Review of "The Physics of the Buffyverse"
by Jennifer Ouellette







Article by Daniel Eskridge

The Physics of the Buffyverse by Jennifer Ouellette

A few years ago, I read a book called "A Short History of Nearly Everything".It essentially gave a summary of every major scientific discovery, using simplediagrams, straight forward explanations, and relatively jargon free language.The goal, of course, was to make all of the major scientific discoveries accessibleto the scientifically unwashed masses. While the book mostly succeeded in this,it still had one significant problem: the title was wrong. It wasn't "short".In fact the book was quite fat...with big pages...and small text.

Now here we have "The Physics of the Buffyverse". It's almost the same bookexcept that it is tailored for the short attention span of the IPOD/Digital Cable/SatelliteRadio generation. The interesting part, the science, has been retained, but lessinteresting history and people didn't really make the cut. Also, rather than justinfodumping scientific knowledge, Ouellette has a hook, the cult hit TV showsBuffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

"But they were fantasy!" some might complain. How can one use fantasy toillustrate science? Well, even in fantasy, there are rules to life, rules thatcan be equated to actual scientific principles. Okay, so some of Ouellette'sassociations are a stretch, but it is an undeniable fact: a lot of people REALLYliked those shows. So what's wrong with using fandom to snag a few young mindsand teach them about some of the fantastic aspects of reality?

It was easy to read and the concepts easy to grasp. There's a few helpful diagramssprinkled in, too. It would be a great book for any fan of the show, or it would makea good introduction to real science for a young adult who has at least watched a few episodes.


ExcerptThe following is an excerpt from the book The Physics of the Buffyverseby Jennifer OuellettePublished by Penguin Books; December 2006;$15.00US/$18.50CAN;978-0-14-303862-7Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer OuelletteIntroductionWelcome to the Buffyverse

“Hell’s empty, and all the demons are here.”--Ariel, The Tempest

It begins with the sound of shattering glass. A young man and his prettyblond date break into the science lab at the local high school late onenight for a bit of mischief -- most likely to engage in some extracurricularhanky-panky on the roof. The girl appears nervous, starting at every sound,fearful that someone, or something, with evil intentions, is lurking in thedarkened school. The young man has all the arrogance of youth, dismissingher fears and assuring her with an insinuating leer that they are quitealone. Whereupon the girl’s face transforms into that of a fanged,yellow-eyed demon, and she sinks her teeth into her soon-to-be-former date’sneck.

This is the weird yet wonderful world of the Buffyverse, where magic,vampires, and demons are real, and mystical convergences and otherworldlyphenomena are everyday occurrences. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted asa midseason replacement in 1997, few industry insiders expected it to dowell. After all, the campy film version had tanked at the box office. ActorKiefer Sutherland -- whose father, Donald Sutherland, co-starred in thefilm -- reportedly was so pessimistic about its chances that he told theshow’s star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, not to worry, because she was bound toget another series later on. But the TV show defied the naysayers and endedup running for seven seasons. While it never achieved the blockbusterpopularity of mainstream sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld, Buffy quicklyattracted a strong cult following, drawn by its unique blend of horror,science fiction, and high school melodrama. The show also became a critics’darling, thanks to generous sprinklings of mythology, literary allusion,biting wit, and a lexicon of its own hip teen lingo (dubbed “Buffyspeak”).

The premise is simple enough: “Into every generation, a Slayer is born, onegirl with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires.” That girl isfifteen-year-old Buffy Summers. In the pilot episode (“Welcome to theHellmouth”), Buffy moves to the fictional town of Sunnydale, California,with her divorced mother, Joyce, after Buffy is expelled from her formerhigh school in Los Angeles. (She burned down the gym, but there wereextenuating circumstances: It was full of vampires.)

Sunnydale is not the picture-perfect town that it seems to be on thesurface. It is located squarely on top of a Hellmouth, a mystical portalbetween the world of Sunnydale and a separate hell dimension. The Hellmouthemits all kinds of bad juju, and its energy draws evil beings to the arealike a giant magnet of badness. Buffy’s job is to keep the demons at bay andprevent hell from erupting on Earth. She does so for the next seven years,beating back everything from vampires to hell gods to the very First Evil,while simultaneously grappling with the usual travails of high school,college, and the onset of young adulthood -- all of which can be scarierthan any demon horde.

Fortunately, she doesn’t fight alone. Buffy is aided by her oh-so-BritishWatcher, Rupert Giles, and her new friends: Willow, Xander, and Angel -- areformed vampire cursed by gypsies who restored his human soul. In 1999,Angel became the star of his very own eponymous spinoff series (Angel). Hesets up shop as a private investigator to fight injustice and help thehopeless in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles -- which usually involveskilling demons and battling other forces of evil. The characters and eventsthat populate these two series make up what is known as the Buffyverse.

On the surface this surreal, fictional world would appear to have verylittle to do with the world of science. Science, especially physics, viewsthe universe as a gigantic, complex machine that operates in accordance witha handful of underlying fundamental principles: the laws of physics. Magicand superstition rightly have no place in serious science. Tell a physicistthat you’re interested in exploring the physics of the Buffyverse, and themost likely response will be a blank, puzzled stare, followed by a dubiousobservation: “But vampires aren’t real . . .” The skepticism isunderstandable. But look a bit closer, and you’ll find that science lurkseverywhere in the Buffyverse, from the “Big Picture” framework to the nooksand crannies. It’s not just relegated to Sunnydale High School’s sciencelab.

