The Science Behind Marvel's Giant-Man

Tuesday, 10 May 2016 - 5:10PM
Physics
Tuesday, 10 May 2016 - 5:10PM
The Science Behind Marvel's Giant-Man

Spoilers for the MCU follow!


Spider-Man and Black Panther received worthy introductions in Captain America: Civil War, but one reveal was almost equally triumphant: Giant-Man. As many fans predicted (and as the toys somewhat spoiled), Scott Lang modified his Ant-Man suit to grow to many times his original size, and it was gloriously funny. But still, as I was watching his scenes in Civil War, I had a nagging concern: namely, that Giant-Man really doesn't make any sense.

Ant-Man is built on a premise that is somewhat in the science fiction realm, but is actually based in real science. Relatively speaking, ants are much, much stronger than humans, as they can easily lift several times their own mass. This is the result of the square-cube law of mathematics, which states that relative strength and air resistance are inversely proportional to size. So while ants are not stronger than humans, since they have much less mass than we do, they are relatively stronger.

But if that's the case, then how does Ant-Man take on villains that are human-sized? If the suit shrinks him to the mass of an ant, then he should only be stronger relative to his size, but according to Ant-Man physics consultant Dr. Spiros Michalakis, the key component to the Ant-Man suit is that it doesn't "shrink" Scott Lang in the sense of decreasing his mass, it just condenses his mass into a tiny, super-strong mini-person.

Opening quote
"If Ant-Man's suit can shrink him without the hero's mass changing, you then have a normally heavy human lifting many times a normally heavy human's weight," Dr. Michalakis said last year.
Closing quote

This is, of course, science fiction in itself, but there is an explanation that is relatively plausible. As he explains on his blog, Michalakis suggested to Marvel that the suit could shrink Scott Lang without changing his mass by using neutrino radiation to convert electrons into muons, their "heavier cousin," which would shrink the radius of the atoms by 200 times without changing any of their chemical properties. (The suit would still need to be some sort of magic material that could support the massive pressure of all that mass in such a small surface area, which is not known to humankind yet, but still, so far so good.)

But this is precisely the problem with the entire idea of Giant-Man. If that process were reversed somehow, then according to the square-cube law, Scott would get weaker and weaker as he grew in size. While I was watching Civil War, I half-expected him to use his prototype Giant-Man suit, only to find that he was huge but kind of useless (which would have been exactly the kind of humor I'd expect from that movie). He shouldn't even have been able to knock stuff over with his huge size, since he would hypothetically have extremely low density.



We confirmed with Dr. Michalakis that the process for shrinking Ant-Man wouldn't work in reverse, and even if it did, it would make Giant-Man a fairly useless Baymax-type figure:

Opening quote
"The mechanism I suggested to Marvel for shrinking Ant-Man would not quite work in reverse, since electrons are the lightest charged particle we know of (so, it cannot decay to anything lighter, thus increasing the size of each atom)," Michalakis told Outer Places in an email. "Giant-Man also needs to absorb a bunch of energy that he can convert into mass, otherwise he would have the density of a balloon, which would render him powerless (and very squishy).
Closing quote

So essentially, a different process would be needed for the Giant-Man suit, one that would increase his mass (which presumably takes away his ant-like superpowers, but they're not as necessary when you can knock over buildings and such). According to Dr. Michalakis (who worked on Ant-Man and will likely work on its sequel, but did not work on Civil War), this would involve neutrino radiation as well, but a different type that would add neutrons to all of Scott's atoms. The increase in neutral charge (and decrease in net positive charge) would cause the electrons to drift further from the nucleus, increasing his size, while the addition of the neutrons would add to his mass, making him a proportionally massive giant person.

Here is Dr. Michalakis' full explanation:

Opening quote
"The only mechanism I can think of right now, using the same Pym particles, would be to use neutrinos again, but of a longer wavelength that would make them transparent to electrons. The neutrinos could then travel all the way to the nucleus, colliding with protons to create neutrons plus positrons. The neutrons, lacking charge, would not be able to hold the electrons as close, thus increasing the size of the object. The positrons would fly out of the nucleus and collide with hydrogen atoms (which the suit would supply), thus producing protons (positron plus electron equals gamma rays which go out to space), which can be incorporated back into the enlarged atoms to provide the correct number of protons in the nucleus (since a bunch of them already transformed into neutrons). This process would continue until each atom in his body was converted into a stable heavy isotope of the original (same number of protons and electrons but a bunch more neutrons). Size (due to neutron shielding of electrons from protons) and mass (due to the fact that neutrons and protons are responsible for our mass) would go up. Voila."
Closing quote

So there you have it: a perfectly plausible explanation of Giant-Man that we may or may not get to hear in future Ant-Man installments. Which is not to say that Giant-Man is actually "realistic," only that he is potentially grounded in a satisfactory amount of pseudoscience, so I'm not distracted upon re-watching Civil War's airport fight.

Opening quote
"These ideas are meant to make the crazy idea (of Giant-Man) a bit more plausible, even if the mechanism I propose is still in the realm of science fiction," said Dr. Michalakis.
Closing quote
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