There are a few tried and true methods for becoming a superhero. You could have been born on an alien planet, sent here by loving parents to avoid an apocalyptic event, and find that your biology’s relationship with our solar system is such that you become more than you were born. You might be a billionaire who gets around the limitations of your ordinary humanity by throwing endless piles of money at your problems. Or you might be magical, either by birthright or by inheritance. If none of those situations sound like your life, you’ve only got only one option left: finding yourself on the wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) end of a science experiment.
When wandering into an unguarded secret laboratory in search of superpowers, keep an eye out for radioactive spiders, massive amounts of gamma rays, or exotic particles. Basically, get friendly with any type of radiation you come across and hope for the best.
Marvel’s Ant-Man, created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, first appeared in Tales to Astonish #35 in 1962. In that issue, scientist Hank Pym discovers an exotic particle (which he later named after himself) that allows him to change the size of objects by displacing matter to or from the Kosmos Dimension. In short, he shrinks objects (including people) by hiding some off their matter in Kosmos, or grows them by borrowing matter.
If you don’t see at least one scene in Ant-Man and The Wasp where some poor sap on Kosmos loses his sandwich so that Scott Lang can reach 65 feet, demand a refund.
Originally, the Pym particles were contained in a liquid formula that Pym would drink. Later on, they were synthesized into a gaseous state for inhalation; even later, characters like Janet van Dyne (The Wasp) were able to generate their own Pym particles due to extended exposure.
No matter the method of delivery, one thing is constant in every iteration of the character from comic book to screen: the ability to manipulate his size in order to achieve his goals. When reading comic books or viewing their on-screen adaptations, a certain suspension of disbelief is required, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the hard questions. So how realistic are Ant-Man’s powers?
There are two schools of thought when it comes to shrinking an object. The first, as laid out by Dr. Hank Pym, is to remove mass from the object in question. The second is to reduce the empty space in the object on an atomic level. Each method has its own problems but we’ll take them one at a time.
One way you could shrink an object is by removing matter and storing or discarding it somewhere else. Dr. Pym solved this by using the Kosmos dimension as a sort of matter storage unit where mass could be sequestered and retrieved later on.
This method comes with its own set of challenges. Namely that a certain number of particles are required to retain the integrity of the structure. If we think of atoms as individual building blocks, it’s easier to see the conundrum. This method says nothing of altering the blocks themselves, only of removing blocks to reduce size. This could work to a point but has limitations. To build a life-size facsimile of a person out of LEGO bricks would take thousands of pieces. You could reduce the size while retaining the structure with probably a few hundred bricks. But reduction in size equates to reduction in fidelity and at a certain point you sacrifice necessary properties in the pursuit of smallness.
Pixelation of the subject aside, there’s good reason to believe that reduction by mass removal would have a negative impact on intelligence. Unless there were some way to sequester matter with intention, removing unessential pieces while maintaining the brain, you’d likely suffer a simultaneous reduction in intelligence as brain cells and synapses disappeared into the Kosmos.
There’s no good way to remove pieces of the whole without losing essential processes. The alternative is…
Reducing the Space Between
It might seem like matter is solid but most of what makes up you, me, and the rest of the tangible world is empty space. If you could blow up an atom to the size of New York City, the nucleus would be no larger than an apple. The rest of the Big Apple is taken up by electron orbits. That might lead you to believe that there’s a whole lot of empty space and, while that might seem to be the case, it really isn’t.
See, we have no good way, at current, to measure the position of electrons. The rules in a quantum space get a little fuzzy. You might be familiar with the diagrams from school that say electrons orbit in finite locations, but that’s a matter of probability. In reality, they might be closer and might be further away. Regardless, any attempt to smoosh them into a smaller space will be met with inevitable force. When it comes to quantum mechanics, resistance is futile.
It’s true that at any given moment the physical space occupied by the individual particles of an atom are less than the whole of the atom itself, but that doesn’t mean you can reduce it to a smaller space. The laws of physics are, at least for the moment, fixed. In short, reducing size by reducing the space that an atom occupies is impossible. Reducing an individual’s size outside of weight loss would require, in one way or another, a fundamental break in the laws of our existence as we know it. Ant-Man is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument and entertainment, it is possible. What might you expect upon your arrival in the micro-world?
