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 voilĂ  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’.

 

References   [ + ]

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

Bobby Drake : As Cold as Ice

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Iceman2Bobby Drake, code-named Iceman[1]Iceman bio courtesy of Marvel is our subject matter today. One of the original X-Men, he first appeared in The Uncanny X-Men #1[2]Credits and info on The Uncanny X-Men #1 where his mutant power was revealed to be the ability to lower the temperature of his body and immediate surroundings to less than 0 degrees Celsius. This power meant his body tended to acquire a protective coating of frozen water.

As I’m sure fans are already aware, be it from the comics, cartoon series or films, Bobby can’t actually produce ice. In actual fact what he does is condense the water vapour always present in the air and manipulate it. It’s an interesting idea for a mutated human ability. Unfortunately I do have to question where the heat he subtracts goes. Heat that you subtract from any given situation must be compensated for by an amount delivered somewhere else. The Second Law of Thermodynamics[3]Explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics would suggest that the heat added is most likely greater than the heat subtracted. For a more everyday explanation, take your refrigerator. Your fridge removes all the heat inside it and makes it nice and chilly so you can store all your goodies. The heat doesn’t disappear though, it gets fired out the back of your fridge. So my question remains; where does the heat go when Iceman freezes the air? Sadly it’s not something I can really fathom an answer to and I don’t see Marvel coughing one up for me anytime soon. It obviously has to go somewhere but for just now it’s a mystery!

As Iceman gained more control over his powers, he not only had the ability to form a protective shell but he could also project ‘freeze rays’ meaning he could ice up other people and objects. The coolest manifestation of this were the ice slides he frequently used to get around while fighting. In principle Ice Bridgehe’s basically making a big ice mountain underneath himself to gain height and then generating some nifty ramps to get him where he needs to be. Assuming that you could actually control the temperature the way it’s stated he can and that it’s humid enough to provide an appropriate amount of moisture in the air for all that ice creation then this in itself doesn’t violate any physics principles.

The problem lies in the fact that they always made his ice slides super stable. Which just isn’t practical. The center of mass, or center of gravity if you prefer, of an object is the point at which it acts as if all its mass were concentrated in that one spot. Ever tried balancing things on your fingers? If you have you’ll have found that you could only get things to balance at a specific sweet spot; the center of gravity. Where this sweet spot is entirely depends on the distribution of matter in the object. You can test this out for yourself, just get some random objects and try balancing away.

Bringing it back to the ice slides; the more Iceman extends them the further they move from their center of gravity, that being the ice mountain he set up for himself back at the start. With Iceman gliding across the top of the slide, the torque created would outweigh the strength of the slide itself and as a result that baby should crack. Avoiding this would be reasonably easy if he would just reinforce the underside of his slides with pillars, but he doesn’t.

TheX-Men #47 comics don’t ignore the fact that his feats are a physical implausibility though, they actually have Iceman himself address it which I quite like. The comic panel shown to the left is taken from The Uncanny X-Men #47[4]Credits and info on The Uncanny X-Men #47. It’s a fun little dig at the fact that yes, what he’s doing is physically impossible but Marvel know that.

It IS a comic book after all. Where would the fun be if it was all solely based on reality?

 

References   [ + ]

1. Iceman bio courtesy of Marvel
2. Credits and info on The Uncanny X-Men #1
3. Explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics
4. Credits and info on The Uncanny X-Men #47

Dr. Doom : The Madman in the Iron Mask

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Dr.Doom 2Any of you guys been to see the Fantastic Four[1]Fantastic Four bio courtesy of Marvel yet? It’s the only Marvel film so far that I haven’t seen at some point during release week. I’ve been pretty busy, I was sceptical from the original trailers and after having heard more about it following release I’ve been thoroughly put off using my time to see it at the cinema. It’s a shame really, the Fantastic Four comics were great and they’ve yet to be done justice in a film adaptation.

At some point I fully intend to cover the Fantastic Four and their exposure to cosmic rays but for the moment I’m on a little bit of a villain kick. I want to talk about Reed Richards'[2]Mr. Fantastic bio courtesy of Marvel personal nemesis and rival superscientist, Victor von Doom.[3]Dr. Doom bio courtesy of Marvel Doom was born in Latveria to a gypsy healer and a gypsy witch woman but given they both died when he was a child, he was actually raised by a friend of his father. Despite the fact he was educated by gypsies and never attended school, Victor became a scientific genius. Unfortunately, he also developed a taste for the black arts.

