Ghosts Get Real

Q&A with Ghostbusters technical advisor James Maxwell

One of the biggest movies of the summer is the reboot of the 1984 Ghostbusters, this time featuring an all-female lead cast including nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann played by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon. We wondered who Ghostbusters Director Paul Feig called when he wanted to give the laboratory and weapons in his comedy-fantasy some technical authenticity and the answer is James Maxwell, senior postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science and cryogenic and polarized target physicist at the Jefferson Lab.

 

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Q: Your LinkedIn profile reveals that you study nuclear spin structure, specializing in polarized targets and beam sources for nuclear physics applications. That seems pretty far removed from the production of most Hollywood blockbusters. How did you get involved in the film?

A: The props folks at Ghostbusters approached Davis Saltzberg, consultant on “The Big Bang Theory,” for some science consulting help during filming in Boston. He connected them with a new professor at MIT, and colleague of his from UCLA, Lindley Winslow. She helped the film with several things, like coming up with equations for the whiteboards and populating the sets with scientific papers, and she also gave them a tour of MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science. They took pictures of several labs, including my 3He polarization setup, and showed them to the director, Paul Feig, who saw my lab and apparently said “Get me that thing!” I was in the background of the pictures, so I imagine he pointed at my picture and said “Get me that nerd!”

To rebuild my experiment, I produced machining drawings, borrowed derelict components from the MIT Bates accelerator facility, consulted with my glassblower, and put together lists of components to buy. I helped them put it all together in their Norwood warehouse, then was on-hand at the old Everett High School set location for the first few days of filming, in an advisory role. I got to chat with Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon to explain what my experiment was and how it worked. After that, Paul Feig asked me to diagram their props, like the proton pack, with realistic terminology. Since this hardware is so central to the movie, it led to a bunch of other little bits of consulting.

 

Q: In this video, you said movie creators asked you early on: “How would a proton pack work with as few huge leaps of miraculous science as possible?” How did you avoid huge leaps of miraculous engineering with the gadgets and weapons used by the characters to do battle with ghosts?

A: I wanted to be sure that the proton packs and other ghost fighting tools followed a cohesive system backed by a pseudo-scientific framework. To describe Ghostbusters gadgets in a “realistic” way, I needed a well-defined scientific challenge, and from there I could engineer a solution, choosing which show-stopping impossibilities to ignore in the name of fiction. So I spent some time thinking, what do I think ghosts in this world are? We think that the laws of physics apply everywhere, all the time, but these ghosts apparently change the rules. They clearly don’t appear everywhere, all the time. So I posited that what you might call “manifestations of ghosts in our plane of existence” could be understood as isolated physical phenomena in which significant coupling exists between Standard Model particles and this spectral matter. This would be caused by localized excitation of some sort of spectral ether or field, and you could absorb this spectral energy using a beam of secondary particles generated by high energy protons. This also has ramifications in the way you detect and interact with “psychokinetic energy” using other tools.

With a “scientific” description of spectral apparitions at hand, I could attack each prop and fit it into this world. So for instance, I had to fit all bare components of a proton accelerator on a backpack. You create protons from an electron-cyclotron resonance plasma in hydrogen gas, you accelerate these protons in a miniature superconducting proton synchrotron, you cool the superconducting magnets with cryogens, and you tune and steer the beam in a wand that you point at a ghost.

 

Q: The main techy Ghostbusters character is nuclear engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, played by the hilarious Kate McKinnon. Were you able to give her any advice for how a nuclear engineer approaches research in the lab, or work in the realm of the supernatural?

A: I didn’t give her any direct advice along those lines. Kate breaths a hilarious, manic energy into her engineer, but I like to think that her character reflects a little bit of the props that populate her world, like my Helium polarizer. I was ecstatic to find that she even has some dialogue pulled from my descriptions of how you might improve the proton pack in successive iterations from a prototype to formidable ghost-fighting weapon. Mine was the bit that ended with “And to top it all off we got a freaking Faraday Cage” that you can hear in the character’s vignette here.

 

Q: As a senior postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science with a focus on physics throughout your education and career, tell us about the close relationship between physics and engineering. What has been your academic and professional relationship to engineering, and why does it matter to you?

A: An experimental physicist sort rides a line between a theoretical physicist and an engineer, and to do so needs help from professionals on both sides. At MIT, I had the excellent support of the engineers at the MIT Bates Research and Engineering Center, whose experience and expertise were crucial to making my experimental ideas become reality. I learned a ton from the engineers and technicians at Bates, and I use that practical knowledge every day in my current position as a staff scientist at a national lab.

 

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Q: The mission of the National Engineering Forum is to identify solutions to three central challenges facing American engineering – capacity, capability and competitiveness. We acknowledge that one of the ways we can inspire the next generation and increase the ranks of those pursuing STEM degrees and careers is by elevating the status of engineers. Movies like Ghostbusters and characters like Jillian Holtzmann help to do this. Was inspiring young people to love engineering and science ever part of your motivation for being a consultant on Ghostbusters?

A: Absolutely. I can remember being a pretty nerdy kid, and at that time I was obsessed with Star Wars; I would pore over these technical schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers. When I was working to make schematics of the proton pack for Ghostbusters, I was picturing boys and especially girls studying them carefully, and I wanted to be sure they could look these components up on Wikipedia and learn about the real tools that physicists used to study the universe. People have deep connections with these movies, and it’s the perfect place to sneak in an excitement for science and engineering.

 

All photos provided courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

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