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How ‘3 Body Problem’ Created a Spectacular Disaster, With Strings Attached

It begins slowly, almost soundlessly. As an oil tanker glides through the Panama Canal, the flow of a hose slows to a trickle. The hose has been sliced in two. Then the man holding the hose falls apart, his body severed at the knees and waist. Strands of nanofibers, each a hundredth the thickness of a human hair and strung across the canal at its narrowest point, knife through the ship, cutting smoothly through walls, through pipes, through flesh and bone. The sundered ship fans out like a deck of cards then collapses, smoldering. Every soul onboard — a thousand people, many of them children — has been killed.

This harrowing sequence occurs in the fifth episode of the first season of “3 Body Problem,” the new Netflix adaptation of a popular science-fiction trilogy by the Chinese author Liu Cixin. Occurring in the first book, it lasts just a few pages and as a plot driver, it is minor. (The ship is destroyed to obtain a hard drive containing messages from an alien race.) But onscreen, as a marvel of televisual imagination and an example of a seamless integration of practical and computer-generated effects, the scene is unforgettable.

“It’s basically an egg slicer going through this big tanker,” Stefen Fangmeier, a supervisor of visual effects, said. “You’ve never seen anything like that.”

In the episode, nanomaterials created by Auggie Salazar (played by Eiza González as perhaps the world’s most beautiful materials physicist) are employed to deadly effect. To understand how the science might work, the series creators — David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and Alexander Woo — consulted Matt Kenzie, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge whose father had worked with Benioff and Weiss on “Game of Thrones.”

Together they imagined how nanomaterials that don’t yet exist — or exist only in minute quantities in carefully controlled lab conditions — could be deployed. The goal wasn’t necessarily realism — “It’s a science-fiction show, so in some cases the fiction has to take precedence,” Kenzie said — but a sense of plausibility given current technology.

“You try not to veer into things that just look wrong or cannot be possible,” Kenzie said.

The opening moments of the sequence depict the nanofibers slicing through first a hose and then the man using it.CreditCredit…Netflix

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