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?

 

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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

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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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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