Ant-Man : Is Miniaturisation Possible?

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Ant-ManUnless you’re all living in some kind of hole I’m sure you know the newest addition to the Marvel movie universe has been released. If you haven’t been to see Ant-Man[1]Ant-Man through the ages yet then you should get off your computer and go. It’s an incredibly enjoyable film filled with action, humour and lots of science for me to pick apart!

For this installment of superhero science, I’ll kick off with a little Ant-Man history for anyone who hasn’t read the comics/seen the film. During the 60’s Dr. Hank Pym discovered and isolated a rare group of subatomic, extra dimensional particles; which, naturally, he named after himself. These “Pym Particles” could increase or decrease the size and mass of objects or living beings by shunting or adding it from a subatomic dimension. Combine this with a snazzy suit and helmet and voilà, a hero is born.

Unfortunately, there are huge fundamental issues with virtually everything about Dr. Hank Pym and his alter-ego; Ant-Man. Obviously these Pym Particles are rather far removed from reality and are Marvels attempt to explain their unsound science; which in the context of comic book and film is amazing. Life would be boring without the artistic license to create wonder through self evolved and explained science. The fact that writers actually take the time to create elaborate back stories and incorporate scientific loopholes makes me incredibly happy, it shows there is an understanding of the actual science. Sadly here in the real world, as far as we know, miniaturisation is impossible. Matter is made of atoms, atoms are not open to continuous adjustment in size. Their size is a fundamental length scale of nature, those babies ain’t budging. The reason for this is actually fairly interesting. Have you all seen those insanely inaccurate pictures of atoms and their orbitals? If you haven’t, fear not, I have provided one to help illustrate my explanation.

Inaccurate; but adequate for my point.

Inaccurate; but adequate for my point.

Every atom has a nucleus, and as you can see in that nucleus we have positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. In addition, the atom has an equal number of negatively charged electrons. We’re all taught from a young age that opposites attract, so why don’t the electrons rush to meet the protons and cause the atom to collapse in on itself? The answer lies in the fact the electrons don’t stand still, they orbit the nucleus. There is still some attraction but the distance and speed of the electrons balance out the pull of the protons. Atoms are all roughly the same size, to within a factor of three, due to this delicate balancing act; that size being roughly a third of a nanometre. This is something we just cannot alter, as far as we currently know.

Since we can’t make the atoms themselves smaller, how about removing a large portion of them or compressing them? In terms of removing atoms, even if we could assume that the removal would be uniform, the impact on biological functions would be astronomical. Consider your brain. The fact that humans use 10% of their brain capacity is a complete myth. It doesn’t even make sense from an evolutionary standpoint because it promotes a waste of resources. If a human brain could function on smaller neurons, we would have evolved to do so. A neuron has a width of roughly one thousandth of a centimetre, be it ant or human. We are smarter than ants because on average we possess four hundred thousands times more neurons, not because our neurons are bigger. Remove say, 85% of your atoms and sure, you can make your cells 85% smaller. They will cease to function as intended though. As for compressing them.. messy. Very messy. Solid objects have atoms that are tightly packed together.[2]Simple comparison of states For sake of illustration think of marbles in a tube, yes there is a little space between the marbles but not enough for more marbles. Squeezing the tube does little to help compress them either, they’re solid it’s not budging. So what do you think shrinking the container with force will do? That’s right, deform and/or crush the marbles. Apply that to humans and there’s going to be a hell of a lot of cleaning to do.

Organic miniaturisation just isn’t possible unless something significant happens to alter the universe we live in. Which, personally, I’m not ruling out.

 

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The World’s Greatest Detective

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BatmanWith the last instalment of Rocksteady‘s trilogy on the shelves and a new film on the way let’s get topical and stroll over to DC for a spell.

I’m going to digress here somewhat but have many of you had the chance to take Arkham Knight for a spin? I picked up my copy at the GAME midnight launch but my partner actually hijacked it immediately so while I haven’t played much I have watched a fair bit of play through and it’s gorgeous. I won’t launch into a full on review, that’s not really the purpose of this blog, but it was definitely created with the ultimate Batman fantasy in mind. You can glide, brood, fight, dive and drive your way through a gritty, dark Gotham city. The addition of the pimped out Batmobile and the DLC content that make Harley and the Red Hood available is hit and miss; it’s all a matter of personal preference. If you’re a fan of the previous two instalments I would recommend getting your hands on a copy of the studio’s wonderful farewell to Gotham.

