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The Con-Artist Physics of "Ocean's Eleven"

Before most moviegoers walk into the hit comedy "Ocean's Eleven," starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, they don't realize that the Las Vegas con- artist caper contains some physics in its plot. In the film, eleven con artists employ a physics device, called "the pinch," - to help them rob a vault containing the riches of three casinos. Set off in the middle of Las Vegas, the pinch detonates an intense "electromagnetic pulse" that blacks out the city's power grid for a few moments.

As it turns out, some physics labs really do have devices called "pinches"-the movie's website touts the reality of the concept-but can they really produce such impressive effects? "I enjoyed the movie and the 'pinch' was an amusing twist but had little to do with science," says Jeff Quintenz, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Quintenz should know-he works on a real-life pinch device. A 100-foot 20-foot tall cylinder-shaped machine, Sandia's "Z-pinch" is the world's most powerful electrical generator.

"I can confirm the Sandia Z-pinch is the inspiration for the movie's gimmick," says Neal Singer, a science writer in the Sandia media communications group. A year or two ago, Singer spent several hours talking to the prop people from the movie about the Z pinch, which creates lightning-like tangles of startling color for a few billionths of a second as it fires-making it a very colorful, if bulky, piece of work. "We discussed Z's possibilities as a plot mechanism," says Singer. "I explained it might be hard to move the Z machine to the top of a stationwagon and fire it off in mid-Vegas; that didn't stop them, obviously."

Sandia researchers have still more news: even their colossal Z-pinch doesn't generate a very strong electromagnetic pulse. The pinch is "a poor EMP source," says Quintenz. "We have on occasion interfered with the sensitive electronics in cameras and computers located in the same laboratory space," he says, but "to my knowledge we have never caused a problem with any electronics or electrical system outside the accelerator building itself."

Instead, the Z mainly produces x rays, which have a variety of scientific uses. The Z pinch gets its name from the fact that an initial burst of electricity creates a magnetic field that compresses or "pinches" a gas of charged particles along the vertical direction, denoted by scientists as the "z" direction. Creating a bunch of hot, moving charged particles generates a rainbow spectrum of intense x-rays, but a feeble EMP.

In the end, nuclear weapons are probably the only existing devices that could really create electromagnetic pulses with a blackout punch. EMPs from a nuclear blast would contain intense electric and magnetic fields. These fields would generate in power cables, overwhelming electrical currents which would trip circuit breakers and temporarily shut down a city's power grid. But this byproduct of a nuclear blast would be the least of a city's worries.

What's more, perhaps even the filmmakers themselves did not realize that their pinch pulls off the ultimate swindle. As portrayed in the movie, the pinch apparently violates the most fundamental principle of physics, the conservation of energy, which says that energy can be converted from one form to another, but never created out of thin air. Any van-sized electricity source, not just a pinch, says Quintenz, is just too small to store the energy required to produce a blackout-generating EMP.

Still, with many other films flouting reality much more blatantly, it would be unfair to hold "Ocean's Eleven" to a tougher standard. And although the movie's fictional pinch is far different from Sandia's Z-pinch, It didn't detract from my enjoyment of the movie," Quintenz says.

-Ben Stein, Inside Science News Service


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