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Science of Superheroes October 30, 2011

Posted by peterxu422 in Science, Superheroes.
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One of my favorite hobbies has been immersing myself in superheroes. Whether it was reading comics, watching cartoons, watching movies, or drawing pictures of them, I love the idea of superheroes. To me, they not only provided entertainment, but also taught me good values like respect, selflessness, and virtue at a young age. In what ways have they influenced you?

I believe superheroes also had a profound effect on our generation by allowing us to dream about possibilities. Many of us who have watched Superman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, or The Flash have dreamed about one day performing the amazing feats that they can do with their abilities. Our closest means to achieving such powers is science. Are these powers too much science fiction or do they actually have some plausible basis? In this post, I will talk about a few popular superheroes and ponder how their powers relate to real science.


Magneto (from the X-Men) has the ability to control metal, which he does so by manipulating magnetic fields. In physics, we know that magnetic fields are created by moving charges. The most familiar form of moving charges is that of current in a wire, after all current is nothing but charges moving in specific direction. You may not have realized this, but when current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is generated around the wire. If you take your right hand, stick your thumb in the direction of the current, and wrap your fingers around the wire, the wrapping of your fingers corresponds to the direction of the magnetic field that is generated. This is called the right hand rule.

It is therefore plausible to presume that Magneto’s real power is his ability to control how electrons and charges flow in a nearby vicinity in order to create the magnetic fields he needs to control metal. However, I do not believe he can control individual electrons because in Quantum Mechanics, there is a rule called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle that prevents you from knowing simultaneously the exact position and momentum of a subatomic particle.

Magneto also wears a helmet to protect himself from telepaths like Professor X, who reads minds via electromagnetic waves. His helmet is most likely that of a Farady Cage, which in physics is a grounded conductive cage that shields objects inside the cage from electromagnetic waves coming from the outside. In principle, this would shield him from Professor X’s electromagnetic mind-reading abilities thereby protecting his thoughts.


In one X-Men comic, I remember the characters were talking about how Iceman’s abilities worked, though he himself was not very interested. It turns out that Iceman does not magically shoot blocks of fully formed ice from his body. What he does is control the local temperature to make it cold enough the freeze the nearby water vapor in the area. What he really controls is cold temperature, which also makes his ability to survive in a frozen body more believable.


Pyro, like Iceman, does not magically shoot fire out of his body. In the second X-Men movie, he revealed that the reason he carries a lighter with him is because he cannot create a flame, but manipulate it. A flame needs fuel to burn and an oxidizer in order to survive. Hydrogen is a good fuel, Oxygen is a good oxidizer, and both are abundant. Pyro’s real ability is therefore controlling the Hydrogen and Oxygen concentration in a nearby area which he then uses his lighter to burn creating massive flames. For those who are familiar with the anime Full Metal Alchemist, Roy Mustang also has a similar ability, but he uses ignition gloves instead of a lighter to burn the Hydrogen and Oxygen.


Most of Spiderman’s abilities require changing the genetic makeup of his organs, or even creating new organs that carry out these powers. For example, (in the movie) when his body creates his own webbing, there needs to be a special organ that can produce that substance. Subsequently, there needs to be an alteration of his wrist muscles so that they provide enough pressure to shoot the webbing out of his body. His muscles need to be altered for his super strength, his body needs to have tiny microscopic hairs protruding which allows him to stick on walls. His wall crawling ability is a result of the Van Der Waals forces (small intermolecular forces between neutral atoms, sometimes attractive) between the tiny hairs and the wall surface. This is how geckos stick to walls.

All of this requires changing the DNA of some of the cells in his body. HIV is a virus that penetrates the human body and changes the genetic information of cells. It would take an HIV-like virus that is biologically engineered to invade Peter Parker’s cells and change their DNA in order to turn his ordinary organs into spider-powered ones. In the first Spiderman movie, we see Peter Parker undergoing a terrible fever after he is bitten, most likely due to his body recognizing foreign intruders and attempting to rid his body of it.

