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Examining the real science behind Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Apr 20, 2018, 5:25 PM EDT

It’s part two of our journey into the science hiding in the Avengers movies. I could write a longer introduction, but let’s just jump out of the quinjet now and figure out the plan on our way down into Avengers: Age of Ultron.

We’ll drop right into our first topic: Ulysses Klaue’s potentially irrational fear of... do you remember?

It’s cuttlefish. The origin of the color “sepia”, both in name and substance (“Sepia” is Greek for cuttlefish, and their ink provides that shade of brown).

Like many a creature named by humans, it is not actually a fish, but a mollusk (taxonomic order Sepiida). Just like all the other cephalopods.

Some small squid visually resemble cuttlefish, but they lack a cuttlebone -- a structure unique to cuttlefish that allows them to regulate how buoyant they are. If you own a bird, you might recognize cuttlebones as the thing you put in the cage as a calcium supplement.

Cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles, and if you’re wondering what the difference is, tentacles are longer, don’t have suckers all the way down, and the ends are more bulbous. You usually don’t see the tentacles, ‘cause they’re hidden inside the body until it’s time to grab some prey. Nom nom.

They also have really weirdly shaped pupils, in eyes capable of seeing both in front of and behind them at the same time.

Unlike what Klaue claims, cuttlefish dwell in shallow waters, not the deep sea. But some are capable of hunting in complete darkness, thanks to lines on their bodies made up of tiny hairs that can sense pressure waves.

They boast an amazing ability to modify their visual appearance, changing the apparent texture of their skin as well as their color almost instantly -- that includes intricate patterns. It’s often used for camouflage, both defensive and offensive. They make great rocks, for instance. It’s even more amazing a feat when you learn they’re colorblind.

But not all species hunt prey by blending in. The broadclub cuttlefish effectively hypnotizes its prey. But not by emitting light (Klaue’s exact words: “They make lights. Disco lights to hypnotize their prey, then whoom!”) The colors just pulsate in such a way that it kind of looks like it is.

Many a creature has bioluminescent properties -- deep sea creatures, especially -- the cuttlefish just ain’t one of them. But really, the fact that they can make themselves look like a Vegas sign without actually emitting any light should make it more impressive, no?

One species (the flamboyant cuttlefish) is toxic, so Klaue could be afraid of that one. But all he has to do is not eat it.

Of course, a much more common fear is death. One’s own personal extinction. Which leads us to Ultron’s evil plan to save humanity... by obliterating it.

Ultron claims, “There were more than a dozen extinction level events before even the dinosaurs got theirs." I’d ask if he could be more specific about what /he/ means by “extinction level events," but sadly Ultron is a) fictional, and b) dead.

An “extinction event” is a point in time where a bunch of creatures disappear from the fossil record (‘cause there are none left to leave more fossils) over a relatively short period, but it’s kinda arbitrary how many species have to die off over X amount of years for something to qualify.

The number of “mass extinctions” usually sits at 5, with many saying we’re going through a 6th right now. But it could be as many as 20. So, technically, Ultron’s not wrong; he just has a lower bar than most humans do.

The oldest mass extinction is likely the Great Oxygenation Event, which occurred roughly 2.5 billion years ago. Prior to this period, there was very little oxygen gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. Time travelers beware.

But photosynthesis showed up as a way for life to make energy, and creatures like cyanobacteria started pumping oxygen -- a useless byproduct -- into the oceans. Some reacted with minerals, too, but, eventually, there was just too much of it, and atmospheric O2 levels rose quickly.

Oxygen is rather necessary to modern life on Earth, but it’s simultaneously kind of deadly. And to a lot of organisms that grew up in an oxygen-less environment, it was very much deadly. Others were killed off because the oxygen reacted with the methane in the atmosphere to create carbon dioxide; methane is actually a better greenhouse gas, so the Earth entered a several hundred-million-year-old ice age.

The rest of the major extinction events are clustered within a few hundred million years. I’ll break them down briefly, here:

1. The Ordovician-Silurian (No, not the Silurians) Extinction, circa 450 million years ago (Ma). Possible causes include glaciation, a burst of volcanic activity, or even a Gamma Ray Burst from a hypernova 6000 lightyears away.

2. The Late Devonian Extinction, circa 370 Ma. Possible causes include an asteroid impact, and climate change due to too many big plants.

3. The Permian-Triassic Extinction, circa 250 Ma. Also known as “The Great Dying”, ‘cause it’s the worst extinction event on record. Killed 90ish% of all species. But it did lead to the rise of the dinosaurs, so... woo? Possible causes include the formation of supercontinent Pangea messing up currents and stuff.

4. The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, circa 200 Ma.

And then there’s the one everyone knows about, the Cretaceous-Paleogene(previously Tertiary) Extinction, circa 65 Ma. Led to the rise of mammals, at the expense of 75 or so percent of all species on the planet.

So the question is, will Ultron’s brilliant plan really bring about the Nth mass extinction?

Short answer, no. Long answer, read on.

It all comes down to how big a rock Ultron tries to drop on the planet, and how fast it’s going when it hits.

The movie’s VFX team designed a 2 kilometer-wide city, and FRIDAY gave us a great scan of the whole rock, so we can guesstimate Sokovia’s mass. Pretending it’s a perfect hemisphere, with a density of 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter, that’s roughly 7 trillion kilograms (16 trillion pounds).

Age of Ultron, Sokovia

Credit: Marvel Studios

The only stated altitude we’re given is “18,000” -- no units, but Hill probably means feet. It’s not the height from which the city ultimately drops, but we’ll use it anyway (Or, rather, 5500 meters).

When you lift any object, you imbue it with gravitational potential energy. When you drop it, that gets converted into kinetic energy. Some energy is removed from the object by it having to push air out of the way, but our back-of-the-envelope calculations will ignore that, and pretend the vibranium-based rocket system kept the whole thing from reaching some terminal velocity.

The energy released upon impact? About 380 quadrillion Joules. The largest nuclear bomb ever tested released about 1.5 times that many. Granted, Tsar Bomba was tested over the ocean, not Eastern Europe, so people are definitely going to die in this scenario, but it’s not quite the humanity-killer Ulton’s expecting it to be.

No, he’d need something about 1000 times more energetic.

Really, it would have been easier just to get us all to kill each other in World War III by hiding in and manipulating the internet.

But I guess that’s not dramatic enough for a sassy robot.