In Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man, we are introduced to Hank Pym, a biophysicist who discovers “Pym particles”, particles which are able to alter the size of an object, shrinking it to about the size of an ant. He uses these Pym particles to create a suit which will shrink the wearer, allowing them to move almost unseen, and fight crime with their miniature dimensions and disproportionate strength. In the film, it is not Hank Pym’s Ant-Man, but his successor, Scott Lang, portrayed by Paul Rudd who the super suit is given to.
Unlike the Hulk, or Quicksliver, Ant Man’s powers do not come from his biology. Much like Iron Man, Ant-Man does not have a “super power”, but instead utilises science and technology to grant him an advantage. So how do Ant-Man’s abilities work?
How Does Ant Man Shrink?
The ability to shrink down to the size of an insect is Ant-Man’s defining ability. Although the film doesn’t go into the detail of how the suit works (every film needs a bit of mystery), there are several ways that this could happen. In the film, Hank Pym says that when Ant-Man shrinks, his mass stays the same, so instead of having the mass of an ant, the mass of a full-sized human is compacted into a tiny body. One way of achieving this would be to change the mass of electrons so that they have smaller orbits around the nuclei of atoms. Doing this would reduce the empty space within atoms, and so would shrink the whole object or person, without reducing its weight. In fact, particle physicists at Fermilab are currently trying to do this, so it’s not so sci-fi after all. Another option would be to remove some atoms from the object or the body. To an extent, this could work, but there are only a certain number of atoms you can remove while still maintaining the structure and function of things like DNA, cells and proteins.
Those of you who have seen the film will have noticed how whilst wearing the suit, both Hank Pym and Scott Lang were capable of physically harming six-foot tall humans, even while miniature. Muscle strength depends on the square of a person’s height, which is why under ordinary circumstances, we are stronger than ants. However, we are not stronger than ants in relative terms, as ants can lift up to fifty times their own weight. When was the last time you lifted that much? Due to this relationship, when height decreases, strength also decreases, though at a much slower rate. Ant-Man’s strength could also come from the fact that he still maintains his mass when ant-sized. His mass is condensed into a much smaller package, so can create a much greater force than he would if his mass decreased along with size, to the mass of an ant. This is why during the film, we saw that Ant-Man was capable of breaking tiles, denting car rooves and knocking humans to the ground; he still had a lot of mass behind a punch, or fall, and it was all focused in a much smaller area.
Communicating with Ants
This one is actually much less far-fetched than Ant-Man’s other “abilities”. In the 1960s, scientists found that they could use electrical signals to stimulate the brains of insects, and cause them to carry out complex behaviours. By the late 90s, scientists were able to control insects even more using these electrical signals, and today you can even buy “backpacks” which strap on to cockroaches to control them. Cockroaches wearing these backpacks can be equipped with tiny microphones to find survivors in a collapsed building, and bees can be controlled to find landmines using their chemical tracking abilities. However, the hard part would be translating our own thoughts into these electrical signals so that insects can understand them.
Unfortunately (or fortunately if you consider the intentions of Ant Man’s villain), this science isn’t without its problems. Realistically, a 160 lb person the size of an ant would be so dense that they would fall right through the Earth’s surface. Another big problem would be overheating. We release the heat which builds up in our bodies by allowing it out of our skin. This is aided by our large surface area, providing the heat with plenty of room to escape. However, if you shrink a human but maintain their mass, their surface area would be hugely decreased, while the amount of matter that needs to release heat would stay the same. All the heat generated simply wouldn’t be able to escape. If this happened, enzymes would stop working and vital body processes would no longer function.
The Big Problem with Breathing
We’re able to get enough oxygen to survive because oxygen molecules are so small, and so we can take in lots of them at once. Ant-Man, however, would be so small that oxygen particles would be relatively large, so it would be incredibly hard to inhale enough oxygen molecules. But that’s not the only breathing-related problem I noticed in the film. Now some might consider this to be a teeny-tiny spoiler (though it isn’t key to the plot). At one point in the film, we see an ant grow to about the size of a large dog. Ants don’t have lungs. They don’t actually need lungs at all, because they’re so small that oxygen can be absorbed through tiny holes in their skin and can travel through tubes around their tiny little bodies. However, this only works because they are so small. If a human, or a dog didn’t have lungs, we wouldn’t be able to absorb oxygen through our skin quickly enough to survive and even then the oxygen wouldn’t diffuse fast enough to reach most of our organs. As cute as the ant-dog was, it probably wouldn’t be possible unless the ant magically grew lungs when it increased in size. But maybe you’ll find this reassuring.
Make Your Own Ant Man
All this physics sounds pretty hard if you ask me. But manipulating physics wouldn’t be the only way to change the size of an animal or insect. Within populations, sizes always differ. Humans come in a range of sizes, and so do ants, but these usually fall within certain boundaries, so you never get a human the size of an ant, or an ant the size of a human. Scientists have found that DNA methylation plays a part in determining the size of an ant. When sections of DNA become methylated, they become activated. Scientists found that when they took ants during early developmental stages and gave them a drug which increased DNA methylation, this affected the size of the ants. In fact, when a 10% change in DNA methylation was witnessed, a 10% change in size was also witnessed. So maybe, rather than struggling through quantum physics to make a super-tiny super-human, genetics might be the way forward.
Featured image: By Global Panorama on Flickr