Now then, back to the topic at hand, personally the only thing I’m overly fond of from Gotham is Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, M.D.[1]Harley Quinn Bio courtesy of DC Frankly though, she’s a bag of crazy that even I don’t want to wade through; psychoanalysis is not enjoyable. So while I may drop in on her and her lady Miss Ivy later to discuss the antitoxin business, today is all about the Dark Knight himself. Batman[2]Batman Bio courtesy of DC is a superhero with a distinct lack of superpowers. There was no accident with a radioactive animal, no cosmic rays or science experiments gone wrong, he keeps the streets clean through nothing more than indomitable willpower and Kevlar fuelled physical prowess. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to talk about concerning the Bat and science. In fact, the man himself said ‘I’ve got to know science thoroughly to become a scientific detective.'[3]Finger, Bill(w) Kane, Bob(p) Schwartz, Lew Sayre(p) Kaye, Stan(i) “How to Be the Batman” Detective Comics Vol 1 #190 [Dec, 1952] Needless to say Mr. Wayne certainly succeeded.

As far as Batman and science is concerned it’s all a technological love affair. He makes up for his distinct lack of superpowers with his wallet, enabling him to equip himself with the finest of gadgets. I’m actually going to roll back time to the good ol’ 1950’s for this and take a look at a few of the bits and pieces in the comics because they entertain me.

For this week we have the portable jet pack. Tired of running around after all those nefarious criminals in Gotham, Batman clearly decided it was about time he had the means to fly between buildings. So was it real life science or just entertaining malarkey? As far as I’m aware this addition was somewhere around the mid 1950’s, a time period in which there were actually a lot of articles kicking around the scientific magazines of the time discussing scientists attempts to develop jet packs. Some of you may already know the name Wendell F. Moore, a scientist of the time who developed a working rocket belt. ‘How did it work?’ I hear you say. Why, through the magic of chemistry of course! I’m going to start throwing out chemical names and sciencey words now so bear with me. The jetpack would have used pressure from liquid nitrogen to force hydrogen peroxide into a catalyst chamber. Here it would have reacted with silver screens coated with samarium nitrate. Mixing all this together would cause a jet of incredibly hot, high-pressured steam to come shooting out the bottom providing thrust.[4]In-depth look into Jet Packs Chemically it all sounds complicated but it’s Balloonactually similar in principle to those super fun rocket balloons; if you blow up a rocket balloon and hold the neck closed the pressure inside the balloon is higher than the pressure outside it, it just doesn’t have anywhere to go because the force is equally spread out (unless you blow it up too enthusiastically, then it’s going to explode in your face). By releasing the neck of the balloon you’re creating an imbalanced force so the air will shoot out the back to try and even things out; thus creating thrust.[5]A fun, simple experiment to demonstrate thrust In a rocket it’s all those fancy chemicals producing the gas and subsequent pressure instead of the spluttering wheezing mess that is a person after blowing up a balloon.

Basically, some poor unsuspecting sod ended up with a high powered rocket strapped to his/her back. Should that poor individual have found themselves with a case of the fidgets then they would have sustained quite the nasty burn from the steam. I like to hope they had incredibly durable legs as well seeing as their pins were the only landing gear available. Factor in the noise levels and the fact it could only hold enough fuel for somewhere in the region of twenty seconds of flight and it’s all very impractical. The pack was scrapped when Moore died but the dream didn’t die there.

Interesting story time. Jump with me to 1992 when three men decided it was time for a rocket revival. Brad Barker, Joe Wright and Larry Stanley founded the American Rocket Belt Corporation to develop their new version of the rocket pack and by ’94 they had a working prototype; the RB 2000 Rocket Belt. They re-jigged Moore’s design using light alloys and composite materials and boosted the fuel capacity resulting in an astounding maximum flight duration of… drum roll please… 30 seconds. In the rocket pack world the RB 2000 was a revelation. Sadly, things went sour. Wright developed an escalating meth addiction, Barker was accused of stealing money and Stanley had had enough. To cut a long story short, Barker beat Stanley pretty viciously and stole their prototype. At some point later down the line, what should debut on TV but the RB 2000. Naturally, Stanley was pissed and convinced Wright to file a joint lawsuit against Barker. This is where things got interesting. Wright was brutally murdered in his own home, Stanley won the lawsuit but Barker fled again. Not willing to give up what he was due Stanley had four men kidnap Barker; he was held captive for eight days in a small box before he managed to escape. Stanley served an eight year sentence and to this day the RB 2000 has never been recovered, which is a shame because it had potential.[6]Full article on “The Jetpack Murder”

The take away from all the rambling is that our Caped Crusader gets a gold star for his feasible use of science and engineering. Go’n yourself DC.

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