Diving headfirst into the surprisingly legit science of Aquaman

Contributed by
Dec 27, 2018

I'm really loving this trend of superhero movies burying themselves within different genres. The latest of these, I'd say, solidly lands in fantasy, what with its ancient prophecies, water bending, and kingdoms inhabited by crab and fish (both scary and not) people.

But that doesn't mean there isn't some science sprinkled in, too. Some, even, manages to be somewhat plausible — even, dare I say, reasonable. Which is a wonderful bonus for all us science nerds out there. So let's dive a deeper into some of the science presented in Aquaman... but keep the fish puns to a minnowmum.

Let's begin with one of the most throwaway science fact lines I've heard in a movie, ever — the claim that "all life came from the sea" — said during the flashback in which itty Arthur learns to talk to fish at an aquarium.

It's not an unreasonable assumption. After all, water is absolutely necessary to life on Earth and it's why astronomers get super excited at the notion of liquid water on other worlds.

But barring the invention of a time machine, or the theft of one created by some aliens, we can't know where life actually originated. So it might not be a total surprise that there are a few scientists out there who hypothesize life did not, in fact, begin in the oceans all those billions of years ago.

Some claim the ingredients of life may have first come together in clay hydrogels — basically clay that acts like sponge, soaking up water and collecting a bunch of other molecules. The clay itself would protect these molecules as they chemically interacted with one another to form the first proteins, nucleic acids, and the like before the concept of cell membranes came along.

Said hydrogels would have been sitting at the bottom of seawater, so it's merely a step away from "coming from the sea"; it depends if your definition of "sea" includes the floor beneath the water.

But there are others that argue it could have come from even deeper. Properly inside the Earth's crust, where tectonic plates meet.

There's still some water involved, of course. It's not a bunch of microbial Things down there. But it's far enough from the ocean proper that we could say it's not the same.

And there is scientific evidence that suggests we don't know the whole story - samples of bacterial and archeal life have been collected from rocky bits of earth several kilometers below the surface — e.g. a gold mine in South Africa, a submerged mountain in the Atlantic, and the deepest hole humanity has ever dug (Yes, it's in Russia).

Life could very well exist under 10 kilometers of rock. For comparison, the height of Mt. Everest is nearly 9 km (and Mauna Kea, measured from the sea floor, is just over 10 km). So basically, if you dug a hole as deep as the world's tallest mountain, you might still find life.

But speaking of water, how about that gun that turns "water into energized plasma" — that's some pretty fishy science, right?

Well, I'm gonna tell you exactly how to do that.

Plasma is just another state of matter. It's the least exotic of the exotic types beyond your standard solid, liquid, and gas. All it really is is a soup of atomic nuclei and electrons. The Sun is plasma. Lightning is plasma. That neon sign hanging in the window of your favorite bar is plasma.

In order to turn liquid H2O into another phase, all you've got to do is change its temperature (i.e. how fast its particles are moving) and the pressure it's under. For those of you not immediately flashing back to your high school chemistry class, behold your standard phase diagram for water:

You'll note there is no section labeled "plasma." That's because it's super hard to make water do that. Here's what the phase diagram looks like when we get a bit more extreme [Note the axes are flipped]:

aquaman science 2

In nature, to get plasma water, you'd need to take it deep within Jupiter — at temperatures >20,000 K (~35,500 °F) and pressures 50 million times that of atmospheric pressure at Earth's surface.

The exact separation between simple "ionic" water and "plasma" water is a bit up for debate — it really just comes down to how electrically conductive the water is — so scientists have claimed to have produced plasma water in lab experiments at balmier conditions. This study from 2010 used ion beams to smush their water samples to sufficient density and pressure.

If regular ol' humans are capable of making water plasma on a small scale with big machines, it isn't too out there to pretend a fictional extra-advanced Atlantean civilization can do it in a weapon you can hold in your hands.

(As for the destructive power of said plasma, that's a different story…)

Black Manta Aquaman Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

We're still working on figuring out exactly what's going on at the center of Jupiter, but Earth's core is less of a mystery.

By which I mean we definitely do know about a hidden sea 2,900 km (1,802 mi) beneath the Earth's surface. But unlike Earth in the DC universe, ours is not inhabited by flying reptiles and one very large kraken (I'm sorry, karathen). It's made of liquid iron and nickel.

Yes, it's the outer core — a rotating sphere of molten metal ranging in temperature from 4,500-5,500 °C (8,100°-9,900 °F). It's about 2200 km thick, surrounding a solid inner core, and is slowly shrinking in size (~1 mm a year) as the Earth cools and some of it solidifies.

[If you're worried about the outer core completely solidifying anytime soon, don't be. It'll take longer than several ages of the Universe.]

The outer core's constant churning is what provides Earth a magnetic field which protects us from deadly solar radiation and makes our compasses work. I would argue that's more important than housing an ancient giant magic fork, but then again Atlantean power grab shenanigans don't affect my day-to-day life.

Aquaman official press photo

Credit: Warner Bros.

Finally, I want to call attention to a weird advancement in the field of medicine. After Arthur's obligatory fight with Black Manta, he gets a little dinged up, to say the least. And he wakes up on a boat with seaweed wrapped around burns on his forearms.

The movie missed an opportunity to use fish skin, because researchers are actually working with tilapia to improve burn victims' recoveries.

The idea actually stems from cultures using mammal skin as bandages while the burnt skin below it heals itself, but down in Brazil they tried out a species of fish they had in abundance.

Unlike a combination of medical cream and gauze, the fish skin doesn't need to be changed, unless you've got a severe third-degree burn. That's because it's actually got more collagen (needed for the scarring process to complete) than even human skin does.

In countries like the U.S., where we have ample human skin donations, fish bandages aren't probably going to hit the shelves any time soon. But some veterinarians have successfully used them on animal victims of wildfires, so they could still do plenty of good here, too.

Of course, should you find yourself or your partner burnt and bested in battle, you can't just pull a fish out of the sea, skin it, then slap that part on your body. Or at least you shouldn't — you should sterilize it, first.

You don't want to get taken down by a microbial baddie before you finish saving the planet. Especially if you previously played a character who died because no one disinfected your shoulder wound.

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