An Interview With A Particle Physicist On What It Takes To Become A Ghostbuster

Ghostbusters is set to hit theaters in just over a month, and while the film might be fiction, it has some basis in actual science.

We've already looked at why the Ghostbusters reboot is important and the real-world physics behind the Proton Pack. This time, I am interviewing the MIT particle physicist, Lindley Winslow, whose input helped shape the characters in the upcoming movie. We talked about what it takes to become a particle physicist and why the movie's trailer is the most hated trailer in existence.

Particle Physicist Dr. Lindley Winslow

Science vs. Hollywood: I know that your colleague James Maxwell worked on some of the set designs for Ghostbusters. Can you tell me what part you played?
Dr. Winslow: James did all of the hardware designs and I did all the blackboards and any sort of paper that was found on set. The most prominent thing I did was, if you watched the trailer, where Kristen Wiig’s character is in front of a whiteboard with a whole bunch of equations on it. And, yeah, that was my job.

I am not sure, as I have not seen the movie, what other whiteboards ended up in the movie but the set designers were very interested in having every piece be scientifically correct. So whether there was a whiteboard, or blackboard, or lab notebook that was going to be opened, they wanted real physics on it. So that’s how you do it.

(You can read Dr. Maxwell's interview here).

Science vs. Hollywood: What exactly did you put into that scene?
Dr. Winslow: So, I think with Kristen’s character and she is up giving a lecture of some sort. I was told that she was going to be asked something about Quantum Field Theory interacting with gravity, and how to put those two together. As she was a theoretical physicist, I had to come up with the things she would put up on the board. What you see up there, with the derivations, is known as Grand Unified Theory, which combines the forces we know in nature: the electromagnetic, the weak, and the strong force. And one way we refer to this is SU(5). This was the first Grand Unified Theory model. It did not have spin ruled out because protons do not decay fast. So that is the derivation you see up on the board. And on the off side on the right parts are some things on the quantum gravity which would be chirality on quantum gravity.

I thought it was funny because I study the “ghost particle” and I was advising on the Ghostbusters movie.

Whiteboard showing physics equations for the Ghostbusters movie (Credit: Sony Studios).

Science vs. Hollywood: What work do you do at MIT?
Dr. Winslow: I am an experimental particle physicist. I work with big detectors. There are two types of particle physicists — those who work with accelerators and smash particles together, and those who build really big things, put them underground, and wait for stuff to happen. I am of the latter. I look at a particular particle called the neutrino, and it is the particle we know the least about. It interacts weakly, which means it does not interact very often. We build these apartment-sized building detectors where we see like one event per day. So we call this the "ghost" of the Standard Model, which I thought it was funny because I study the “ghost particle” and I was advising on the Ghostbusters movie.

Science vs. Hollywood: How did the science influence the characters?
Dr. Winslow: By the time I was brought on, the script was mostly done at that point. It was already decided that they would be particle physicists. What I was tasked with was making the details as right as possible. One of the other things they asked me to do were the certificates and awards seen in her office that she would have gotten. She is too young, as a theoretical physicist, to have won the Nobel Prize. I went through and told them what she would have won. For example, she would have gotten a diploma from the Wolf Prize. They put all her awards and certificates up on the board in the office, so I am looking forward to that scene. They were really interested in getting all of the details right. Of course, adding ghosts to this made it more exciting and less physical but everything up to the part with the ghosts is right.

Ghostbusters Physics

Making Quantum Gravity look easy (Credit: Sony Pictures)

Science vs. Hollywood: What are some of the other prizes Wiig's character would have won?
Dr. Winslow: So this is kind of neat. There is a prize for an outstanding woman in the early part of her career. It is the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award, from the American Physical Society (APS). I know they contacted the APS as they got the actual certificate written up for the character, which I thought, was pretty cool.

Science vs. Hollywood: Are there any other prizes she would have won?
Dr. Winslow: I gave them a list. There is the L'Oreal Women in Physics Prize. This is one of the prizes I got, which is fun as they give you money for research. And there is the Michelson Postdoc Prize Lectureship at Case Western Reserve University. I don’t remember if I told them about the Sakurai Dissertation Prize Prize. I may have forgotten that one or not. But I know she definitely got the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Prize, who is one of my heroes and I am very happy about.

(Note: Maria Goeppert Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus in 1963. She was the second female Nobel laureate in physics, after Marie Curie. To date, there have only been two female Physics Nobel Prize winners.)

Science vs. Hollywood: Did they bring any science that you had to say this would not work?
Dr. Winslow: When you are dealing with ghosts, the impossible can happen, so a lot of it came the other way. You tell us what works, and we will incorporate it into the movie. So that is kind of a nice way to do the work between the art and the sciences.

Science vs. Hollywood: Did you have fun working on set?
Dr. Winslow: This is the one problem with being a professor as I did not have that much time to hang out on set as James did. I got to visit while they were filming at the lab. They had actually borrowed some stuff at my lab. They asked if I wanted it and I said no. They stuck an entire wooded crate in there, so it was cool to see that piece of equipment I didn’t want anymore, and it looks very artistic on set. It was really neat to see all the operations and what have you.

Science vs. Hollywood: Do you think Ghostbusters will get kids interested in science?

" shows the possibilities of what you can do with your life, and you know, seeing women up there, having fun, being smart, and doing science, is all in there."

"Something percolates in the minds of young people and brings them to our fold where we can train them up to do it in real life."

Dr. Winslow: I think so, and it’s one of the reasons I was excited to see an all-woman cast as particle physicists. I think a lot of children don’t exactly know what scientists do. Of course, this is a little “out there” but it shows the possibilities of what you can do with your life, and you know, seeing women up there, having fun, being smart, and doing science, is all in there. I know when I talk to the MIT undergrads, there is a lot of love for Star Wars and Star Trek and the Ghostbusters. Something percolates in the minds of young people and brings them to our fold where we can train them up to do it in real life.

Science vs. Hollywood: The Ghostbusters trailer is currently the most disliked trailer in existence. Do you have any thoughts or comments on this?

Dr. Winslow: It's interesting there has been a lot of backlash because of all the changes of this beloved movie, so we will see what happens this summer but I think it is in good hands. There was a lot of love for the original movie and for what they were doing while filming. So we will see how it turns out. Nothing about the Internet. People love to hate things on the Internet. So my guess it still does pretty good.

Science vs. Hollywood: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Winslow: No that’s it but it would be awesome if Grand Unified Theory ended up in a 'Ghostbusters' movie. James and I are excited to go see the movie since we only have bits and pieces of it from our work on it.

Check out some of my other Ghostbusters articles in this series:

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