The Physics of Ghostbusters

Setting out to solve a ghostbuster question on Halloween

What is better than a night where everyone can dress up as anything they want to be, hang out with friends and get free candy? Not much! Halloween is always a night to remember, and this year was no exception. Florida Tech students enjoyed a costume contest at the Rathskeller , and what a sight it was! A range of characters showed up, from Batman villains to Colonel Sanders and his KFC bucket of chicken. My roommate and I were the Ghostbusters, complete with the Ghostbusters patch and our very own “proton packs” (our back packs in garbage bags with buttons colored on) and “proton guns” (our vacuums).

The Proton Pack

Even though it was one of the simplest (and hence cheapest!) costumes we have ever made, we couldn’t resist entering the costume contest . . . just for fun. Somehow we ended up taking second place, mostly thanks to our wonderful friends in the audience who cheered very loudly for us! It was a rather spectacular night, considering neither of us had ever won a costume contest before and cash prizes were being handed out. However, it did get me thinking: how does the proton pack actually work in the movie and could it ever be used in the real world?

Breaking down the function of the proton pack

In the movie, the proton pack was created by Dr. Egon Spengler and is essentially a portable particle accelerator able to fit in a little pack on someone’s back. The accelerator creates a charged stream of particles (protons, in this case) that attracts ghosts who have negatively charged particles, allowing the ghosts to be trapped in the stream when they are hit. Dr. Peter Venkman, another character in the movie, calls the packs “unlicensed nuclear accelerators,” meaning the pack may be designed somewhat like a cyclotron, which is used in nuclear physics experiments to accelerate charged particles using a high frequency voltage and a magnetic field. Gaps between different electrodes inside the cyclotron allow the particles to spiral inside the system, getting faster and faster, before being projected out toward a target. Sound anything like the Ghostbusters’ streams?

Proving that it’s possible to actually make a proton pack

So, it is possible to make devices that perform the same function of the proton pack, namely accelerating particles. Not only are these charged particles used in nuclear physics, but the medical field uses them in proton therapy, which is used to help treat cancer. The proton stream is directed to the diseased areas of the body and used to try and destroy the bad cells. This does require a high amount of precision though, which begs the question–why do the streams from the proton packs in Ghostbusters look so big and electrifying? I don’t think the stream from their proton pack would help anyone with cancer. Is it just special effects from Columbia Pictures or a real proton pack would work, just with a more precise aim?

Would it be too difficult to get a cyclotron down to the size of a back pack? I didn’t have time to go into a more detailed search for small-scale cyclotrons already in existence, so if anyone knows anything or just has any thoughts in general about a real-life proton pack, please comment below. Who knew a little Halloween fun could lead to deep thoughts on the physics of ghostbusters?
photo credit: clarksworth via photopin cc

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One Comment

  1. I’m just finishing up (about 1 week to go!) on a “practical” brought into reality proton pack prototype. It took the whole year of 2012 for research, the first 3 months of this year for blueprints and development, and construction began at the beginning of this month.

  2. I also would be interested to see a “real” proton pack but therein lies your problem; no trap. Also acknowledgment of all that afterlife spirit world Mumbo jumbo is in fact actual and based in some kind of quantifiable truth! So if it works on ghosts will it do vampires and werewolves also because they gotta be real then too.

  3. look up the first cyclotron ever made. it was quite small. so a pack is definitely feasible.

  4. Inspired by a paper from Norwegian engineer Rolf Wideroe, Lawrence invented a unique circular particle accelerator, which he referred to as his “proton merry-go-round,” but which became better known as the cyclotron. The first cyclotron was a pie-shaped concoction of glass, sealing wax, and bronze. A kitchen chair and a wire-coiled clothes tree were also enlisted to make the device work. Despite its Rube Goldberg appearance, the cyclotron proved Lawrence’s point: whirling particles around to boost their energies, then casting them toward a target like stones from a slingshot is the most efficient and effective way to smash open atomic nuclei. The acceleration chamber was 5 inches across.

  5. You would need liquid hydrogen, a pack of pure copper (neutrona wand included), heavy salt water, and room temperature. This mix together makes a special blend that when introduced to a small spark, sets off a specific reaction called ‘cold fusion’. The result of this process, a super heated beam if charged particles can be ejected.Never tried it but have had thoughts and research on this particular subject.

  6. The proton pack is achievable, but not in the way it is in the movie. Protons moving through air, which is full of atoms that have electrons on their outer shells, and would like either capture them and form neutrons (that’s how it works in some unstable nuclides), change into a mass of hadrons, or do something else that would stop them from progressing far. So, capturing a ghost with a proton pack would be kind of worthless, and I don’t really see a reason for a mobile proton accelerator on Earth.

  7. In regards to shrinking down the cyclotron, it is entirely possible, albeit the energy output would more than likely not be anywhere near powerful enough to be visible.

    The first cyclotron ever, built by Dr. Ernest Lawrence in 1930, was a mere 4″ in diameter whereas the cyclotrons designed for the proton pack were 9″ in diameter. You can definitely fit it on there and have it be functional, but to what extent it would be useful is up to question.

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