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Book Review: The Physics of the Buffyverse by Jennifer Ouellette

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I am not a physicist. In fact, even though I always liked the sciences in school, even though I always read science fiction (and stuck my nose up a bit at fantasy), even though one of the childhood TV experiences that I get nostalgic about is TVO's Eureka – in spite of all those things, I actively avoided any kind of physics education. Physics was too much like math. And not the good math, not the kind of math with definitive right answers for which you can pat yourself on the back. (I liked that math.) Physics was like that grade 11 math course wherein I spent a whole year wondering if this was what it was like to have a psychotic break, because clearly the teacher was speaking in tongues. Physics intimidated me and so I did my best I ignore it.

And, as much as I am not a physicist, I am a Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Angel) fan. In fact, those two things are among the key descriptors when I think about myself. Who is Bonnie? She is someone who thinks the Buffyverse is an incredible creation worth your attention whereas physics is something that will apply to you without needing any involvement or detailed understanding on your part.  Except that they've apparently snuck physics lessons into my beloved television.

That's what Jennifer Ouellette is out to prove with her book, The Physics of the Buffyverse. In the tradition of The Physics of Star Trek (on my shelf, gathering dust), Ouellette uses the events on the Hellmouth and in Angel's L.A. to examine basic and cutting-edge ideas in physics. For instance, Illyria's forceful eviction of Angel from Wolfram & Hart, is used to help illustrate electromagnetism:

Even after building up all that momentum during his fall, electromagnetism still easily trumps gravity once Angel makes contract with the pavement. The repulsive electrical force between the atoms in the pavement and the atoms in his body stops him cold. It is electromagnetism that provides the resistance. No particle in Angel's body ever makes contact, on an atomic scale, with any particle in the pavement.

Physics lesson one: atoms don't like intermingling. Okay, I get that. Atoms don't scare me; I liked chemistry. That was pretty painless (except maybe for David Boreanaz's stuntman). In the early section of the book, many of the examples trotted out are like this one: Buffy, Xander, Anya, Cordelia, Lorne and others are used to illustrate the most basic principles of physics, the same subject matter covered by those early '80s Eureka cartoons. In particular, Ouellette examines the physics of fighting, looking at things like mass, inertia, energy, gravity and more.

As the book goes on, Ouellette delves deeper into both the science and the Buffyverse. More complicated and theoretical science is discussed, from Schrödinger's cat (using Miss Kitty Fantastico, of course) to black holes to that Buffyverse perennial, portals and interdimensional travel. Ouellette illustrates quantum phenomenon using the Vegas-imprisoned Lorne as an example:


[I]n a quantum world, Lorne merely has the highest likelihood of being found somewhere in his dressing room. There is the tiniest probability of finding Lorne on the street just outside the casino. If he waits long enough, eventually he can escape his captors with no effort at all, thereby violating the laws of classical physics, not to mention common sense. Of course, he would have to wait longer than the entire lifetime of our universe before this occurred, but the probability is definitely there.

…But the electron doesn't have to wait the lifetime of the universe for this to happen, thanks to the vast number of subatomic particles involved at quantum scales. The probabilities that one particle would slip through are much higher. In fact, the phenomenon occurs all the time. So if Lorne were a subatomic particle instead of a big green empath demon, he could escape his captors much more easily.

Whoa, I found myself thinking, did I actually just understand something from quantum physics?

The book avoids becoming pedantic because it acknowledges that the TV writer's foremost job is to provide an engaging and emotionally resonant story; illustrating physics is merely a tangential side-effect of the work, like the heat or sound released in a chemical reaction. She also realizes that there is an inherent tension between reality and fantasy in TV series like Buffy or Angel. Creating mystical entanglements that echo the rules of physics can make the fantastical seem more believable and spare the audience the disappointing moment when disbelief falls completely from its suspension. Her examination of Ghost Spike specifically addresses this precarious balancing act (and my biggest pet peeve with the vast majority of ghost stories):

True, he can't touch anyone, he can walk through walls, and when he first emerges from the amulet, he lunges at Angel in a fury, passes right through Angel's body, and finds himself standing in the middle of Angel's desk. Yet he somehow manages to make contact with the floor, and he later makes himself quite comfortable seated in Angel's desk chair—indications of a corporeal being. The willing suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, this is a troubling inconsistency.

Even a physics-illiterate recognizes the inconsistencies that Ouellette enumerates through explanations of how matter interacts. (Ultimately, she also provides a loophole explanation which, though not fully supported by the "canon" evidence, might explain how Spike could be there and not there at the same time.)

Ouellette is also funny, with the same geeky-wacky humour that was so often seen in the Buffyverse shows. This makes the book feel like a coffee klatch with friends, except that instead of discussing Buffy's ever-changing hairstyles or Spike's potential for redemption, the subject just happens to be the origins and rules of the universe itself. Ouellette seems to be saying, "The nature of the universe? No big."

Ouellette's conversational approach to physics inspires a kind of confidence that is hard to achieve when looking at physics in a more traditional, jargon-and-equation fraught setting. You get the sense that Ouellette believes everyone is capable of understanding basic physics precepts, if only physicists were to explain them in an accessible way. And though some of the concepts still seemed to be over my head, I was surprised by how much I got. In other words, Ouellette makes you feel smart. As Buffy says, "I'm all for spurty knowledge."

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