Welcome back to Gaming On the Fringe. Normally in this series I look at actual physics or physics theories, but in this entry I’m going to have some fun. It’s Halloween, so let’s look at something in that vein. We’re going to examine the “science” and technology behind catching ghosts. Yes, I know that in all likelihood ghosts don’t exist – though I tend to believe they do, personally – but this entry is just for fun, after all. Let’s look at some examples from games.
After decades growing pale skin in his brother’s shadow poor Luigi Mario finally got a game of his own, and one that was fun. The story goes that Luigi wins a mansion, in a contest he doesn’t particularly remember entering, and it turns out to be haunted. Mario gets his dumb ass kidnapped, so Luigi heads in to find his missing brother.
Unfortunately, the house has a crap ton of ghosts, and they’re not Boos so you can’t stare at them and back way. Luigi is attacked, defenseless, until Professor E. Gadd shows up with the mighty Poltergust 2000 and sucks those ghosts up. He then hands Luigi his ghost catching gear, setting up the game proper.
The equipment is fairly simple. It’s a vacuum cleaner backpack, with a flashlight. It has the added benefit of making Luigi actually look like a standard Ghostbuster. The ghosts of this game, and the Boos that show up later, are damaged by light. When exposed to a strong light beam their hearts are exposed, which Luigi can then suck up. Somehow E. Gadd modified his vacuum to be able to suck up ghosts instead of dirt and weed smoke so you don’t get caught. Interestingly, you have to dump out the ghosts after each level, which E. Gadd turns into painting. It’s a reverse Vigo!
Besides your Poltergust, E. Gadd also gives you a modified Gameboy Color, called a Gameboy Horror. Apparently he added a whole computer because the thing now operates as a map, a communication device and a camera to scan your surroundings. The camera is apparently a spirit camera as it can not only see the ghosts you can’t, but it scans to get a comment from them. Take their picture, talk to them, then kick the crap out of them. Sounds like a hell of a party!
In this game rookie detective Lazarus Jones is sent to an abandoned high school with his partner Steele to investigate calls from construction crews that the place is way haunted. He finds a large, strange machine in the basement and being an idiot he accidentally turns it on. This releases all of the ghosts it held, including the main villain who promptly kidnaps Steele, setting the game in motion. Luckily, the machine has an AI that gives Jones training and weapons to operate as a
Besides a quite yellow jacket, Jones is first equipped with a pulse rifle. Unfortunately, it is not a M-41a Pulse Rifle like a Colonial Marine would be issued. This pulse rifle works by absorbing ghost energy from…well, ghosts, and then firing it back at them. You later get a sniper rifle that works on the same principle as well as a Spectral Lasso which uses an energy whip that looks like a proton stream. The unique thing about these weapons is they still do minimal damage unless you use the Grenade. The Grenade in this game isn’t something that goes boom but instead a device which “anchors the spirit into the material realm,” thereby making it susceptible to getting shot in the face.
While the ghost energy weapons do more damage, while under the Grenade’s effect even regular guns damage ghosts. Once you took out enough of a ghost’s power it gets sucked into the Grenade in a really cool spherical effect. For once in a game like this ghost energy does more than give you ammo. The energy actually powers the device you broke in the beginning, as well as providing power to operate the AI “companion” that helps you out.
Now let’s look at the “real world” science behind the most famous equipment for catching ghosts.
Ghostbusters and Particle Science
Let’s talk a bit of basic particle science. Quite a bit of it runs on the old adage “opposites attract” as opposite charged molecules attract each other, while like charged particles repel. Charges are represented as positive, neutral or negative. A positive charge is provided by the subatomic particle proton, found in the nucleus of an atom or the center. The negative charge comes from electrons which orbit the nucleus. Also found in the nucleus can be neutrons, but as the name implies they’re neutral so they don’t affect the charge of the atom. Normal atoms are neutral in charge as they possess the same number of protons as electrons, but sometimes electrons can jump out of of orbit or the atom can gain an extra proton. This makes a charged atom, and is called an ion.
