The Science Behind the Super Powers of the Avengers and X-Men
Could we have the Avengers' super powers in real life? In his book The Physics of Superheroes, physicist Dr. James Kakalios explored the science behind Wolverine's claws, Thor's hammer, Captain America's shield, and more.
[Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Wolverine has superhuman healing abilities, or the ability to regenerate. Although there are many animals that accomplish this feat every day, scientists have not yet been able to replicate this ability in humans. But researchers are getting closer to a breakthrough in this area every day; for example, a group of researchers recently isolated the molecular pathway that allows salamanders to regenerate limbs, and they are optimistic that this research will contribute to the discovery of a method for human limb regeneration.
He also has claws that can cut through any material, made of the fictional metal adamantium (a word which fittingly means "characterized by extreme hardness"). Although adamantium is not real, scientists are working on creating a similarly hard metal that can cut through any material. Several years ago, researchers produced a material called graphene, one-atom-thick pure carbon that is harder than diamonds and stronger than steel. The carbon-carbon bonds in graphene are currently the strongest bonds known to science.
Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that getting angry can either turn you green or magically make your shorts grow several sizes, but there is plenty of evidence that anger and other kinds of stress can afford a person with superhuman strength. There are many anecdotal accounts of small women lifting cars off of their children while their adrenaline is pumping, and weightlifter Tom Boyle once lifted a 3,000-pound car off of a trapped cyclist. (His previous record for lifting had been 700 pounds.) Hulk has often been used as a metaphor for the aggression that lies within all of us, which is fitting, because scientists believe that adrenaline doesn't give you strength so much as it brings out the monster within. According to Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a Penn State professor of kinesiology, the average person can reach approximately 65% of their physical potential in a workout session, while professional weightlifters can maybe reach 80%. An adrenaline surge may be able to bring a person as close as humanly possible to their full physical potential.
Both Thor and Storm have the ability to control the weather, with Thor's hammer allowing him to strike lightning in a specific place at will. Kakalios states that it would be possible to control the weather if we had some means of controlling temperatures in the atmosphere, as weather is determined by a process called thermal convection. Since cold air molecules have less energy than hot air molecules, hot air rises above cold air. When the hot air reaches the colder atmosphere at higher altitudes, the molecules lose energy, while when cold air molecules collide with the warmer ground, they gain energy, creating a perpetual cycle. Manipulating this cycle is crucial for potentially controlling the weather. Although current scientific wisdom tells us that we cannot control the exact location for a lightning strike, as it depends on the electric charges in the ground, we actually don't know very much about the mechanism behind the phenomena, and researchers are currently attempting to learn more about lightning in order to direct strikes away from populated areas, possibly by inducing strikes in other areas of the storm region.
This cycle could also provide a mechanism for Thor and Storm's flying ability, as manipulating temperatures so that hot air was below them and cold air above them would cause the hot air to rise and potentially levitate their bodies.
Speaking of flying...
All of these superheroes can fly, but each use a different mechanism. (Superman can fly as well, but he just uses alien magic, which is cheating.)
Iron Man's suit allows him to fly through jetpack propulsion technology. Similarly, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Falcon uses artificial wings, or ornithopters, that also utilize jetpack technology. Although jetpacks are theoretically possible to produce, it would be a logistical nightmare to implement, as it takes a ton of fuel to propel a human through the air. Jetpack prototypes exist, but most can only sustain human flight for up to 30 seconds.
Falcon is more on the right track, as Occam's razor tells us that the best solution is to simply imitate things that can already fly: birds. Falcon's wings are rigid, however, while birds' wings are flexible and change shape as they go up and down, optimizing them for flight. Falcon would have better luck if his wings could imitate the complexity of birds' wings (like Archangel, who, as an angel, has feathered wings like a bird), but this would be an amazing technological feat that engineers have thus far been unable to reproduce. Canadian engineer Todd Reichert somewhat attempted to achieve this in 2010 with his Snowbird, an ornithopter that flapped its wings like a bird. But the record flight time for this machine was 19.3 seconds, and he conceded that it may be able to fly much longer if they could imitate the complexity of birds' wings: "The problem is, in engineering that's not the way to go. You don't want to say, 'Oh, let's add complexity to get efficiency.'"
Magneto takes a completely different tack, as he is able to fly by either gliding along the Earth's natural magnetic field or creating a repulsive force between him and the Earth. Magnetic flight is theoretically possible as well, as MIT researchers are currently attempting to use electromagnets in conjunction with reaction wheels in order to control a spacecraft. The electromagnets would use solar power to energize a magnetic field, and the reaction wheels would allow the researchers to control its movements.
Captain America's shield has the ability to withstand any level of force without sustaining a scratch, as it is made from an alien metal called vibranium, which absorbs sound and vibrations. As this is a fictional metal, there is no known substance that has this property. But, according to Kakalios, even if this metal did exist, the kinetic energy from the blow must be dispersed somehow. The most logical explanation is that the metal disperses the sound waves into its own atomic bonds, which would then be converted into electromagnetic radiation. Since we do not observe the shield emitting light after it receives a blow, Kakalios concludes that it might be vibrating within the infrared spectrum.
Matt Shipman of North Carolina State University asserted that Captain America's shield may be a combination of a supercapacitor, which has the ability to absorb and release kinetic energy, and a battery, which could store the energy and allow the shield to function as a boomerang. "We're all familiar with real-world examples of technology that converts kinetic energy into stored energy, like the flywheel and generator tech that uses the friction from stepping on the brakes in a Prius to charge the car's batteries," Shipman wrote. "As is so often the case in comics, there's a kernel of scientific truth here - Cap's shield just takes it one step further."
Incidentally, Kakalios's book also explores the infamous (spoiler? maybe?) death of Gwen Stacy, and states that the whiplash from being stopped so suddenly by Peter's webbing would, in fact, have killed her.