For instance, many of the monsters’ traits are drawn from real-worldbiology, such as demons that inject their victims with poisonous toxins toparalyze them before they feed. Vampirism could be viewed as an infectiousdisease, spreading through contamination of the blood, almost a modernmetaphor for AIDS. The ancient demon Illyria reemerges from amultimillennium-long sleep in “A Hole in the World” (Angel, Season 5, or,henceforward, A-5) as a form of biological warfare. Just like a virus, sheinfects her host, killing that host so that she can inhabit the shell thatremains. The host becomes a potential weapon of mass destruction. Anyattempt to extract Illyria from her victim would make the virus “airborne”;thousands would die, instead of just one person.

Chemistry is plainly evident in the concoction of brews and potions for thecasting of spells. In “Witch” (Buffy, Season 1, or, henceforward, B-1),Xander and Willow make use of the ingredients in their science class toconcoct a potion that will tell them if their classmate Amy is a witch --although they have to improvise a bit, obtaining the “eye of newt” duringtheir dissection of a frog. When Buffy’s mother becomes mysteriously ill(“No Place Like Home,” B-5), Buffy suspects that it might be the result of amagic spell. She performs her own spell called tirer la couture --literally, “pull the curtain back” in French, although Buffy (who didn’t dowell in French class) mistranslates it as “rotate many foodstuffs.” Allspells leave a trace signature normally invisible to humans, and her spellenables Buffy to see these traces to determine whether a spell has beencast. The concept is very similar to chemical elements’ having distinct“signatures,” in the form of emitted light (electromagnetic radiation) thatis undetectable to human eyes. We can detect this light with instrumentscalled spectrometers. The color of the light tells us which elements arepresent in a given sample, while the intensity of that color indicates howmuch of a particular element is present.

As for physics, writers for both series have openly drawn on specificconcepts in quantum mechanics, relativity, and string theory to developinnovative plots for episodes. A high school girl becomes invisible aftermonths of nobody noticing her -- a clever twist on the quantum notion thatobservation determines the outcome of a subatomic-scale experiment (“Out ofMind, Out of Sight,” B-1). There are teleporting demons, temporal folds,time loops, and dimensional portals, conceptually similar to thehypothetical wormholes proposed by real-world physicists. And one criticalscene in an Angel episode takes place at a scientific symposium on stringtheory (“Supersymmetry,” A-4). The Buffyverse has seeped into physics inturn. In December 2005, astronomers found that a small object in a ring oficy bodies near Neptune (known as the Kuiper belt) had an unusually tiltedorbit. They dubbed the object “Buffy,” in part because -- like many thingsin the Buffyverse -- its orbit can’t be explained by the prevailingscientific theories of how the outer solar system formed.

More generally, Buffy and her entire gang of “Scoobies” -- a reference tothose meddling kids in the cartoon Scooby-Doo -- know the value of doingtheir homework. When some new evil comes to town, the first thing they do islaunch into “research mode.” Angel and his team of fellow demon huntersadopt the same approach. Skipping that vital step is usually a recipe forfailure. In the same way that scientists must first understand the nature ofa problem before they can design successful theories and experiments, theScoobies and “Team Angel” understand that they must first understand thenature of the thing they are fighting in order to defeat it.

There are technological parallels as well. The books in the library ofWolfram & Hart (aka “the devil’s law firm”) on Angel are blank until someoneasks for a specific tome. Then the pages fill with the requested text.Electronic paper is a similar real-world technology that is already beingused for commercial signage in the marketplace. In “Witch” (B-1), Buffy usesa mirror to reflect the energy of a witch’s spell back onto the witch. Thetechnique is similar in concept to Alexander Graham Bell’s photophone, anearly forerunner to fiber optic communication. The photophone transmittedsound on a beam of light to a mirror, causing the mirror to vibrate inresponse. The instrument then captured the vibrations that reflected off themirror and transformed them back into sound.

Even the most familiar technology gets a new twist. The demon puppets in“Smile Time” (A-5) use the TV signal of their hit children’s show as atwo-way conduit. They graft a hidden carrier signal onto the regularbroadcast signal -- camouflaged by a magic spell -- that enables them tocommunicate individually with their young viewers and sap their innocenceaway. In “I Robot, You Jane” (B-1) a demon who has been bound into anancient mystical book goes binary, unleashed on the Internet when Willowscans the text into a computer. The demon’s essence is broken into electron“bits,” much like radio and TV signals, and then digitized into the “bytes”used in computers. Giles and the school’s computer science teacher, JennyCalendar, must combine magic with information technology to defeat thedemon: They form a virtual mystical circle in an online chat room to cast a“rebinding” spell.

This melding of magic and science is a defining feature of the Buffyverse.Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon has said that the original series wasintended as a metaphor for how high school can sometimes seem like hell toteenagers. He made his fictional high school a literal hell, with vampiresand other monsters embodying humanity’s inner demons. The same can be saidfor the physics in the series. Sometimes it takes center stage, but moreoften than not, it’s woven into the fabric of the fictive framework, andworks best on a metaphorical level. The Buffyverse is ruled largely bymetaphysics. Try to interpret things too literally, and one quickly runsinto absurdities, much the same way that attempting to precisely determinetwo mutually exclusive properties of a subatomic particle leads to unwantedmathematical “singularities.”