The Science of Real Genius

Ingenious Pursuits
The Science of REAL GENIUS
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The Science in REAL GENIUS
REAL GENIUS contains a plethora of science and inventions and screwball stunts and pranks that are scientifically sound. Specifically, REAL GENIUS contains a lot of physics. It is Val Kilmer's opinion that "physics is a breakthrough science with people who don't really follow the rules. There are laws that exist, but there is always one that goes a different way, the atom or molecule that doesn't seem to fit the law." (2) Technical advisors - David Marvitt, an alumnus of CAL Tech, along with Stephan Schwartz, "a former member of Admiral Zumwalt's Pentagon staff and Professor Martin Gundersen of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Physics at the Univ. of Southern California and visual consultant Ron Cobb -worked closely with the production staff to ensure the movie's scientific accuracy." (2) The science in REAL GENIUS fills the screen from the opening credits to the final scene:

1. Opening Credits-Scroll of Weapons of War
The tank: Leonardo Da Vinci was one of several Renaissance military designers who thought of using an armored vehicle. (Da Vinci was also an artist, musician, and scientist). It was constructed of heavy wooden beams set close together. It carried light breech-loading cannon that could be loaded inside the tank and fired through the gap between the lower part of the vehicle and the pointed roof. The tank never became an important weapon until World War 1, when it was developed and brought into use mostly because of the enthusiasm of Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill believed an armored car would effectively protect advance air bases, and Sir Ernest Swinton developed such a car, using the American caterpillar farm tractor as his model. When the British War Office showed little interest in the project, Churchill created a special commission to continue it. Leonardo Da Vinci also invented many other weapons including three models of machine guns, grenades that threw shrapnel, and a modern-looking bomb.

2. The Crossbow Project's "death beam" laser weapon
"We had to be careful to create a laser weapon which WOULDN'T work the way it was described in the film," Martha Coolidge, REAL GENIUS' director explained. "We didn't want to inspire any lethal tinkering." (2) In reality, to be effective, the wavelength of a laser weapon must be short, at least in the visible band, but preferably in the ultraviolet or x-ray band. The greatest difficulty in designing short-wavelength lasers is the power-the shorter the wavelength, the more energy that is required. Optical lasers work by heating the skin of the target. The beam must remain at the same spot for several seconds until the skin is hot enough to do internal damage to the target (or to heat the aluminum foil until it pops the kernals of corn!!). This is tough to accomplish because the typical ballistic missile travels in excess of 6 miles per second. In addition, to problems of accuracy, laser weapons of any power tend to be monstrous in size. That limits them to use as ground-based ray guns using mirrors to direct the beam to its target. High-powered lasers using turbine-powered chemical jets have been developed and even placed aboard aircraft, but the wavelength of the light is long-in the infrared region which makes the laser relatively inefficient at destroying its targets. A relatively newcomer to S.D.I. is the free-electron laser which is being developed at several national laboratories and universities. However, an actual FEL (free-electron laser) would take up a football field or more. It's possible, though unlikely, that it could be built over a span of several years on a low-orbiting space platform.

"It's a laser beam, bozo!!"

Oh dear - no Java!!!! Get some hereOh dear - no Java!!!! Get some here

3. Laser
The word laser is an acronym for 'light amplification of stimulated emission of radiation.' Lasers consist of the following components: power supply, pumping device, lasing medium and optical resonant cavity. Although the list of possible lasing mediums is extensive, most commercial, scientific, and military lasers fall into one of these categories: crystal and glass, gas, excimer, chemical, semiconductor, and liquid. "The lab scenes in REAL GENIUS employ two sophisticated lasers: a blue-green argon laser and a tuneable dye laser, which work in tandom." (2) An argon laser is a gas laser; a tuneable dye laser is a liquid laser. In REAL GENIUS' lab scenes, "the dye laser is mixed with the liquid and flowed in front of the argon laser, which in technical terms excites it. The dye laser then emits a beam of light, which can be turned to virtually any color by turning a knob, like fine-tuning a television set. All of the laser technology in REAL GENIUS was the real thing, sponsored by Professor Martin Gundersen of the Univ. of Southern California." (2)

4. nanometer
Light is usually expressed in wavelength, specifically nanometers (sometimes Angstroms). One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. The different colors of visible light have different wavelengths and frequencies.

