The Science of Ant-Man

Marvel never quite knew what to do with Hank Pym in the comics. The man changed alter-egos more often than the Hulk changed purple pants. So maybe it is not a surprise that for the movie version they went with petty-thief, Scott Lang, to be the cinematic universe’s Ant-Man. After all, he is a sympathetic character who has yet to show any history of spousal abuse. Yet regardless of who is under the helmet, the powers of Ant-Man remain the same, and if you think the ability to shrink and talk with ants is weird now, hold onto your thorax because the science gets a whole lot weirder.

Since we here at NYRD Labs have yet to see what explanation the movie has to offer for the miraculous powers of Paul Rudd, and we mean besides the spell he casts on us with those dreamy eyes, we have to rely on the comic book source material to start our fantastic voyage into the science of miniaturization. By the way, that last sentence was a pun, ask you parent to explain it.

In the comics, Pym and Lang shrink and grow due to their exposure to Pym particles. This is a fictional particle that basically shunts the mass of an object from one dimension of space to another. Thus, when Ant-Man wants to shrink down he moves his mass to a different dimension, decreasing his physicality in this one, and maybe creating some kind of freaky ball of headless mass in the other. When Pym becomes Giant Man or Goliath or Yellow Jacket -he has had some identity issues over the years- he takes mass from this extra dimension to increase his size.

Surprisingly, there is a force that might be used to help humans gain or lose mass. You may have heard of it. It’s called the Higgs-Boson particle. Jim Kakalios explains the physics behind this idea much better than we can at NYRD Laboratories, but the cliff note version goes like this: The Higgs-Boson is an elementary particle that was discovered back in 2012, and allows scientists to explore the Higgs Field. Think of this field like a tasty wall of Jello. Some particles are able to pass through it, and come out the other side with very little gelatin residue, if none at all. Thus, they would have less mass. However, other particles get stuck in the Jello, and move slowly through it, coming out encased in goo. They would have more mass. However, even this example is a bit simplistic and misleading -insert Bill Cosby joke. Just because a particle has more mass does not mean that it is larger, just denser.

We can think of a Pym particle like the Higgs-Boson, but for some reason the Pym Field is able to reduce the physical size of particles that passes through it, not the mass. Really, that is an important distinction, because part of Ant-Man’s power is his increased strength relative to his size. If Pym or Lang were to lose mass as they shrank they would be even more fragile than their insect namesakes. So, Ant-Man would need to be able to shrink in size but not lose too much mass, and that would help explain how he keeps the strength of a normal human, even when he is an inch and a half high.

Unfortunately, most atoms are uniformed in size. They are governed by a set of constants such as the mass and charge of the electron and Planck’s constant. Dr. Pym would need to find a way to overcome these restrictions if he really wanted to shrink all his atoms down to the size of a dime. Nerdist sat down with Dr. Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist at Caltech, and science adviser to the movie Ant-Man. Dr. Michalakis seemed reluctant to give too much away but he did hint that we should think of it like satellites above Earth, some of which probably say Stark Enterprises on them. Since the electron cloud and the atom nucleus are one system, you could increase the mass of the electrons and decrease their orbits, or what is called their Bohr’s radius. This would shrink the atom, but allow it to keep the same relative potential energy. What we are really saying is that it would be theoretically possible, but let’s just say for right now, in comparison, Thor is looking less farfetched.

That is mainly because there are a multitude of problems that come along with this idea of quantum shrinking. First of all, Pym and Lang would not be able to breathe. Just because their own atoms have shrunk down, does not mean that the atoms in the air particles have. In essence the oxygen around them would be too big to breathe. They physically could not fit it in their lungs. Lungs at such small sizes are impractical. In fact, ants themselves breathe through openings in their abdomens called spiracles, which is much more efficient at smaller sizes.

Ant-Man would also have a problem with overheating. When we do activity and sweat, our bodies heat up. Thankfully our skin is a large organ spread out over our entire body. If you were to stretch out the skin of the average adult, it be about 22 square feet and weigh 8 pounds. Blood vessels all over your body are constricting and opening to regulate your temperature and because your skin is so massive it has a lot of surface area to work with in terms of heat dissipation. Heat can be distributed and removed more efficiently over the large area of your skin. When you shrink, you lose a lot of space for that excess heat to go. It’s probably why you don’t see ants running sprint races. At ant-like sizes poor Paul Rudd might get overheated even after only one lovable but zany antic.

Lastly, but most importantly, When Pym and Lang shrink their density increases. Shrinking down to their size would mean they would have the equivalent density of a dwarf star, which is a lot of matter compacted into a small area. Essentially, Ant-Man would become so heavy he would literally fall through the Earth, pavement, dirt, the Earth’s crust, etc. They planet not be able to physically hold the weight, let alone whatever poor ant Lang choses to ride on. Gravity would pull him down quicker than the box office ratings of Green Lantern.

The movie will explain these problems away by saying that the suit that Lang wears is able to provide oxygen, regulate body heat, and who knows what else. Mostly, because a movie of Paul Rudd making cute comments as he slides further and further down through the Earth would probably make for a dull movie, or at the very least an Adam Sandler movie.

Talking with Ants
Even more interesting is the potential ways Lang and Pym could communicate with the ants. Again, we at NYRD Labs are not sure how the movie will explain this power, but we can take a few guesses. Ironically, of all of Paul Rudd’s new found powers, including how he can keep his hair so smooth and silky looking even during action scenes, this is one is the least farfetched.

Ants do talk to each other. In fact, they follow orders just like good little soldiers. Ants scrape their legs across their abdomens to create sounds which they use to communicate with other ants. British and Spanish scientists placed 4mm microphones inside the nest of 400 red ants, because in Europe ants have no right to privacy. What they discovered was that the sounds created varied depending on what was going on. The scientists were even able to play sounds back to the ants and watch them respond. Any sound made by the queen usually caused an en masse reaction: march, attack, etc.

All Lang would have to do would be to reproduce the queen’s sounds to get armies of ants to obey his commands. Unfortunately, he would also need a full vocabulary of commands and words, and we have been experimenting on ants for years and we still don’t know how you tell an ant to fly in formation or spin a coin. Admittedly, we have not moved very far pass the magnifying glass/sun test, but we are applying for more funding.

Additionally, Ant-Man would need to create chemical pheromones in order to identify himself to any ants he would like to control. Each colony uses different chemicals to mark themselves, like flags on a battlefield. We are not being cute with that analogy either, that’s Paul Rudd’s job, ants literally have wars between themselves, much like humans. That is why it would be so important for Ant-Man to mark himself with the correct pheromones before trying to communicate with an unknown colony of ants. They might mistake him for an enemy soldier and attack him rather than help him.

Our Findings
All and all, Ant-Man may not be the best known member of the Avengers, but he is no less formidable. His size shifting powers along with his increased strength and agility mean that he can walk right up to people and sock them in the nose before they even realize he is there. It is only a bonus he can talk with ants and use their own flight and tunneling abilities to move quickly though heavily guarded areas. Shrinking to smaller and smaller sizes means that Ant-Man might even have to potential to reach the quantum level where he could potentially mess with the laws of the universe, and then things would get really freaky, but we are personally hoping the movie is not going to go in that direction.

Sufficed to say, we here at NYRD Laboratories cannot wait to see this superhero portrayed on the big screen. We will be there on opening night, even if the theater is sold out. We have ways of sneaking into places. So, if you feel a slight tickle on your shoulder while in the theater, please do not swat at it. It might be once of our scientists just trying to get a better view of the screen.

One comment

Join the discussion