Preposterous Universe

Friday, December 31, 2004
Reacting to the impossible

I grew up outside Philly, so naturally I watched a lot of Fat Albert, which has now been made into a movie. (An awful one, apparently, but that's to be expected.) The cartoon kids from the TV series are swept through a rip in spacetime connected through little Doris' TV set, to re-appear as live characters in the real world. (I guess they figured out how to violate the null energy condition.)

Roger Ebert, reviewing the movie, raises a question:
And I was wondering, as I always do with plot devices like this, why the human characters deal so calmly with the appearance of toons. Yes, Doris is surprised when the Fat Albert gang pops through her TV set, but isn't that event more than just ... surprising? Isn't it incredibly amazing? When the laws of the physical universe as we know them are fundamentally violated, shouldn't it be for more earthshaking purposes than to cheer up Doris?
Okay, I know this one. Yes, it is incredibly surprising. It's surprising ("it" meaning the appearance of cartoon characters in the real world) because it would never happen. Trust me on that, I'm a scientist. So, it's hard to reliably answer the question "How would someone react if they saw cartoon characters come to life?" because the hypothesis is contrary to possibility. If we're going to make movies in which Fat Albert squeezes through the TV and into our bedroom, it's okay to pass through a brief period of modest surprise before we move onto the wacky hijinks, because the only possible realistic response would involve an hour and a half of stunned disbelief, possibly enlivened by a descent into stark raving madness. Which would be, at minimum, quite a different movie, not really Cosby material at all.

And on that note, let's wish everyone a happy 2005. It can't help but be an improvement over its predecessor.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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