5. Mitch's Science Fair Project-a flashlamp-pumped ultraviolet laser
It consists of a dye-filled glass tube parallel to a linear flashlamp. The laser tube sits inside a resonator made of 2 mirrors. The flashlamp is a simple device filled with air at low pressure, which may be generated from an old refrigerator compressor. The tricky part of this experiment is the capacitor which stores energy to be discharged through the lamp. To make the laser work, a capacitor of low internal inductance must be used. The best bet - a capacitor of foil and plastic sheets. Mirrors are required for the laser resonator cavity-ordinary first-surfaced aluminum mirrors will work. The rear mirror must be fully reflecting and the front mirror partially reflecting. NOTE: Parts of the construction of this laser have been deliberately withheld due to the fact that working with any laser can be dangerous.

6.Chris Knight's Dormitory Room
(a) Voyager Saturn mural on the wall-Voyager 1 was launched Sept. 5th, 1977 and arrived Nov.13th, 1980. It was a flyby mission. It took 900 images of Saturn's moons. Voyager 1's major discoveries were the unexpected complexity of the rings and the true nature of Titan's atmosphere.

(b) autographed photo of Albert Einstein: Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist; he invented few actual 'things' himself. As with many of the world's great thinkers, Einstein left the practical applications of his pioneering work in physics to other people. (Kind of akin to Laslo asking Chris what would be the practical applications of Chris' 5 megawatt laser - Chris envisioned how to make the laser and did so.he never thought about practical applications). In addition to creating the Theory of Relativity, his best known work, Einstein is responsible for first proposing the idea of the laser (1916) in his Photon Theory. In 1921, Einstein, won a Noble Prize for his Photon Theory-not for the Theory of Relativity. Thus, Einstein is the father of the laser.

(c) Chris' gyroscope: a gyroscope is a symmetrical mass mounted so that it can spin about an axis in any direction. However, once you spin a gyroscope, its axle wants to keep pointing in the same direction. Gyroscopes are able to defy gravity - the effect is called precession. A spinning top is a simple form of gyroscope. Yet, gyroscopes are the nucleus of most automatic steering systems such as those used in airplanes, missiles and torpedoes. Chris has a flashing LED gyroscope and he appears to be doing 'research' on gyroscopic propulsion devices while having loads of fun. "It's just another in a series of diversions in an attempt to avoid responsibility"...but not really!

7.Kent's mirrors
Mirrors are used in laser experiments to re-direct a beam, to mix a beam with other light sources, and a number of other tasks. Mirrors differ in their reflective material, amount of reflection, flatness, and location of reflective surface. Kent has made a mirror for Professor Hathaway that is nearly 100% reflective. Mirrors that are made to be 100% reflective at all angles generally use silver or aluminum reflective layers.

8.Stills from the movie Gas-s-s-s
There are stills from the movie Gas-s-s-s on the walls in the hall of the dorm. Gas-s-s-s (1970) is a movie by Roger Corman in which a nerve gas kills all those over the age of 25. It doesn't take much imagination to understand why Chris and the other students would think such stills were a gas! Furthermore, there is gas in other forms throughout REAL GENIUS: the argon laser, the anesthesia administered to Kent, and , of course, liquid nitrogen.

9.Pacific Tech's Smart People On Ice
Pacific Tech's Smart People On Ice ...A carpet of frozen volatile gas was laid down. The fake 'ice' changed from a frozen state to a gas state-instead of from a frozen state to a liquid state as would have been the case with ice made from water. The filmmakers had "thousands of feet of tubing connected to a powerful refrigeration unit buried beneath the floor of a forty foot corridor to create the bobsled run and skating rink." (2)

10. The Madame Curie Look-Alike Contest
Chris: We had nobody at the mutant hamster races, one entry in the Madame Curie look-alike contest and he was disqualified later. (1)

Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a chemist and physicist. Madame Curie studied uranium-a radioactive element found in pitchblende. Together with her husband, she discovered polonium and radium and determined their atomic weights and properties. For their work on radioactivity, they won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie became the first person to be awarded a second Noble Prize when she received the 1911 chemistry prize for the discovery of polonium and radium. Later, Marie Curie's daughter and son-in-law also won Noble Prizes.

