The plot of Annihilation, a movie directed by Alex Garland and based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, is centered around a recently-discovered phenomenon. Government scientists have discovered an ever-growing “bubble” in the forest–as if someone blew a regular soap bubble that got away from them in a big way.

This visually-striking discovery is later summed up as a big bubble of “refraction.”  According to the scientists of the movie, the technical term for this bubble is the “shimmer.” Lena, the main character and a cell biologist (played by Natalie Portman), explains that “the shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything.” Apparently, this includes not only micro- and radio waves but also DNA and even one’s conscious.


“The Shimmer”

Does this creative use of refraction have you baffled yet? Yeah, me too. Let’s step back, set the scene. Annihilation is a somewhat standard apocalyptic alien invasion scenario. As per usual, this set-up involves a widely incompetent government and teams of baffled scientists. An asteroid has crashed on earth, unleashing something alien that has generated a bulb of shimmering light that grows in diameter over three years.

Lena, not only a biologist but also an ex-army soldier, joins an expedition to enter, study, and hopefully stop the spread of the shimmer. At this point, only one person has made it out of the shimmer alive: Lena’s husband, who returned in near critical condition. Lena’s follow-up mission is assumed to be a suicide mission. The team is comprised of a physicist (her first post-doc – it’s a tough job market, you know), a psychologist, a paramedic, an anthropologist, and a cell biologist (Lena). Okay, kudos are in order here: this is arguably an excellent group of graduate degrees for studying an alien life form.

The team happens upon some strange phenomena: bushes that resemble humans, twin deer that mimic each other’s movements, and even a replica of Lena’s house. The animals and plants appear to be breeding across species. Perhaps the most bizarre and terrifying is a carnivorous bear-like animal, which kills the anthropologist then later mimics her screams to elicit reactions from the other members of the expedition. Unfortunately, the team’s execution of the scientific method falls short, and they jump to what becomes their go-to conclusion: the above is caused by “refraction”.

Outside of the world of Annihilation, refraction is the change in speed of a wave when it enters a new medium. The change in speed causes the wave to change direction — to be refracted. Imagine you’re at the diving board above a big pool of water. When you jump off, your body falls through air, but once you hit the water’s surface you slow rapidly. Air is far less dense than water (there are far fewer molecules in a volume of air than in an identical volume of water). The same phenomenon happens when light, which acts as a wave, changes medium. In the parts of outer-space void of any molecules, light travels at “the speed of light,” the universal speed limit in physics. In air, light travels more slowly, and in water it travels at an even lower speed.


Refraction of light.

In Annihilation, the physicist concludes that the refractive nature of the “shimmer” explains why no one could communicate with drones or to probe the interior with various instruments from outside the shimmer. She also concludes that this refractive property is why the team is unable to communicate with their base or use GPS.

When a wave enters a new medium it is fractured, or divided. The wave may not only be refracted but also reflected and absorbed. Reflection occurs when some of the light bounces back; for example, a mirror reflects almost all light. Absorption occurs when the new medium absorbs the light; for example, the color black. Both reflection and abortion of a wave would prevent the wave from getting through the medium, but refraction is the only property that describes how the wave is transmitted. If their signals are being refracted, then they are being transmitted through the shimmer. It seems this team of scientists were backwards on this one.

But wait, Lena made the refraction conclusion. She’s a cell biologist, so maybe there is some biology behind all of this? Lena makes the refraction conclusion after she witnesses humanoid bushes. How could such a thing occur?

Some prior biology knowledge might help here. Hox genes are a set of genes that lay out the blueprint of an embryo. These genes dictate where the arms will grow, where the head will be, etc. It seems as if some mutation in the DNA of these plants has caused the schematic for a human-shaped body to be transferred to the bushes. Annihilation takes this a step further when the physicist transforms into a plant at will. Is her DNA being refracted? Well, no.


Plant people

DNA is a string of molecules, not a wave. DNA is not moving through different media, so the “DNA speed” is not changing at all. Are we missing something? Could Lena know something we don’t? Let’s dig a little deeper.

What is a radio wave, visible wave, or microwave? These are all electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths. How can radiation change speed when it enters a new medium? Technically, it doesn’t. Electromagnetic radiation is constantly interacting with electrons, which orbit the atoms inside a molecule. When the radiation interacts with an electron, the electron begins to oscillate and produce its own electromagnetic radiation. These different waves can interact constructively or destructively, changing the wavelength and thus direction inside the new medium. Can DNA oscillate and interact with radiation waves from the “shimmer”? Actually, yes.

Radiation waves interact with the molecules in our body constantly. Ultraviolet (UV) waves are the perfect size to interact with DNA. In fact, UV radiation is great at causing the molecules in our DNA to move so rapidly that they fall apart and our DNA mutates, causing problems like skin cancer. To be frank, none of this makes it possible for DNA to mutate and transfer across species. Our DNA is not a wi-fi antenna capable of linking up with the “shimmer” and the other species inside the dome. The physics and biology simply don’t work out. How did the writers end up here?

The director, Alex Garland, worked with Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and science writer, to give the story some authentic science. Rutherford associated the ideas of mutation and change with radiation, which paved the way to . . . refraction. In an interview with the DailyBeast, Rutherford says “[Mutations are] the idea of remixing everything in front of you. It fucks up our DNA. It’s an inherent conflict of biology and our own free will.” While I can’t endorse the use of refraction, I do understand the loose word association that strings change into mutation and refraction. These ideas also tie into the main theme of the film, which is the fracturing of one’s self. Near the end of the film Lena follows in the footsteps of her husband when her consciousness is fractured and transferred to an alien clone, similar to mirroring. Lena, like her husband, loses a part of herself here. One could say she was “refracted”.

To understand the science in Annihilation we need to bend our technical knowledge and stretch the “philosophy” in Lena’s “Doctor of Philosophy.” Refraction, radiation, and mutation are all interconnected by the concept of change. Fundamentally, radiation is changed by entering a medium. DNA mutations are changes in DNA, which can occur by radiation. These ideas are, at best, loosely connected to refraction. Perhaps, just vague enough for the writers to do what they do best: imagine.

By Zach Decker

Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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