‘Limitless’ and ‘Source Code’ science not as outlandish as you’d think

April 01, 2011 | 5:02 p.m.
source code1 Limitless and Source Code science not as outlandish as youd think

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in "Source Code" (Jonathan Wenk / Summit Entertainment)

On the sliding scale of science fiction believability, with could-happen-tomorrow scenarios like “The Andromeda Strain” on one end and total fantasy like “Star Wars” on the other, two sci-fi films currently in theaters, “Limitless” and “Source Code,” land squarely on the plausible end. But how realistic are they? Scientists say both movies are currently fantasy, but advances in science mean they could be reality sooner than we think. Beware: minor spoilers lie ahead.

“Limitless” presents a wish-fulfillment fantasy, starring Bradley Cooper as a failed writer who discovers the incredible joys (and sinister side effects) of an untested pharmaceutical drug called NZT-48 that opens up parts of his brain he’s never utilized before. He can process unlimited streams of data and multitask like a high-end supercomputer. He can earn a fortune playing the stock market in a single afternoon and still have energy to jet off to  the tropics and cliff dive on a whim.

“What is certainly true is that taking medication or a drug that acts on the brain can have, at least temporarily, beneficial effects,” says Harvard University clinical and research psychologist Paula Caplan, who has been a vocal critic of some aspects of the mental health and pharmaceutical industries.

The bad news for overwhelmed college students and overworked day traders looking to get a leg up is that abuse of prescription amphetamines and other stimulants (the closest reality comes to NZT-48) only serve to focus concentration and don’t maximize any brain usage. They only give the illusion of added intelligence.

“The more you are able to concentrate on the material you need to learn the better you will be able to learn it, as long as you are on the drug again or are still on it when you take the exam,”  Caplan explains. “If you go off [the drug] to take the exam, you’ll lose the effect. It’s called state-dependent learning.”

One thing that’s not an exaggeration, according to Caplan, is “Limitless'” depiction of the drug’s pernicious side effects: impaired memory, blackouts, violent mood swings and crippling addiction.

“Any drug that acts on the brain, changes the brain,” she says. “People can have psychotic episodes from taking psychotropic drugs. And when you have a psychotic episode, you don’t remember what you did or where you were.”

In Duncan Jones’ “Source Code,” meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. army captain drafted to have his consciousness sent repeatedly via computer into the mind of a dead man, where he can live out the victim’s final eight minutes of life before he was killed in a train bombing. Gyllenhaal’s task is to solve the mystery of who planted the bomb and to stop him or her.

This is all beyond our current capabilities, but surprisingly the scientific principles behind it are sound. And scientists like neuromorphic engineers Charles M. Higgins at the University of Arizona are working to bridge the gap between organic computers (like our brains) and synthetic ones (like, say, the iPad).  Higgins’ current research involves discerning the thoughts of dragonflies and moths and enabling their brains and spinal cords to interface directly with robots.

“As we build neural interfaces, the first places you’re going to see them will be hospitals, where patients who have agreed to surgery so that they may regain activity in their limbs with a robotic device that allows them to walk,” Higgins says. “The second place you’ll see it will be the military. There will be a brand new fighter jet, say 50 years from now, and the only way you’ll be able to fly this jet is if you submit to having brain surgery and have a neural implant. ‘You want to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force? You have to submit to having brain surgery.’”

Right now the neural interfaces are limited to enabling a robot to see with the same visual acuity as a dragonfly via computer sensors wrapped around its spinal column. Moving on to more intelligent animals (or humans) opens up a lot of moral dilemmas, according to Higgins, and keeps the reality of the device in “Source Code” safely in our future.

But one thing he’s adamant about: In order for Gyllenhaal to complete his mission as seen, time travel would have to be involved.

limitless1 Limitless and Source Code science not as outlandish as youd think

"Limitless" (Relativity Media)

“Even though the scientist in [‘Source Code’] says it’s not time travel, it has to be time travel. What appears to be happening is that you’re transferring consciousness from one live body to a live body of another person in the last eight minutes of their life. What happens to the consciousness of the other person? It’s kind of disturbing.”

But perhaps there’s another science at work. Sergei Gukov, a professor of theoretical physics and mathematics at Caltech seems to think so. His work into string theory leads him to believe that each time Gyllenhaal’s character goes to the train, he’s not going to the same train, but an entirely new universe that’s almost precisely like ours, with minor changes, like the day’s weather, for instance.

“There are many different universes out there. Some of them are quite close to ours and some are quite different,” he says. “This idea sounds crazy, but it’s the current state of science.”

At the moment, we can’t travel to a parallel universe. We don’t even know for certain how many there are, but we do know that even to talk about this a generation ago would have been considered quackery.

“This theory of parallel universes was only accepted 15 years ago, so it’s very recent,” Gukov says. “Until this point 15 years ago, scientists would have said it was only science fiction and not taken it seriously. Now, almost everyone takes it seriously.”