This is normal matter – aka baryonic matter, although you don’t have to worry about that for this article. However, there is an opposite form of matter called antimatter. I’ve discussed negative matter in previous articles, but that’s not the same thing. Antimatter still has positive mass but has the opposite charge of its normal matter brother. The antielectron, or positron, has a positive charge while the antiproton is negative. Antimatter is VERY hard to find in nature as whenever it comes into contact with normal matter they annihilate each other into energy. If you remember my article on teleportation then you know matter to energy conversion is the mass involved times the speed of light squared. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second so that’s a TON of energy for a small amount of matter. The problem is that even in “empty” space there are loads of particles zooming around so antimatter disappears quickly. We can make it, but it’s the most expensive substance on earth at over a trillion dollar per gram. We can only contain it for short periods via magnetic fields, but I’ll get to that later on.
Why did I bust out high school physics? Because it will help ground what I’m going to describe. In the Ghostbusters universe ghosts are made up of ectoplasm which has a negative charge. When Spengler and Stantz look at information they gathered from the library ghost they realize this fact can be exploited. Enter the Proton Pack, the gold standard of ghost catching equipment.
The proton pack is described as an “Unlicensed nuclear accelerator.” which is exactly what it does. It is unique in that it separates the electron and proton of atoms. It then accelerates out this positively charged stream of particles which can hit a negatively charged ghost and ensnare it. At the bottom of the backpack is a roughly one foot diameter disc which is the actual particle accelerator, which is called a cyclotron. This works by speeding particles off charged plates in circles until they reach the speed a scientist desires. It’s called as much because the particles cycle through two tracks before leaving the unit. Such size cyclotrons do exist in real life but are far more heavy than shown in Ghostbusters. We’re talking forklift required for moving, not a simple backpack frame. Today most scientists use an upgraded model called a synchotron that syncs the acceleration, which is why the reboot used this instead of a cyclotron.
The equipment is called a “positron collider” in the first film, which means it uses antimatter electrons for the most part. These are of course positively charged, so they do the work. A particle collider is often just another term for particle accelerator since most experiments involve slamming particles into each other at near light speed. The actual “gun” portion of a pack is called a Particle Thrower, or Neutrona Wand. Particle thrower makes sense, but Neutrona isn’t a word that has any science connotation. Maybe they meant neutrino, but those are subatomic particles that very, very rarely interact with normal matter. For example, the average human gets to their tenth birthday before the first neutrino hits one of their atoms.
So this all comes together to fire the stream we’re all familiar with. Interestingly, the entire stream is positively charged. The inner section is a stream of protons, while the “lightening” crackling on the outside is all positrons. Normally antimatter and matter would make a serious kaboom, but the presence of like charges keeps them apart. However, this does explain why any object shot with a proton pack gets set on fire or exploded. Okay, so you’ve got a ghost and it’s ensnared by your proton pack. Now what? This is where the trap comes in.
The trap is a small box that does exactly what it says on the tin. You maneuver your snared ghost over it, activate with a handy foot pedal and the ghost is trapped inside. The trap works by projecting a cone of positive energy which both contains the ghost as well as dragging it into the trap. The ghost is then held inside the trap by the walls being positively charged. The containment unit, which is where captured ghosts are deposited into after a job, works on the exact same principle only scaled up. The use of charged fields is actually exactly how we contain antimatter in the real world, only far easier and apparently cheaper. While in the real world our record for antimatter containment is just under 17 minutes while the Ghostbusters have no trouble keeping ghosts stored indefinitely.
Essentially, the Ghostbusters franchise is taking Star Trek style scientifically plausible sounding technobabble and using it as the classic ghost chasing comedy updated for the 80s. While most of the technology is even beyond today’s science 30 years later, if possible at all, it’s an interesting take on how to get rid of those bothersome spirits. One thing I didn’t mention is the infamous “total protonic reversal” as I have no idea how this could translate into “real” science nor does the franchise explain it well. If nothing, just always remember that you don’t cross the streams.