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan, from the Watchmen series, is a quantum superhero. His ability is to control the quantum mechanical nature of objects. In my previous post, I talked about the nature of waves, particles, and the wave-particle duality found in subatomic particles. Dr. Manhattan is a macroscopic (one that we can see in our “world” unlike the quantum world) quantum object. He is the wave-particle duality itself, controlling both the wave and particle nature of objects. In the movie, we see him teleport himself to Mars. He does this by extending the wave nature of the atoms in his body all the way to Mars, which then turn back into particles, without ever actually having to move the particles across space themselves. The probability of this happening for any ordinary object is finite, but extremely unlikely. But since Dr. Manhattan has control over quantum effects, he can make this happen.

In the picture above, we can also see that there are multiple copies of Dr. Manhattan. The reason he can do this also has to do with Quantum Mechanics, because QM also says that a particle can be in multiple states at once until we actually try to observe it. Here, Dr. Manhattan is exploiting this principle, thus allowing himself to appear in multiple locations at once.

There are far too many superheroes to talk about and I apologize for leaving out any. Perhaps I may continue this discussion in another post. If there are any interesting ones that you would like to talk about, please mention them below in the comments section! Check out two links below to the radio program StarTalk Radio, hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the physics of superheroes where he interviews Professor James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes. Those of you who like this topic may find that conversation quite interesting.

AUDIO: StarTalkRadio The Physics of Superheroes 1 & 2
The Physics of Superheroes
The Physics of Superheroes Sequel

VIDEO: Dr. Manhattan Teleports

Seeing Yourself As a Wave October 23, 2011

Posted by peterxu422 in cosmos, Science.
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If I asked you to describe what your body is made of, your response might be that it is made of particles or atoms. But did you know that it is equally accurate to describe yourself as being made of waves? A particle can be any object, big or small. In its simplest description, waves are things that vibrate periodically. It seems non-intuitive, but there is a physical relationship between the two.

Waves can be imagined as ripples in a pond. When a rock is dropped in the water, you would observe circular ripples, or waves, propagating from a source. If two rocks are dropped at the same time, you will see two waves interfere with each other.

Light can be imagined in the same way except propagating through space in all directions. Say you have a flat plate with a single slit and a detector screen behind it. If you pass light through the slit, you will see a single bright line on the screen. But if you have a plate with two slits, you will see multiple bright lines on the screen. This is called an interference pattern, and it is analogous to two waves of water interfering with each other.

A famous physics experiment called the double-slit experiment performed by Thomas Young, revealed the relationship between particles and waves. Electrons, real particles with mass, were first fired through a single slit. The screen behind the slit detected where the electrons landed. As we would intuitively expect, a single line of electrons were detected on the screen. When the electrons were fired through two slits, it was expected that two lines of electrons would be detected by the screen. But what was observed was multiple lines of electrons separated by narrow gaps, much like the interference pattern observed from the experiments with light. This led physicists to believe that matter exhibits wave-like properties as well. It changed the way they thought about matter. Now, matter cannot be thought of as solely particles, but as waves too. This is known as the wave particle duality.

These waves of matter represent the probability of a particle being at a particular location in space. If you calculate mathematically how large these waves are, the larger the wave is at a particular location, the greater probability the particle has of being found there. What this means is that all particles, including the ones in our body, have a probability of being anywhere in the universe. So there is a probability of you right now spontaneously appearing on Jupiter. However, the probability of this is so small and rare that it will take a take a time greater than the lifetime of the universe for it to happen.

The world of atoms and subatomic particles, the “small,” is known as the quantum world. The field of studying how things behave in the quantum world is called Quantum Mechanics. When you enter the quantum world, strange and spooky things happen. Common sense logic does not apply and what you experience is not what you would expect. The wave properties of matter are much more noticeable and apparent in small objects than large. That is why we do not notice the wave properties of everyday objects that we interact with. While Quantum Theory is indeed strange and confusing, the reason it is powerful is that it works. It makes accurate predictions of systems and behaviors in the quantum world. It is also responsible for the birth of the Informational and Technological Age.

Feeling confused? Don’t worry. It took me a while to get my head around this idea. But it is amazing to think about nonetheless. No one really knows yet why things behave this way. They just do. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you think you understand Quantum Mechanics, you don’t understand Quantum Mechanics.”

