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Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC

Science Behind the Fiction: Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan's real nuclear potential

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Oct 16, 2019

Created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen has long been considered one of comics' sacred texts. It was the sort of thing you threw at anyone who said comics were for kids (as if that were a bad thing) and said, "Oh, yeah? Look at this." Its publication has been hailed as the moment comic books grew up.

The book was eventually adapted to film in 2009. After that, there were a video game produced and a couple of spin-off comics series. Then HBO announced it would be returning the story to screen for a television series.

Directed by Damon Lindelof, the new series, also titled Watchmen, serves as a sequel to the original story, picking up 30 years later. As such, we can expect most of the original cast of characters will not be present, having died during the events of the first tale or in the intervening years. At the very least, any still alive will likely be inactive.

All except for one: The immortal Doctor Manhattan.

Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth at the end of the original story, setting off to parts unknown in hopes of loosing himself from the tangle of our lives, but teasers for the upcoming series at least imply he didn't leave for good. It's difficult, maybe even impossible, to identify any one character from Watchmen as the most interesting, but Doctor Manhattan is at least the most scientifically fascinating.

For one, he's the only character in the mix with any actual superpowers. Taking cues from a long list of supers, Manhattan gets his powers as a result of an accident involving cutting edge science that disintegrates him at the atomic level.

THE GREAT DISASSEMBLING

Here's the backstory: The still-human Jon Osterman, the recent recipient of a Ph.D. in atomic physics, joins the research facility at Gila Flats to participate in experiments on intrinsic fields, the forces that hold matter together. Realizing he's left his paramour's wristwatch in the test chamber, he returns to retrieve it and gets himself locked inside.

Ironically, the chamber has a fail-safe: Once an experiment is initiated, the door cannot be opened. In this case, it means that Jon is taken apart, atom by atom.

Intrinsic fields are a fictional construct, a narrative device used to explain away what happens to Jon, but there are real forces that hold matter together, forces that define where one object ends and another begins. It's the reason you don't fall through your chair when you sit down or fall apart while simply standing around. And if there's something holding you together, is it possible to shut it off?

Sort of.

The closest thing we have, in the real world, to the intrinsic field remover from Watchmen is the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC's whole gig is smashing matter together in order to break it apart and see what's inside.

This process takes huge amounts of energy, not to mention the world's largest machine, which lives in a tunnel 17 miles in circumference beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva

If the particle beam in the LHC were aimed at an object, it would have the same result, on a larger scale. Steven Goldfarb, a physicist at the LHC spoke to Popular Science about this very question. He assured them that the likelihood of someone getting inside the accelerator is essentially zero. Unlike Moore's intrinsic field remover, if you tried to open any of the access doors in the LHC, it would automatically shut off. Which seems like a better fail-safe than what Osterman had to contend with.

But if we assume a person could get inside while the collider was running, they might encounter similar results.

According to Goldfarb, when the beam is aimed at an object, protons interact with the object and cause bits of it to fly off. This interaction can have a cascading effect. Those flung particles can excite other particles as they spin away. When this happens, the particles are being sent off in slightly different directions, meaning that while the initial hole would be small, it would expand in a cone, essentially dissolving you at an atomic scale.

There is some precedent for this. In the 1970s, Anatoli Bugorski stuck his head in front of a proton beam in the U-70 synchrotron in Russia. The beam burned a hole from the back of his head through to just beside his left nostril, resulting in facial paralysis and epilepsy, though he did live and continued his work as a scientist. But the LHC is 100 times more powerful.

If your goal is simply to break up the molecular bonds of matter, there are easier ways to do it than breaking into a particle accelerator. We've been doing it since the dawn of time.

The most familiar way we break up the molecular bonds of large objects is by burning them. Every time you sit around a campfire, you're watching something similar to what happened to Doctor Manhattan, only slower and less terrifying.

We see similar effects in radiation poisoning. High doses of ionizing radiation cause electrons to break away. That's where the name "ionizing radiation" comes from. It also breaks up molecular bonds in the body tissues, including your DNA.

This might be a better explanation of what Doctor Manhattan experienced, considering he was later accused of poisoning those close to him with ambient radiation. But could that even happen?

CONTAGIOUS RADIATION SICKNESS

Radiation sickness isn't contagious in the traditional sense. It isn't a germ or a virus one can carry in their body and pass on to someone else. That doesn't mean, however, that it can't be passed on.

If a person is externally exposed, meaning they've encountered radioactive materials that are present on their clothes or skin, this could be shed onto nearby surfaces or people, spreading the contamination. In such a circumstance, decontamination is paramount, both for the exposed person and for others.

If a person is internally exposed, meaning they've ingested or absorbed radiation into the body, the question gets a little murkier. According to Peter Caracappa, a health physicist and radiation safety expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the level of radiation a person would have to internalize in order to contaminate a person standing one meter away is so vast as to be impossible.

"If they ingested or inhaled radioactive material and it has been deposited inside of them, there is no way they're going to transfer that to other people," Caracappa said. However, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states internally exposed individuals may still expose those near to them via body fluids, including sweat.

That sentiment is corroborated by the story of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. After his death, the British government tested three people close to him for possible radiation exposure. Litvinenko was exposed to polonium-210, which only emits radiation in the form of alpha particles.

Alpha particles are usually not dangerous to people; they'll bounce off your clothes or the surface of your skin.

Once he was internally exposed, it's impossible that radiation made it out through his skin, but it could have been carried by bodily fluids like blood or sweat. Anyone who came into direct contact with him might have been exposed.

In this way, were Doctor Manhattan internally radioactive, it's not totally impossible that he might have exposed those people who were close to him, especially those with whom he was engaged in romantic relationships.

Despite his storied past — and contentious relationship with Earth — Doctor Manhattan appears to be returning to the world he abandoned, highlighting the truth in some of his final words: "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."

Watchmen premieres on HBO on October 20.

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