I think I have a new favorite superhero.
If there is one thing that unites superheroes and heroines together, it’s the fact that they have powers (or have lost a loved one). Some do-gooders fight crime with gadgets like Iron Man or Batman. Others are more sci-fi like Scarlet Witch or The Incredible Hulk. But no hero that comes to mind has powers simply as a consequence of the physics imposed on him or her. Enter Ant-Man.
According to the comics, Ant-Man is the nom de guerre of Dr. Hank Pym — a crafty biophysicist. After discovering a particle that could alter his size, so-called “Pym particles”, the doctor shrinks down to the size of insects, starts solving crimes, and eventually co-founds the Avengers.
In the film of the same name premiering this summer, we don’t see Pym himself as the hero. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a thief who steals Pym’s Ant-Man suit in order to save a loved one. He’s the one who will be introducing evil to tiny terror. But if it’s all about the suit, how does it work?
Dr. Spiros Michalakis is a quantum physicist at the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech in California. His work involves more than trying to break the laws of physics and show that time is an illusion (really) — he helps Hollywood filmmakers use quantum mechanics in an accurate way. I had the chance to speak with him shortly after he finished consulting on the physics of Ant-Man. Over a glass of wine, he explained the powers you get and the obstacles our universe throws at you when you try to go micro, nano, and even quantum.
The benefits of decreasing your size while maintaining your mass are obvious, Michalakis explained. It’s not just communicating with ants that gave Ant-Man his name in the comics; “Ant-Man” is an analogy for the strength gain you’d get if you were shrunk. Very generally, the strength of an organism’s muscles is a factor of the cross-sectional area of those muscles. It’s the same reason why a bundle of rubber bands are a lot harder to stretch than a single rubber band — the cross-sectional area for the bundle is much larger. And the longer that bundle of bands is, the more strength there is. That is to say (again, generally), strength is dependent on square of your height.
This relationship is why you are objectively stronger than an ant. But you aren’t relatively stronger. Ant-Man gets his super-strength from the fact that an organism’s volume is dependent on the cube of its height, meaning that as an organism is scaled down, its strength decreases much slower than its body volume does. Extrapolate that math and you get ants lifting objects many times their own mass.
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.
Michalakis being a quantum mathematician, it’s safe to assume that the new film will have some quantum aspects to it. Without giving too much away, he asked me to consider what would happen if a normal human were able to shrink down to the quantum realm. It gets weird. Really weird.
Think about how unlikely it is to flip ten coins in a row and have the first five turn up heads and the next five turn up tails. You could flip coins for hours and hours without even getting close. That’s just a consequence of randomness and probability. But what if you aren’t so concerned with the order? How about only five heads and five tails in any order? Michalakis calculates that the probability this task gives you a 25 percent chance of getting it on the first try! Once you start changing how specific you need a measurement to be, the more likely you are to get what you are looking for. Zoom out enough — get less specific — and trends in all your coin flipping attempts start to appear, but zoom all the way in – like asking all the coin flips to happen in a very specific way — and those trends disappear into what looks like pure randomness. Michalakis explained to me that this is our universe.
As far as we know, quantum mechanics and the math that it springs from defines the very fabric of space and time. It’s inherently random down at the level of the quantum, but again, zoom out and look at the trends of those fluctuations en masse, and probabilities emerge. The famous wave function of quantum mechanics describes these probabilities. For example, we can never really say an electron is orbiting a proton in a defined path. Rather, an electron has a certain probability of being in one place or another around the proton. Like all of science, an electron’s position isn’t definite, it’s fuzzy.
Michalakis contends that the physical laws we see the universe operating under are trends in these quantum mechanical probabilities and that if you zoom all the way down, it all disappears. Gravity, relativity, time…everything.
If Ant-Man can shrink down to the smallest of the small, he will enter this nothing, this non-reality. All of time and space will be open to him. He could literally change the universe around him Dr. Manhattan-style. And he could traverse time at will. It must be one heck of a suit that Pym produced.
At this point in our conversation, Michalakis was quick to point out the problems that come along with such powers – problems that he had to make work-arounds for. The most obvious problem is density. Defined as mass divided by volume, Ant-Man’s density would be enough to sink through the Earth whenever he shrank. After scribbling down a quick calculation on my napkin, I figured that squeezing Rudd’s maybe 160 pounds down to ant-size gets into the density of a white dwarf star range.
Ant-Man would also need to breathe. If you were suddenly shrunk, the air would be like that at the top of our tallest mountains — the amount of air stays the same, but the volume it occupies would drastically increase relative to you. And if you are the size of atoms, there is no way you could inhale the billions and billions of oxygen atoms you would need to keep your human-sized metabolism running smoothly.
Lastly, Michalakis said while gesturing over a steaming plate of food, Ant-Man would have a cooling problem. Without the same amount of surface area that we have to dissipate the heat our bodies generate, even moderate exertion would create an incredible amount of heat without a lot of places to go.
This is where Michalakis went quiet. Of course he knew how Ant-Man’s suit would solve these problems, but those secrets were best left until the movie actually premieres this summer. But he did leave me with a clue as to how the suit itself might make the protagonist micro.
Think about one of the many satellites orbiting above us. It has a certain amount of potential energy, based on how much the Earth pulls on it, how much mass it has, and how far above the Earth it orbits. Now add mass to it. To maintain the same amount of potential energy, the size of its orbit must decrease. If the satellite and the Earth are one system, everything has just gotten “smaller.”
If “Pym particles” could somehow change the mass of electrons, those particles would be found in closer “orbits” — a smaller Bohr radius — to their respective atoms and molecules. And because electrons and the interactions between them are ultimately what prevent objects from ever really touching each other (like charges repel), having all the electrons in an object suddenly gain mass would shrink that whole object! Perhaps the suit administers Pym particles to a similar effect.
It’s not even that far-fetched. Right now in a particle accelerator at Fermilab, scientists are trying to find out if you can smash together the right stuff that results in what are basically heavier electrons. And if we ever do find the right stuff to smash into electrons, maybe we should call them Pym particles.
That’s quite a bit for one super-suit to do, but it still would make for one of my favorite heroes. There is no mystery propulsion or laser eyes involved — Ant-Man has powers simply as a consequence of his size, as a consequence of the universe we live in.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.