Watch a fun explanation of the Double Slit Experiment.

My First Hackathon October 14, 2011

Posted by peterxu422 in Business, Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology.
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About a week ago, I attended my first hackathon hosted by the non-profit organization hackNY. What is a hackathon? It is an event where a bunch of programmers come together and build something within a certain amount of time. How long do they last? This one was 24 hours, others can last up to an entire week. What do they build? Programs, applications, web apps, perhaps even more. The rules of this hackathon was to build something awesome within 24 hours.

The day-long event began at 2pm on a Saturday and ended 2pm Sunday. A variety of delicious foods was served regularly throughout the entire night to keep the hackers energized and awake. Lots of Redbull and Monster energy drinks too.

After the hackers registered and signed in, we sat in the auditorium waiting for representatives from various web startup companies in NYC present their API’s. The API is basically documentation that teaches you how to use a company’s software in your own applications. So for example, if I wanted to build an application that would allow me to input an address which would then output the location on a Google Map and present pictures of the nearby area on a Panoramio Widget, I would use the Google Maps API and the Panoramio API to see how I could incorporate their services into my program. This is basically what I, along with a few others, built that night.

To say the least, my experience there showed me how challenging developing web applications can be. It is quite different from the non-web programming I have done in Java and C++. My brief background in computer science allowed me to write and interpret code, but as far as actually creating a web application was quite challenging and unfamiliar. I actually felt quite demoralized by this, as I realized how inept my software development skills were. This was particularly demoralizing given my desire is to be a tech innovator.

However, I was fortunate enough to meet people there who were at my level, and even more fortunate to meet experienced coders willing to help us get started. After the hackathon event, we maintained communication with each other and expressed an interest in continuing to learn how to do web development. We are currently working on a collaborative project outside of school. It will be fast paced and will likely take a chunk of my time, but I think the experience will be worth it.

Part of my new resolution was to take more risks. Taking on this project bears some risks, particularly to my academics, but what great opportunity does not involve taking risks? The late Steve Jobs has shown us that the things you build can change the world. Sometimes, you have to stop studying how something works, and actually make it. Let’s start building.

Hackers at the hackathon

The Rise of the Rest October 2, 2011

Posted by peterxu422 in education, Science.
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What does Tevatron closure mean for big US science? (BBC)

This past summer, I tuned into a live broadcast of the final launch of NASA’s shuttle program while I was at work. It was one of the few times I actually waited to watch an amazing event like a space launch. A few weeks later, I found out that the national particle physics laboratory, Fermilab, was going to be shut down. Currently, the most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is located in Switzerland. They are the ones who will be pioneering research in particle physics for the foreseeable future.

I have been noticing that the scientific establishment of the United States has slowly been declining. We are no longer the leaders of these scientific frontiers. For a while, this thought disturbed and depressed me. I was disappointed by the fact that I would not be able to associate myself with having grown up in a country that led the greatest scientific innovations of the 21st Century.

But this article gave me a new outlook, or at least a more positive one. Particularly this part

I think what people would say is that we are experiencing a lot more competition than we have in the past. A lot of countries have learned from our growth over the past decades and are implementing some of the same policies to grow their own scientific infrastructures.

Perhaps it is not a matter of the U.S. falling behind, but the rest of the world catching up, and that is a good thing. For the well-being of the scientific establishment, it is good to have more people than ourselves contributing to research and development. And perhaps this is an opportunity for establishing a more united world. For the scientists here have no bias or bipartisan views against scientists in foreign countries. They are in it for the sake of science. They are mature enough to set aside their differences in order to achieve something far greater than themselves. Maybe the global scientific community would serve as a good model for creating a more united world. Then maybe one day, we will reach the stars.

The Large Hadron Collider Particles are accelerated to velocities approaching the speed of light and are then collided together, creating fabulous amounts of energy that would simulate the initial conditions of the big bang. In these collisions, photographs are taken and data is measured. Scientists are trying to understand things like how mass is formed, in an attempt to explain why things are the way they are in the universe.

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