Fast forward in time and somehow news of his scientific genius has spread to America where he’s offered a scholarship to study at State University. Coincidentally, the same university Richards will be in attendance at. Thus Doom and Richards scientific rivalry began. The archnemesis part comes along when Doom, driven by some need to contact his dead mother, builds an interdimensional communication device to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. His design is sadly flawed and although Richards attempts to inform von Doom of his mistakes, the latter has no interest in listening resulting in the explosion of the machine and the initial scarring of his face. Unfortunately for Doom, State University frowns on machines used to communicate with the dead and he ends up expelled, as well as scarred. As far as Doom is concerned it’s all Richards fault; blaming him for sabotage and the instigation of his dismissal causing the two to become bitter enemies. [4]Fantastic Four #5, July 1962

Following this von Doom travelled to Tibet, where he came into possession of his famous body armour and mask. While Richards completed his Ph.D., von Doom chose to partake in demonic studies and achieved his goal of revenge in Latveria by overthrowing the countries tyrannical ruler and installing himself as absolute dictator. Ultimately, this gave him the diplomatic immunity he needed to become a plague on the Fantastic Four without consequences.

In the forty plus years that von Doom has been relentlessly seeking his revenge on Richards, his costume has remained unchanged. Even in the world of comic books that is a very long time to have no revamp. His outer garments consist of a green jerkin with a black belt, a matching green hood and a green cloak. His signature iron mask is a grim parody of a human face with the mouthpiece constructed into a permanent menacing grin. The armour in his outfit is the important part in all of this though. This armour is what keeps him alive in even the most nail biting of circumstances.

Body armour has been in existence since the beginning of time in some form or another. Given the leaps in the technology behind weaponry, armour has had to try and keep up throughout the years and with the introduction of more advanced guns the introduction of bulletproof vests was inevitable. A modern day bulletproof vest doesn’t consist of metal but instead high-tech fibers woven together to create what is known as soft body armour. Presumably this is what Doom wears underneath his iron-plated armour.

Now I know what you’re thinking. How can something soft stop a bullet? Well, this armour works on the principle of spreading energy at the point of impact of a bullet over a wide area. Effectively, soft body armour[5]Full explanation of how soft body armour works works like a net.

Flexible Kevlar sheet, illustrating the interlocking structure.

Flexible Kevlar sheet, illustrating the interlocking structure.

Kevlar, a lightweight fibre five times stronger than a strand of steel, is woven together to form an extremely dense interlocking pattern that it’s almost impossible for a regular bullet to penetrate. The bullet hits and much like a ball hitting the back of the goal, the energy is dispersed from the point of impact. It’s like a ripple; your stone hits the water at the epicentre and the energy of the impact is dispersed outwards in little waves. While this is the case, the momentum from a speeding bullet is generally more than powerful enough to break bones and a single layer of netting isn’t going to be enough to stop that. To this end, most bulletproof vests are made of multiple layers of Kevlar and plastic film and have pockets able to hold ceramic or metal plates. Sadly, as I said before it’s only almost impossible to penetrate. Tungsten core bullets are going to rip right through everything von Doom has. That is assuming that the guess of using soft body armour is correct.

More than once in the comics run, von Doom has been depicted performing amazing feats; he’s lifted enormous amounts of weight and survived the unsurvivable. So what if it’s not simply body armour? What if von Doom is in actual fact sporting an advanced human exoskeleton suit?

NK_Exoskeleton_BA human exoskeleton suit is a robotic device that can be strapped on or attached directly to the human body. This kind of machinery is quite common in the Marvel universe, with groups such as AIM and HYDRA equipping their mercenaries with high-tech exoskeleton suits to add muscle power.

January 2001 saw the U.S. Defence Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) award contracts to laboratories and experimental groups to take the first crack at developing exoskeleton suits for military use. The early work sponsored by DARPA involved pneumatic muscles or deformable magnets to power artificial limbs or suits that soldiers could wear[6]Pneumatic artificial muscles. As the research developed exoskeletons were created that were capable of propelling its user at speeds greater than 15 miles per hour, could lift 250 pounds as though it was nothing and even suits that gave disabled people the ability to walk again. Today, Japan have jumped to the forefront of human exoskeleton suit development with working suits in use on factory floors and in medical facilities[7]Article outlining recent human exoskeleton developments.

It’s not difficult to imagine a young von Doom pitching his pioneering exoskeleton research to the governments and big corporations of the Marvel universe and walking away with the state of the art technology that would explain his uncanny ability to withstand things no ordinary human ever could.

References   [ + ]

1. Fantastic Four bio courtesy of Marvel
2. Mr. Fantastic bio courtesy of Marvel
3. Dr. Doom bio courtesy of Marvel
4. Fantastic Four #5, July 1962
5. Full explanation of how soft body armour works
6. Pneumatic artificial muscles
7. Article outlining recent human exoskeleton developments

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 voilĂ , 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.

 

References   [ + ]