11. Chris' frozen 'coins'
The large thermos-like container that Chris has taken out of the freezer contains liquid nitrogen. Chris, wearing gloves, cuts the 'ice' into a number of thin 'coins' to use in the vending machines. Chris must wear gloves because liquid nitrogen will burn the skin on contact.

12. Laslo's steam tunnel abode (or paying homage to Leonardo)
Laslo Hollyfeld lives in the steam tunnels that are accessible through the closet in Chris and Mitch's room. In Mitch's trip to Laslo's lair the filmmakers pay homage to Leonardo Da Vinci. The multi-directional elevator "consisted of a car controlled by a rotating screw, which descended through an elevator shaft in a turntable. At that point, it met a horizontal track and a hidden drive-chain like those used to operate roller coasters. At the end of the track, another rotating screw took over, plunging the car into the dorm's lower depths." (2)

Leonardo Da Vinci had one great advantage over most other people of his time. He understood that if a certain system of doing work can be applied to one machine, it can also be applied to another. Leonardo tried to make the most of the wheel, axle, lever, pulley and screw by using the devices in new ways such as: the rotating screw and the drive-chain. Sketches for these inventions were found in Da Vinci's notebooks. "The piece de resistance (in Laslo's abode) was the automated scribbler which enabled Hollyfeld to submit one million, six hundred thousand separate entries to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes, creating a mathematical probability of winning 32.6% of the prizes, including the car." (2) Earlier, much earlier, Leonardo had invented an automatic paper feeder for a printing press.

13. "I want 5 megawatts by mid-May!"
The intensity of the laser beam is measured in joules or watts. It denotes the amount of energy or power released in some useful form, including heat.

14. The Tanning Invitational
Chris puts on a light show by bouncing the laser beam off a series of strategically placed mirrors and by engaging in beam splitting. A beam splitter is an optical component that can be used in a laser system. A beam splitter does as its name implies: it takes one beam and divides it into two. Most beam splitters are also beam combiners - when positioned properly, the beam splitter can combine the light from two sources into one shaft of light. Beam splitters come in two forms: cube and plate glass. Chris uses a cube beam splitter which is made by cementing together two right-angle prisms so that their common hypotenuses touch. Usually, some form of reflective or polarizing layer is added at the joint. The cube can then be made to act as several beam splitters, depending on the coating at the hypotenuse. Chris also must have a galvanometer because the beam oscillates back and forth over the words "Tanning Invitational."

15. Prof. Hathaway's lasered popcorn house

the popcorn hourse

The "death beam' laser has had its target (and trajectory) reconfigured by Chris, Mitch, Laslo, and Jordan. The new target is Professor Hathaway's house. The beam hits the aluminum foil and in seconds the house is overflowing and collapsing with popcorn.

The REAL GENIUS production crew built a "full-sized Victorian frame house on a lot in Sand Canyon, Calif. Within the house, the crew devised an elaborate network of conveyor belts, hydraulic lifts, airblowers, and vacuum hoses which would on cue turn 190,000 pounds of popcorn into a hot buttered tornado." (2) But, that's not all ! "Back at the Hollywood Center Studios, the lower level of a two-level set contained a vast storage tank, 20' x 20' x 20', to hold the popcorn until needed. The crew built six air-poppers, each ten feet high, capable of popping 2,400 pounds of corn an hour. Made of sheet metal and heated by propane gas, the poppers fed the tank through the pressure of the popping corn itself and a system of air-blowers. A conveyor belt and another set of blowers then swirled the popcorn up through the floor to inundate the set in confectionary debris to a height of twenty feet. The entire set was one enormous popcorn popper." (2)

CODA: Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Between 1983, when Ronald Reagan first proposed what he called the Strategic Defense Initiative, and 1999, when Congress most recently financed it, the United States spent over 60 billion dollars on research and preliminary testing of this system to defend the nation against strategic missiles. It has already become the single most expensive research project in the history of the federal government. And so far, there is almost nothing to show for it. Despite some important technical advances, there is still no workable system of missile defenses and no realistic prospect of an effective system any time soon. For the military-government complex, it is an idea whose time will not go; for the public, the people, it is "tears for fears."

  1. Real Genius (1985) director, Martha Coolidge
  2. Real Genius Press Booklet
  3. Virgil. The Aeneid


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