” was a perfect blend of scientific fact and moral debate. I appreciated how the panelists went beyond discussing the feasibility of the movie to talk about its ethics. Like Diana does in the film, the panelists addressed both the good and the bad in humanity and paired lighthearted quips with convicting questions about the things we allow in our society and what we can do to make the world around us better.