When astronomer and science communicator Phil Plait took the stage at a packed ballroom during this year’s Comic-Con, he addressed all the attendees as “new recruits.” The audience was a bit perplexed until he revealed that the panel would serve as the scientific training required to become a part of Marvel’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. network (Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network). Without breaking character, Plait introduced four other scientists who proceeded to discuss the science behind each Avenger.
Marvel’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. program is actually a museum exhibit run by Discovery Times Square. Based on the comics and movies, NASA, the Science & Entertainment Exchange program of the National Academy of Sciences, Neuroverse, and Thwacke have all collaborated to immerse attendees in the science of superheroes. It features explanations for the gravitational tug of Thor’s hammer, the gamma blast of Bruce Banner, and the artificial intelligence of Tony Stark’s suit.
Preston Dyches of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Randii Wessen also of JPL, Sebastian Alvarado of Thwacke, and Ricardo Gil da Costa joined Plait on the panel and went through each Avenger as though they were scientists discussing their findings at the office water cooler. First up was Captain America.
How did Captain Steve Rodgers remain frozen for so long? It was his super serum. Although the scientists still don’t have an idea what is in the serum (remember, they were completely in character as S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives), they know that his blood didn’t freeze. They speculated that something in the serum significantly increased Rodgers’ blood glucose levels, preventing the jagged edges of ice crystals from forming and destroying his tissue.
Dr. Bruce Banner was next. Banner became the Hulk when he received an incredible dose of gamma radiation. This is ionizing radiation, meaning that it has the power to break molecular bonds and, importantly, mutate DNA. “Gamma radiation is to visible light as bullets are to marshmallows,” Plait stated.
The huge blast of radiation rewrote Banner’s genome, the scientists reported. “It was as if his genome was a vase… Bruce had it dropped on the ground and shattered.” This gene re-write also changed emotional centers in his brain, occasionally turning Banner into an unstoppable anger machine when the Hulk personality emerges.
The scientists then revealed what they knew about the Tesseract, which was exactly three things: it’s an alien artifact, it’s shaped like a cube, and it’s a tremendous source of energy. Dyches imagined that the Tesseract may be pulling energy from the quantum foam and virtual particles that make up the fundamental fabric of the cosmos.
And what about Thor’s hammer? Well, the panelists said that there is a lot of “discussion in the labs” about that. It seems to have a fundamental connection to the four forces of nature (nuclear weak force, nuclear strong force, electromagnetism, and gravity). But how does it make sure that only Thor can pick it up? Does it change its gravity or can it change the way atoms of earth bond to it? “The team couldn’t lift it so we couldn’t measure it,” Plait laughed. But one thing the scientists did know about the hammer is that it may have been crafted from dying star material. Iron 60—an isotope of elemental iron—is seemingly only produced in supernova explosions, and is present in the material of Mjölnir.
Lastly, the team discussed the trouble that is working with Tony Stark. Much of the panel’s description of what they know about Stark’s suits focused on the arc reactor and his brain-machine interfaces. “Tony will tell you that he did most of the work,” Gil da Costa joked. But the secret to the suit is that “Stark is a master of alloys,” Dyches explained. Working mostly with titanium, Stark has found a way to optimize weight and strength for his armors. For how far ahead Star is in terms of tech, the government is working on real life Iron Man suits, for what it’s worth.
The panel was incredibly informative and the scientists were prepared enough to make office banter about Captain America’s muscles seem authentic. It was as if the Marvel movies really happened, like we were seeing a press conference in a world where the Avengers really destroyed much of lower Manhattan. But by taking both the movies and the science seriously, it had to be one of the most immersive and interesting panels at Comic-Con.