The internet loves a countdown! And who am I to deny them that? The internet also loves superheroes, and I can oblige there too. I love science, and this is my blog, so I get to pick what goes in it. I also love the movies. Unfortunately, these two passions, like fat and water, aren’t always miscible; they don’t always mix. Now, I know that stories are meant to be fiction and the science isn’t meant to be perfectly accurate, and I can overlook bad science in a film when it really doesn’t matter. Who cares that the debris in Gravity is travelling in the wrong direction? Not me. Giant transforming robots? No problem. Sound in space? It just makes things more exciting.
But sometimes, Hollywood takes too many liberties with the facts. You can’t for instance, hack a computer system any faster with someone typing on the keyboard next to yours really fast. And I don’t care how lithe and athletic your elves are, you canNOT run up falling rocks. Nope, no, never, no. Silly, silly, silly.
I am a big Marvel fan, like most people in the entire world seem to be, so, without too much more ado, here are my favourite moments of good and bad science in the Marvel franchise.
The Arc Reactor. – Iron Man
It turns out, finding good science in superhero films is kind of difficult. Sure, the basic stuff is generally there, like gravity makes you fall. But even things like that are ignored from time to time for the sake of a nice, fast paced action sequence. So, obviously, I have to allow for some artistic license. Cue the arc reactor that is at the ‘heart’ (see what I did there?) of Iron Man.
Arc reactors are real. They don’t exactly work perfectly, but we are working on that. Miniaturisation is also real. Computers are getting smaller all the time and we can make machines now on a microscopic level! So combining the two seems perfectly reasonable. Now, there are a million reasons why this might never work in real-life, not least being that Tony would likely run out of whatever fusible material is running his tiny reactor pretty damn fast. But never mind. We can suspend disbelief because they took some real concepts and didn’t push it too far. It turns out, this is pretty much the best you can hope for.
Recovery Times. – Daredevil
People don’t stay hurt for long in comic books. Fact. They can’t, because they need to be on top fighting form to defeat the ever escalating onslaught of big baddies coming their way. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Daredevil get his posterior handed to him on a silver platter very early on in the first season of the show, and for him to still be limping at least a little bit all the way to the last episode. It turns out, there are no good number of times to nearly die. One is enough. Best to avoid it altogether I reckon.
Acceleration hurts – Iron man 2
This is the biggie. This is what all the movies get wrong all the time. And yeah, it bugs me. A lot. Hitting the ground is not what kills you when you fall. If the ground was made of infinite marshmallow you would hit it just as hard, but you would slow down very gradually and finally come to a perfectly safe stop… until you drowned in an infinite pool or marshmallow. What kills you is going from very fast, to a ‘dead’ stop (see what I did THERE?) in very little time. So, when the hero catches you just a second before you hit the floor, you still die, because you had to stop too quickly.
The same is true the other. Going from 0 to 100 mph in 0 seconds will smash your squishy body to pieces. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark very considerately slows right down to a complete stop before picking up Pepper Pots, who is in imminent danger of being blown to smithereens, before flying her to safety. Had he, as most heroes tend to do, not bothered and slammed into her at full speed, she would have ended up like the proverbial bug on his windshield. Which would have made for a very sombre Iron Man 3.
Antiserum vs Vaccine – AoS
I was very impressed with Agents of Shield when they used their scientific power couple, Fitz and Simmons (romantically involved or not, they will always be a power couple), to highlight the important difference between an antiserum and a vaccine.
To clarify, a vaccine usually contains a version of a disease that is not deadly, but does trigger your immune to create the antibodies (cells which destroy viruses) necessary system to fight it. Then, when you get the real thing, your immune system is already prepared and keeps it at bay very easily. An antiserum on the other hand, rather than stimulating your body to make antibodies, contains those antibodies itself.
Why was I so impressed with AoS making this simple yet important distinction? Because even I never really realised it was an issue until they brought it up, and that rarely happens to me.
Prismatic Accelerator. – Iron Man 2
Iron Man is back, and these time on the wrong side of the laws of physics.
You see, particle accelerators are real, and they are used to discover new elements. Prisms are also real. They are not used in this way. They will never be used in this way. If you have a beam with enough energy to create new elements and you shoot it at a prism, bad things happen to the prism. And this is just the first of many, many ways in which this is, in my opinion, the worst ever example of bad science in the Marvel Extended Universe. Miniaturising power plants is something we are already working towards. Putting glass inside a particle accelerator is something you should actively avoid. As is the ‘scientist’ who suggests it. He is insane. Stay away!
Matches in low oxygen. – Deadpool
Our atmosphere is 21% oxygen. That’s a lot of oxygen. You need oxygen to make fire. You also need enough heat and some kind of fuel. These are the three components of fire. Without all three, no fire. Some things need less heat than others to burn, but everything needs some. And everything needs oxygen. We can breathe quite happily in 21% oxygen air. We can also light matches very easily. When we breathe, we don’t use all the oxygen we take in. There is more oxygen in the air than we need. So you can take the oxygen content much further down, say to 15%, and still breathe easily. Now, at 15% there is enough oxygen to breathe and for the chemicals on a match to ignite, as they don’t need much either, but there is not enough for the wood of the match to burn, because it needs much more.
So, when Deadpool was trapped in a pressure chamber with so little oxygen he could barely breathe at all and indeed started to die. You need to go low for this to happen, less than 10%. To escape, he lights a match and throws it at the oxygen inlet to his chamber, so that when the bad guys let the oxygen back in, it explodes and breaks him free. I think we all see the problem here. With oxygen content below 10%, there is no way that match would light. Our hero would be trapped forever and the bad guys win. Sorry.
Men pass on the X gene. – Xmen
Here’s how genes and gender work. If you’re a man, you have an X gender chromosome and a Y gender chromosome. If you are a woman, you have two X gender chromosomes. When you have a baby, the father gives one gender chromosome, the mother the other. Here are the possible combinations:
Father = X Mother = X Baby = XX A girl!
Father = Y Mother = X Baby = YX A boy!
And that’s it. Mother’s only pass on X chromosomes. In X-Men, we are told it is fathers that pass on the gene that makes mutants. If it is only fathers that pass it on, it must be on the Y chromosome, otherwise mothers would be able to pass it on too. If it is on the Y chromosome, then fathers could only pass it on to their sons, because fathers don’t pass Y chromosomes to daughters. That means that, according to the canon, there should be NO female X-Men. No Rogue, no Storm, no Jubilee, no Mystique. Hey, maybe that’s why they’re called the X-Men?
The Quantum Realm. – Antman
I can’t even. I’m a physicist and it hurts me. It’s all just wrong. Just ignore it. Pretend it’s magic rather than science. Do not believe anything you are told in AntMan. It’s a great film, lots of fun, but the physics? Oh my, the physics. It’s wrong. All of it. Completely. Especially the quantum stuff. Just so very, very wrong. It’s upsetting just to think about it. I need to lie down. See you next time.