— Patrick Kevin Day


super 8 poster Limitless and Source Code science not as outlandish as youd think

REVIEW: “Source Code” is thrilling “Groundhog Day” — a good thing

Duncan Jones on science fiction and his famous father

J.J. Abrams speaks: The secrets of “Super 8″

Gyllenhaal ‘over-prepared’ for ‘Prince of Persia’

“Trek” writers: We’ve broken the sequel story

PHOTOS: The women of ‘Sucker Punch’

VIDEO: Behind the scenes with ‘Inception’

Anne Hathaway will be Catwoman

Jackman on “Wolverine” director: We won’t settle

“X-Men: First Class”: Report from stressed-out set


14 Responses to ‘Limitless’ and ‘Source Code’ science not as outlandish as you’d think

  1. George Jackson says:

    This is all very fascinating. Question: If there were an infinite number of parallel universes wouldn't that mean there would have to be an infinite number of versions of ourselves, some of which might very well be exactly identical, not just close copies? Its seems like there are two options, the "nothing" beyond the multiverse or omniverse is infinite, or there isn't a "nothing" at all and creation itself is infinite.

  2. Michelle says:

    I not sure about content of this article, but I always like where science fiction is like real science and imagination, like I got a BA in Psychology a long long time ago. And entertainment or media or writing.

  3. Arnold J. Barzydlo says:

    Not parallel universes. More like a stored library of quantum mechanical histories, of which only one is actualized in the phenomenon of the present (now). The history of the universe is repeated over and over again in the time-like dimension, and each repetition adds a new QM history to the library. Each object in the universe has its own book containing the pages of its potential QM histories, and the events and circumstances of the other objects it comes into contact with causes a particular page to be selected for actualization. If there is no compatible page to satisfy the external events, a new page is written for the object that will satisfy those circumstances. –Arnold J. Barzydlo, String Theorist, Author of Colliding Corpuscular String Theory (CCST) and Nuclear (String) Geometry

    See my website at http://www.collidingstrings.org or http://www.stringtheory.com

    • George Jackson says:

      I like that very much, there's always potential new horizons, for the untried and unknown, yet it is built upon past experiences one must master through creativity and will.

    • CMarrou says:

      Actually, the Everett "many worlds" theory postulates that there ARE parallel universes, infinite numbers of them. Of course, each individual would populate a non-infinite number due to our lifespans. Your theory sounds like it depends on collapsing wave functions, which then requires some outside observer to make them collapse. Which is more logical – infinite parallel universes or just one that stays that way thanks to our eyeballs?

      • Arnold J. Barzydlo says:

        I'm familiar with the many worlds interpretation. The problem is that every time a new circumstance arises, it causes a new universe to "branch off," resulting in a huge violation of the law of conservation of energy (i.e. you have to make a whole new universe every time someone or some thing does something unexpected). The physicists who condone such models simply elect to ignore these violations, as noting these flaws does not serve in getting their ideas published. And collapse of the QWF is not dependent on an observer as many postulate… physical interactions that induce a change in the spreadsheet function of a particle trigger re-calculation of the spreadsheet, equivalent to collapse of the wave function. Recalculating the spreadsheet functions (or tensors) initiates the selection of compatible QM histories. So, you tell me which is more logical, violating conservation of energy laws on a fantastic scale to produce infinite multitudes of branching universes from nothing, or observing the conservation laws and simply writing a new QM history for just those objects involved in the discrepant interaction? –Arnold J. Barzydlo

  4. George Jackson says:

    Option one brings to mind some religious and spiritual traditions that state God withdrew himself…created a Void, and placed Creation within it. The "Nothing" would be God.

  5. Joseph L Cooke says:

    Crummy, blue tint, movies. Real directors know how to shoot in full color.

    • rth says:

      COOKE — "Crummy, blue tint, movies. Real directors know how to shoot in full color" Are you and Sarah Palin related? And I suppose Spielberg should have shot Schindler's List in Technicolor?

  6. Dave says:

    There are Source Code Spoilers in this post.

    The "science" behind Source Code was ridiculous. The premise of the movie (that the main character travel into the memories of a dead man's brain) is sound. He would only be able to discover what the dead man knew though. Unless the dead man was aware of where the bomb was planted, the main character of the movie would have never been able to figure that out. The same with the truck out in the parking lot.

    The idea that interfacing / interacting with a dead man's memories creates a parallel universe every time it occurs is utterly absurd.

  7. Guest says:

    I know Chuck Higgings. I wonder what made him turn to the dark side. Flying a fighter jet with a direct neural interface? Come on Chuck, that's not why we are studying DNI's!

  8. Joshua Rice says:

    There's one and only one thing that gets me about the whole parallel universes idea that gets to me. If in the movie of Source Code you do go back into the mind and live off of how Sean was, What about his body that he left behind. SPOILER ALERT____ What I mean by this is just that I keep thinking on how at the end of the movie he lives the life of Sean and saves everyone right? Well if he is in that universe, Is his body from that universe have a mind of its own? Did he actually live in his own universe where he came from?

  9. terrydenby says:

    what about if all our thoughts and memories are floating about in space microscopic waves floatin, can u see it now micro scopic waves floating away from earth in space

  10. Stephen says:

    150 years from now we will discover we are a product of a computer and in fact we are merely electronic pulses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis