Superhero Science: Captain Marvel
She can punch through interstellar dreadnoughts like they were tissue paper, fire photon blasts that vaporize steel, and propel herself across the galaxy. She’s the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the science behind her powers is nothing short of spectacular.
This is the first in a miniseries I’m calling Superhero Science, an exploration of the science behind the superpowers of our favorite heroes. First up is Captain Marvel, the hero we’ve all been waiting for. Carol Danvers dominated our hearts and minds, and the box office, this March with her movie debut. Set in a nostalgia-packed 1990s earth, it tells the story of how a smart, adventurous, and tough-as-nails Danvers embraces her passion to become an intergalactic superhero. I won’t give too much away, but Danvers completely demolishes her teacher-turned-arch-nemesis, delivering a devastating blow to the patriarchy and it’s fear of female emotion and power. Hell yes. Oh, and there’s also some not-so-subtle stabs at technological colonialism and militarism. I could go on about how the techno-empire of Kree mirrors the British and US empires, but… This is a science show.
And onto the science! In this episode I’ll review what we can glean from watching the movie. In Part II I’ll sit down with my good friend and Marvel Universe superfan Jeff to talk about all the amazing Captain Marvel characters that have appeared in print. In the MCU’s Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is a kick-ass fighter jet pilot testing a faster-than-light, or FTL, aircraft in the desert. We learn that the FTL drive was created by an alien masquerading as a human, Dr. Mar-Vell of the Kree. Mar-Vell is supposedly developing the drive to help the Kree track down and murder the Skrull. But she’s secretly helping the Skrull and plans to turn the FTL drive over to them so they can zoom off to safety.
Danvers and Mar-Vell are shot down by Kree during a test of the FTL drive. To keep the Kree from getting their hands on the tech, Danvers blasts it to smithereens. She’s caught in the blast, which imbues her with superpowers and erases her memory. Mar-Vell dies in the crash and the attacking Kree take Danvers back to their home planet to train her as one of their own.
Turns out the FTL drive was created using one of the Infinity Stones—the Space Stone—which was trapped in a power cube called the tesseract. Now a tesseract is of course something entirely different in our universe, but we’ll get into that in later episodes. In the Marvel universe, the Infinity Stones are remnants of the singularity that existed before the Big Bang. They contain the fundamental forces of the universe, which gives them unimaginable power. Danvers apparently absorbed a significant amount of the Space Stone’s power, and it made her super badass. According to the writers, she is the most powerful superhero in the MCU, even stronger and more powerful than Thor or The Hulk (Bruce Banner). So what kind of powers do the Soul Stone give her?
Danvers’ main power seems to be generating and harnessing “photon blasts.” Now, we didn’t get an extended scientific breakdown of exactly what they are, but we can infer quite a bit from the name. Photons are packets of light or electromagnetic energy. Lasers are made of photos, and so are microwaves. In fact, radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays are all considered part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Initially we see Danvers using her photon blasts to, well, blast things. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie she gets pissed and blasts her punk-ass trainer across the room. She keeps on blasting jerks throughout the movie. But is it possible to blast a full-grown human across the room with nothing but photons?
The short answer is “yes,” but how? Light has no mass, and acceleration is force times mass. While light is massless, it does travel at incredible speed—the fastest known speed, in fact. That means photons carry momentum, and they can transfer that momentum to objects. Because of that, they can exert a force on objects. In physics it’s called optical force and it can move all kinds of stuff. In a lab. At tiny scales.
Biologists use something called laser tweezers to manipulate microscopic cells and cell organelles. Physicists can also use precise lasers to move single atoms around. And way back in 2010 scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra used lasers to move particles more than a meter. They created tiny laser light tunnels that transported microscopic glass spheres coated with carbon. It works by shining a hollow laser beam around small glass particles. The air around the particle heats up, but the hollow center of the beam stays cool. The heated air molecules keep the object balanced in the dark center. But a small amount of light sneaks into the hollow, warming the air on one side of the object and nudging it along the length of the laser beam. Researchers can change the speed and direction of the glass object by changing the lasers' brightness.
Right now physicist David Grier at New York University is working with NASA to build a laser tractor beam. So far he’s created laser tunnels that can move tiny objects several meters. NASA hopes the tech could one day be used by rovers to collect soil samples from asteroids, moons, and planets.
Optical force could also be used to send spaceships to distant solar systems. Way back in the ‘20s Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky dreamed up the solar sail. These giant reflective sails could capture sunlight and use it to sail off into space. The concept was refined by later scientists and in 1976 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) drew up plans for a solar sail vehicle that would rendezvous with Halley’s Comet. Modern designs call for micron-thin sails several kilometers across. The sails would unfold from the craft in space, after launch. A giant laser, probably on the moon or a large asteroid, would blast the sail unit the craft reached a tremendous speed—up to one half the speed of light. Then the craft would turn around as it approached the destination solar system and use the approaching star’s light to slow down. It’s an elegant form of space travel and some estimate it to be more efficient than anything else we can do right now.
Also, Captain Sisko and his son Jake of Star Trek Deep Space 9 once built a solar-sail vehicle for a school project. Best father-son school project ever.
All of that is amazing, but also pretty lame when compared to what Danvers can do. Her dazzling photon blasts can hurl a 90kg man three meters through the air. Given what we know about optical force, is this even possible? Danvers could create a giant version of the Australian tractor beam. Her blast could create a light tunnel with a hot spot of air within that could push her attackers away. But at that scale, the heat may be so intense that her attackers would be completely incinerated.
She could also just use optical pressure alone. But again, this would vaporize her target. You see, solar sails and other light-propelled objects are very reflective. Most people and their clothing aren’t. They absorb light, and heat up. The amount of light Danvers would need to generate to move a man would instantly turn him into plasma. Super awesome, but not what we saw in the movie.
There must be something else going on. Let’s assume that Danvers has access to more than just the visible spectrum of light. If she can use radio waves, microwaves, and infrared, she would have more control over her photon blasts. Back in 2002, Narayanan Komerath, an aeronautical engineer from the Georgia Institute of Technology, figured out that radio waves could be used to move brick-sized objects in space.
Here’s how it works. Several satellites with super-powerful radio transmitters could harness solar energy and generate radio wave blasts. Radio waves, like all waves in the electromagnetic spectrum, impart some force on objects. With several transmitters, it would be possible to position building materials. Komerath estimates that it would take insane amounts of power to do it, but it should be possible. In fact, the tech could be used to build giant space stations without astronauts. Scaled-down versions using microwaves could also work for smaller projects.
But again, this is in space where the force of gravity is very small or nonexistent. On earth, gravity would be enough to counteract any force generated by radio waves or microwaves.
Okay, so Danvers could easily move objects in space using light, radio waves, or microwaves. She could create a light tube tractor beam on earth, but it would vaporize her attackers. But there’s still one super-important and powerful part of the electromagnetic spectrum we haven’t explored: Electromagnetism.
If Danvers can create and control magnetic energy, then hurling a guy across a room would be child’s play. Even if her attacker wasn’t made of metal, it would be totally doable. Iron, as we know, is magnetic. It’s paramagnetic, which means it’s attracted to magnetic fields. But many materials can be diamagnetic, or repelled by magnetic fields. Most atoms have a swarm of negatively charged electrons. Most of the time they don’t interact with magnetic fields. But if the field is strong enough, they will. Their electrons will rearrange their orbits slightly, creating small currents that oppose the external magnetic field.
Most materials are diamagnetic, including water. And guess what jerks are mostly made of? That’s right, water. If Danvers can generate a super-powerful electromagnetic field, she can fling a jerk into outer space.
In fact, scientists have used powerful magnetic fields to levitate a frog. Researchers at Radbound University in the Netherlands used a 16-tesla magnet to levitate a tiny frog. That’s a tremendously powerful magnet. It’s about 1,000 times stronger than a fridge magnet, and more than 10 times as powerful as the magnet in a typical MRI (1.5 tesla).
So Danvers would need to generate a magnetic force that’s probably greater than anything humanity has ever made to fling a guy across the room. But it’s possible.
Of course this raises a ton of other interesting questions. Like, if a magnetic field can fling non-metal objects, WTF is up with Magneto? He really needs to step up his game because technically even a plastic cage wouldn’t hold him.
Also, it means that Danvers would totally own anything made of metal. Easily.
If Danvers could generate and manipulate everything in the electromagnetic spectrum, she could use X-rays and gamma rays, which could get nasty. If the MCU were a darker universe, I could imagine a spin-off show about the bystanders who got cancer from Captain Marvel’s photon blasts in New York. If, for instance, she wasn’t quite able to control them at first, stray X-rays and gamma rays would be flying everywhere.
Gamma and X-rays, like other forms of harmful radiation, easily penetrate clothing and skin. At higher energies they can tear apart DNA, causing cancer or killing cells. Even higher doses of gamma rays can cause nausea, hair loss, and hemorrhaging. Very high doses are instantly lethal.
Yeah, don’t ever piss off Carol Danvers. Ever.
At any rate, later we see Danvers doing all sorts of awesome things as full-on Captain Marvel. She’s wrapped in dazzling flames and sparks and she zips through space at incredible speeds. Given what we know about the electromagnetic spectrum, all these things could be possible, given enough energy and the ability to control it.
There is one final question about Captain Marvel: How fast could she travel through space? Given that she can create and manipulate light, we could reason that she’d be able to get very close to the speed of light. But because she has mass, she would never be able to actually reach it. At 99% the speed of light, she’d experience time differently than us. Basically, the faster you go, the slower you experience time relative to someone at rest. At 99% the speed of light, one of Captain Marvel’s days would seem like seven days to us. This is called time dilation. If she were to go any faster, the effects of time dilation would be even greater. At 0.999999% of the speed of light, one of Captain Marvel’s days would seem like two years to us here on earth.
Nerd alert! This time dilation effect could easily explain why it took so long for Danvers to get back to earth after Thanos snapped his fingers. If she were really far away, the signal from Fury’s pager would take a while to reach her, even at the speed of light. And it would take even more time for her to get back home. But to Danvers, it would seem like she was gone for only a few weeks. This would also explain why everyone else aged 25 years while Danvers remained the same age.
I know for a fact that Marvel has a great team of science advisors, so I’m sure they thought of all of this. And Marvel has always been very science geeky. Many of its main heroes were scientists before they started saving the world. Tony Stark (Iron Man), Bruce Banner (The Hulk), Peter Parker (Spider Man), Hank Pym (Ant Man) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), and a ton of other characters were all scientists.
Side note: Marvel can we get some more female scientist superheroes, please?
Marvel comics are rife with science and I’m really looking forward to delving into more of it with my friend and comics aficionado Jeff. He’s a huge Spiderman fan and I’m really psyched to talk about spider science with him.