The Minions have arrived: The science behind Despicable Me 2

El Macho's cantilevered lair.
El Macho's cantilevered lair.

This article is an NSTA WebNews Digest written by Jacob Clark Blickenstaff on 7/28/2015.

With the new Minions film set to release July 10, I thought it would be fun to look back at Despicable Me 2 (DM2), the 2013 sequel to Despicable Me of 2010. For those unfamiliar with these films, Felonious Gru is a super villain who turns good by the end of the first installment. Gru’s team includes Dr. Nefario and hundreds of bright yellow minions. The minions speak a strange patois combining English, Spanish, and at least a few other languages. In Despicable Me Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) began taking care of three young orphans, Margo, Edith, and Agnes. He continues in his fatherly role to the three girls and his minions in the second film. Instead of plotting dastardly deeds, Gru has turned his attention to manufacturing jam with the assistance of Nefario and the minions. Though the jam is terrible, it is not evil enough to satisfy Nefario, who takes his expertise in fiendish science elsewhere.

Not long after Nefario’s departure Gru is kidnapped by a special agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristin Wiig) and convinced by her boss Silas Ramsbottom to join their work with the Anti-Villain League (AVL). The AVL is searching for the thief of a dangerous mutagen, PX-41. Gru and Lucy go undercover in a shopping mall to try to find out who has the PX-41 and how they are planning to use it. Teachers could use Despicable Me 2 as a way to motivate an engineering design challenge, or to kick off a discussion of heat, temperature, and thermal energy.

Engineering challenges:
Since the Next Generation Science Standards include engineering more explicitly than prior science standards, many teachers are looking for ways to incorporate engineering practices into the classroom. Clearly defining a problem and designing a solution through an iterative process are two practices that can be difficult for students to develop without many opportunities to practice. I suggest three different challenges for three different age levels inspired by DM2.

Paper airplane:
There are a lot of flying objects in this movie: airplanes, rockets, a hang glider, and Gru’s flying pollution machine. Lucy Wilde’s hang gliding scene could be used to kick off a challenge for students to build a paper airplane that stays in the air as long as possible. Teachers will need to decide what materials students have to use, and how the planes will be launched. Students should be encouraged to try several designs, test them, make revisions, and test them again.

El Macho’s home is at the top of a plateau, and a large section of the building hangs over the edge of the mountain. This presents an engineering challenge: how could that building be held up? Middle school or high school teachers can set up what materials students will have to work with, and again need to encourage building, testing, and redesign of their solution.

The last design challenge I see coming out of DM2 is the construction of a submersible. Lucy Wilde has a car that can transform into a mini submarine with large glass windows. The transforming car is far beyond a classroom project, but a remote controlled underwater craft could be doable with teacher support. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a guide that teachers could use to get started on a project like this.

Freeze Ray:
One of Gru’s favorite weapons is his Freeze Ray. Early in DM2 he makes the mistake of announcing his weapon before firing it at Agent Wilde. She counters with a flame-thrower and the two weapons cancel each other out. This got me thinking about freeze weapons in general, and how popular they are in movies and comic books, but how they are not used in real life at all. Many weapons deliver large amounts of heat energy as part of their destructive properties (flame-throwers, incendiary bombs, and atomic weapons, just to name a few.) Why are there no weapons that deliver large cold blasts? It turns out there is a good physical reason for this: It is almost always possible to add more energy to something by heating; there is no practical upper limit to how hot something can get. (Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the particles in a substance. The atoms or molecules in a hotter object are moving faster than those in a colder object.) Also, many materials will start to burn and add their own energy once the flame-thrower has gotten the process started.

Cooling something down means slowing down the particles in it, and removing energy from the object. A freeze ray would have to transfer that energy somewhere, or it would immediately return to the cold object and begin to warm it back up. Another implication of cooling and slowing is that you can only slow down so much. When all motion stops, you’ve reached absolute zero. Things just can’t get any colder than that. Getting close to absolute zero is really, really difficult, because energy is always coming back into the system to speed up the particles again. Whatever is around the object you are cooling will be constantly adding heat energy back into the object to warm or melt it.

If you do an internet search for “freeze ray” you’ll find videos of folks spraying water from a squirt gun on a very cold and dry winter day. The stream freezes before hitting the ground, and produces a cloud of tiny ice crystals. This wouldn’t freeze anyone who was sprayed, so I don’t think it qualifies as a freeze ray. Other folks propose spraying liquid nitrogen from a hose, but that has the problem that liquid nitrogen will start to boil off as soon as it leaves the nozzle, and will generally splash off of things before doing much damage. (It could asphyxiate someone if this was done in an enclosed space, as the local atmosphere could become depleted of oxygen pretty quickly.)

I am hopeful the upcoming Minions will be as good at the DM films, but while I wait I can enjoy the possibility of engineering challenges and thermodynamics conversations inspired by DM 2.

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Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is the program director for Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. He can be reached at