Johnny Storm : Flame On!

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3692831-human-torch-lalala-peqAfter my last post I think it’s time to heat things up. Enter Johnny Storm AKA The Human Torch[1]Human Torch bio courtesy of Marvel. Brash and impetuous it was no shock that after the exposure to cosmic radiation, that gave birth to the Fantastic Four, Johnny developed a power in keeping with his personality. That boy got fiery.

Now to be frank, I’m not entirely sure I see a way to explain the mass amount of flames and excessive temperatures he endures without burning his skin off his bones. Don’t get me wrong, there are animals out there that can tolerate some pretty crazy temperatures; the Sahara Desert Ant being the first one to spring to mind. These little babies can survive heats of up to about 70 degrees Cesius, which is quite frankly impressive. My Scottish skin can’t cope with 20+ degrees Celsius without sun cream. A recent breakthrough has identified how those little guys do it; it’s hair! To cut a lengthy but interesting explanation short, the Saharan has a body covered in uniquely shaped silver hairs, which reflect sunlight and shed heat.[2]Further reading on Saharan Desert Ants Pretty cool huh? Sadly, Storm wasn’t covered in silver hair last I checked and even if he was I still don’t think it would stop him turning to ash.

Given that we’re in the land of comic books, I can only assume that there has been some alteration to his physiology courtesy of the radiation that’s allowed him to become essentially fireproof. I’m going to run with that theory because I honestly don’t have a better one.

FireTWith that cleared up, let’s talk about fire. What is fire? From a chemical point of view, fire is simply rapid oxidation. Oxidation, as you may have guessed from the name, is the addition of oxygen to another element or molecule to form a compound. If this reaction happens rapidly then boom; flame on! The fast reaction means the release of heat energy is large, thus creating fire. Oxidation is a pretty common occurrence in life, it’s also the cause of rust for example but in the case of rust it happens over such a long period of time that nothing bursts into flames. Sadly.

In the case of the Human Torch he starts the fire without any initial source of heat. How he achieves this is where it gets interesting. Storm’s sister Sue, or if you prefer The Invisible Woman, also developed powers as a result of the cosmic radiation. Her nervous system generates a field that allows her to manipulate the electrostatic fields around her; I’ll talk about the details behind this in another post. I believe that similarly, Johnny’s nervous system generates a field that causes combustion. It performs the first part of the chain reaction, breaking the bonds of a combustible material and combining them with oxygen. After that there’s already enough heat generating to maintain combustion.

This doesn’t really explain why the Human Torch is always on fire, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d assume he’s using his own sweat to fuel the fire. Pretty gross, but effective nonetheless. Sweat is basically water, take that and break it into hydrogen and oxygen, and voilà we have hydrogen to burn. This once again forms water and the cycle continues on. The flaw here is that the law of conservation of energy[3]Further reading on the conservation of energy would eventually force this loop to collapse somewhere down the line. There’s only so much one person can sweat!

Theoretically with all the mutagenic effects from the cosmic radiation there is also the possibility that the Human Torch actually exudes his own unique fuel. This bit is going to get a bit hazy because I don’t really have a fully constructed theory behind it but this fuel would have to be in some way related to phosphorous; given that phosphorous ignites on contact with air. If we assume that the oxide that forms upon burning breaks down again at a given temperature then we can effectively set up a combustion loop. As far as ‘recharging’ his fuel goes if his body modified itself to create it then presumably his body could also have modified itself to reabsorb the unoxidated fuel. This would mean he would always be fully charged and ready to ‘flame on’ for as long as the oxygen held out.

Sadly for us mere mortals the old idiom still stands; ‘If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned’.

 

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1. Human Torch bio courtesy of Marvel
2. Further reading on Saharan Desert Ants
3. Further reading on the conservation of energy

Spider-Man : The Truth Behind All That Wall Climbing

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SpideySo we’ve all seen/read/heard of Spider-Man[1]Spider-Man Bio courtesy of Marvel right? Geeky socially inept boy with an affinity for science gets bitten by a radioactive spider and hey presto; he’s suddenly developing all manners of cool powers. He’s got the proportional strength and agility of an arachnid, a spooky sixth sense that warns him of danger and the ability to cling to walls.

Now, this is a series that strongly relies on science as a means for heroes and villains alike gaining their powers, enhancements and weaponry. Meaning that over the course of this blog I will spend a fair bit of time wandering through the world of our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man; but fear not, I will spread it out so if you’re not a particular fan of Spidey hopefully there’s something more up your alley coming soon.

If we entirely skip past what the realities of exposure to radiation mean for a human being for the moment, because frankly radiation is a popular theme in the comic book world and I intend to touch upon that with a whole range of characters later, I want to start with his famous wall climbing.

I’m sure that at some point in your lives you’ve all been sat in a room in your house, casually minding your own business when suddenly out of the corner of your eye you catch movement on the wall or ceiling. Lo and behold, it’s a spider. Hazarding a guess, I’d say you’re potentially panicking because you hate spiders or maybe you’re more like me and you’ve thought ‘How does it bloody manage that?’ The very simple answer is that those beasties are hairy.[2]A more thorough explanation of a spiders sticking abilities Insanely hairy. We’re talking they have hairs on their hairs kind of hairy here. Collectively, these individual hairs are called setae and they generally have over half a million of them all over their body. Setae alone aren’t what give them the ability to climb walls though; so in case any of you have visions of a spider being covered in pickaxe like hairs, gouging tiny footholds in your walls, stahp. Van der Waals forces are at work here; basically it’s similar to them being covered in hundreds of thousands of tiny magnets. Oppositely charged molecules that are microscopically close to each other enjoy a mutual attraction, thus keeping the crawly buggers attached to walls, ceilings, glass and so on and so forth.

Van der Waals

 

To bring that back to Spider-Man, some of you may remember that in the 2002 film there was a scene that showed us a lovely up close and personal image of Parker’s hands.[3] Spider-Man (2002 film) Sam Raimi Those hands had a smattering of short, thorn-like structures protruding from his fingertips.

Spidey

Spider-Man 2002

The assumption from this scene is that these structures act for Parker the same way that setae do for spiders. This would be great; if not for the fact that despite their proportional strength a spider tends to need at least 2 of their 8 legs on a surface to stay on it and that once the size of a spider increases to say oh, tarantula proportions the van der Waals force is no longer capable of holding them up. In fact, larger spiders actually secrete a small amount of silky adhesive from their feet[4]Tarantulas silky feet explained resulting in adorable little footprints as they walk over surfaces. Between that and the fact that I’m fairly sure MJ or Gwen would have, at some point, had something to say about those hairy, hairy hands the idea of him being capable of climbing surfaces like a spider starts to become less feasible.

Climbing surfaces like a gecko on the other hand; now that’s something I can get on board with. A gecko uses pretty much the same principle. The difference being however that a gecko is capable of remaining attached to a surface with one toe. Impressive huh? A gecko is so lightweight and has such an extreme number of these tiny hairs that the surface area their feet take up is huge in comparison to their size. In fact if a mature gecko could have all their hairs making contact with a surface at one time, it should, mathematically, be capable of supporting up to about 290lbs (roughly 20 stone).

Unfortunately, when it comes to all that wall climbing fun it would seem that Spider-Man really isn’t entirely spider like about it. Unless of course he does have some sticky excretions going on alongside that hair, but that doesn’t bear thinking about. No, it’s more like a Gecko-Man situation here. Don’t worry Spidey wannabes; scientists have already created materials more effective at creating dry adhesive than our lizard friends.[5]How scientists cracked wall climbing There’s hope for you yet!

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