Superheroes and particle physics: the dynamic duo

iron man 2the second installment of Iron Man film franchise, finds hero Tony Stark in a pickle: The “arc reactor” in Stark’s chest (which generates magnetic fields to stop the movement of shrapnel through his body) is powered by palladium, which slowly poisons him. Stark must find a different material to operate the reactor if he hopes to survive. But the only non-toxic element that will work is one that does not exist on Earth. A brilliant engineer and scientist, Stark builds a small cyclotron and uses it to create the new element he needs.

In the Wizarding World of the movies, Stark builds his cyclotron in about a day, whereas real cyclotrons usually take months or years to assemble. But the story rests on at least one scientifically correct fact: it is true that particle accelerators can be used to create “new” elements, those that are not found in nature. It’s a wonder Stark didn’t just don his Iron Man suit and fly to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where scientists have already helped create new elements 113, 114, 115, 116 , 117 and 118.

Throughout the comic book canon, peppered with fictional science like Tony Stark’s live arc reactor, one can also find examples of real particle physics. Talking to comic book writers reveals that particle physics is often a source of inspiration for interesting new storylines – and the presence of particle physics in comic books and superhero movies fuels curiosity and excitement. imagination of his audience. It may surprise some people to discover that superheroes and particle physicists inspire each other, but unlikely duos often make for great stories.

Brittney Williams / Text by: Josh Elder

The spark of possibility

Comic book writer and self-proclaimed “science junkie” Mark Waid is the author of many issues of the comic book series JLA—a modern reboot of the Justice League of America, which places more than a dozen DC superheroes on the same crime-fighting team.

In 1997, Waid learned of an experiment at the University of Geneva, where physicists were testing quantum entanglement: a phenomenon in which two particles, theoretically separated by any distance, share a mysterious connection. The Swiss physicists split a single photon into two entangled photons, separated them by 10.9 kilometers and showed that a change in one photon caused an almost instantaneous change in the other. This “frightening action at a distance” was first conceptualized in the 1930s, but no experiment had ever demonstrated it over such a long stretch.

Waid was intrigued by the counterintuitive nature of entanglement and the confusing world of quantum mechanics, which reveals that the physical properties of subatomic particles, including their location, exist as probabilities, not definitive values. The concept inspired a JLA storyline: issues 17 and 18 of the comic depict the heroes facing a series of highly unlikely events. They finally deduce that a group of seven photons, divided during an experiment of entanglement, modified the probabilities which govern the universe.

To finally solve the problem, the JLAPlayers call upon veteran DC hero The Atom, who can shrink himself and other team members to subatomic size and repair split photons.

Waid, who majored in physics in college, says he frequently turns to science — and particle physics in particular — for inspiration.

“I think the more science you can inject into a superhero story, the more real it feels, the more verisimilitude it has, which I think is really important for readers who want to invest in your characters,” says -he.

Like Waid, comic book writer James Asmus, who authored a number of X-Men comics, frequently uses modern science as inspiration. In 2013, Asmus began writing a reboot of a 1990s comic book series called Quantum and Woody, which follows two brothers who get caught in a lab explosion and suddenly find themselves with superpowers. To solve the mystery of their new abilities, they investigate a mysterious machine that might run on dark matter or energy from another dimension.

“For me, this space where we have exciting new insights, and we don’t yet know what the possible outcomes and applications might be – it’s very much like when I was a kid running around a playground. pretending I was a superhero. There’s a promise that something amazing might actually be achievable,” Asmus says.

Illustration of Superheroes: Big Data Dark Matter

Brittney Williams / Text by: Josh Elder

It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s a lesson in physics!

Like Asmus, James Kakalios was probably one of those kids who liked to pretend he was a superhero. A lifelong comic book enthusiast, Kakalios is now a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and author of superhero physics, a book inspired by a class he taught for freshmen and non-physics majors. In the book, Kakalios demonstrates that superhero comics can be used to teach physics.

Take, for example, Kakalios’ lesson on the Schrödinger equation. This is a notoriously difficult topic, usually explained in terms of dead and undead cats. Kakalios takes a different approach and explores the powers of classic superhero The Flash, who possesses the ability to run at nearly the speed of light.

Over time, The Flash realizes that he can walk through walls when running at full speed. The Schrödinger equation partly explains this phenomenon. Thanks to the quantum tunneling effect, a particle can unexpectedly pass from one side of a physical barrier to the other. While the amount of energy required to accelerate a human body to nearly the speed of light would be enormous, it is true that the increase in kinetic energy would increase the likelihood of The Flash experiencing a quantum tunneling event and going through a Wall.

Kakalios said superpowers are almost always impossible, but what a character does with those powers often adheres to the laws of physics, like The Flash walking through walls, or running on water, or catching a ball in it. air, which would be physically possible if it could move at immense speeds. Kakalios goes on to tell his students the many amazing things physicists can do with this fundamental knowledge – for example, the quantum tunneling effect is used in touch screen technologies and forms the basis of scanning tunneling microscopes. The stories act as bait to get students to pay attention to tough physics lessons, but they also demonstrate the truly fantastic power of real physics.

Superhero illustration: Positron

Brittney Williams / Text by: Josh Elder

Dream the impossible

Comic book superheroes can appeal to the most reluctant physics students or inspire those with a penchant for science. Brian Nord is a post-doctoral researcher on the Dark Energy Survey at Fermilab and a lifelong comic book fan. He says that as a child he was always drawn to comic books featuring scientific heroes and that comics fueled his curiosity about the universe.

“I think as we go through growth cycles as people, we have different needs. So sometimes we need to sit down and get things done, and move forward with what we’ve learned and what others have learned,” Nord says. “But before that, you have to dream. You have to find or create your own inspiration. We are inspired by dreaming of what we can do in the future and by dreaming of the impossible. It’s sort of a simple jump to say that seeing people in comics do amazing things that you didn’t think were possible is a great way to be subconsciously inspired.

It’s not a stretch to assume that most kids who love superheroes will also love science. At a fundamental level, scientists are like superheroes, armed with ever-increasing knowledge of the most fundamental components and laws of our universe. Like a superpower, this knowledge is exciting on its own. But solving problems requires the intelligent application of this knowledge. So The Flash learns to walk through walls, while particle physicists find new ways to treat cancer and monitor the proliferation of nuclear waste, develop new drugs, and improve global computing capabilities; while struggling to understand the ultimate nature of reality. Superheroes and scientists are asking the world to reconsider what is possible.

“Science and comics are all about ‘what if’,” says Nord. “What if we could do it now, or if this was the future, or if in some other distant solar system there were people wearing spandex, running around trying to fight an evil we’ve never heard of ? What if?”

Superhero Illustration: Comic Book Page

Click on picture to enlarge.

Brittney Williams / Text by: Josh Elder

For this article honoring the connection between physics and superheroes, symmetry enlisted comic book writer Josh Elder and comic book artist Brittney Williams to create a cast of quirky characters with physics-bound powers. Elder writes for DC Comics; founded Reading with Pictures, a nonprofit visual literacy organization; and co-creator of the comic book and graphic novel series Ninja mail order. Williams trained at Walt Disney Studios and is now a freelance comic book artist and illustrator who has worked for comics. samurai jack.

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