The Pros and Cons of Micro-sizing
Make no mistake, there are positives to shrinking yourself to the size of an insect. We’ve touched on the Square-Cube Law before, but always in terms of the dangers inherent in increasing size. When it comes to physical danger, decreasing size has a number of benefits.
First, strength would be increased immensely, relative to size. It’s common knowledge that ants are capable of lifting roughly 50 times their body weight. A human being shrunk to the same size would have an equivalent strength. Likewise, heights would be of little concern.
At ordinary size, a human being is at the mercy of several forces when falling. Gravity pulls toward the center of the earth while wind resistance holds you back. At our typical size, gravity wins out, but at the size of an insect there isn't enough mass to outweigh wind resistance. Terminal velocity is low enough that a fall from any height would be harmless. That’s why a fall from ten feet or more poses a significant risk to a person while the same fall to anything smaller than a mouse poses no risk at all.
While feats of muscular strength and falls from great heights pose little risk to the miniature hero, that isn’t to say there aren’t downsides.
Let’s forget, for the moment, the problems of mass and density that might send you hurtling through the earth’s crust and into a molten death, or the myriad predators that would eat you for a mid-day snack. Assuming you could survive the shrinking, you’d have plenty of problems just getting along.
Moments after shrinking, your first thought will inevitably be an attempt to communicate with the outside world. Due to your physical state, you’ll find a couple of serious barriers to this endeavor.
First, in your shrunken state, at the size of an ant, your vocal chords will be significantly smaller and only capable of producing sounds outside the normal range of human hearing. Without the use of some transitory technology, it would be impossible for anyone else to hear your screams.
Likewise, your ears, having shrunken equivalent to your body size will be unable to retrieve and translate sounds within the ordinary range of human speech. Good luck calling for help.
Assuming you’re willing to navigate the micro-world deaf and mute, you likely wouldn’t even be able to see. 2015’s Ant-Man film sees Scott Lang reducing himself into the quantum world. At this size, the human eye would be so small it wouldn’t be able to process wavelengths of visible light, rendering Ant-Man completely blind. It’s difficult to see how a hero, void of any visual or auditory stimuli could survive at all, let alone save the day from nefarious forces.
A quick refresher on the square-cube law: while classic movie and television showcase a relative change in body structure, the reality is there is a relationship between length, surface area, and volume that affects biological function within the body.
Shrinking to roughly an inch tall equates to an approximate reduction of 70 times the typical size.. While length is reduced by 70, surface area is reduced by 70 x 70 or roughly 5,000 times while the total volume is reduced by approximately 350,000 times. This has a significant impact on the way the body works for both good and ill.
When it comes to breathing, you’re at an advantage. The surface area of your lungs is increased in relation to your body mass so you’re getting more oxygen than you’re used to. When it comes to surface area, the ratio as compared to volume is increased but this isn’t always a good thing. Every biological process including oxygen exchange, digestion, and heat loss is sped up.
Ordinarily, heat is created by the whole of body mass and vented via the surface. At this smaller size, a relatively larger amount of heat is created with a smaller surface area to vent it. As a result, venting heat will be more difficult. At the same time, more energy will be expended in order to keep the body going, which means that a human being at this size will likely need to consume her body weight in calories every twenty-four hours just to survive.
You can put aside any other functions like fighting, running from predators, or even sleeping. All of your time will be set aside for consuming calories just to keep from burning out.
The reality is that shrinking down to the size of insect or smaller is nigh impossible. And even with the assistance of near magical technologies a person would enter into a world full of predators and reduced sensory input that borders on a hellscape at odds with the few physical advantages at play.
While being an ordinary person in a world of superheroes might seem mundane, you should thank your lucky stars you aren’t at the mercy of forces outside your reality. It’s best to spend your time fantasizing with Ant-Man and The Wasp in theaters July 6.