Superhero Science: Monica Rambeau aka Spectrum
Carol Danvers isn't the most powerful Captain Marvel. That honor may just go to Monica Rambeau, the second Captain Marvel. She can transform into and manipulate any form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Imagine being able to transform into pure light. You’d be able to travel from NY to London in less than a blink of the eye—.019 of a second, in fact. When you grow weary of impressionist art, bordeaux, and brie, you can zoom off to the moon to enjoy the view of our little blue planet. The 384,400-kilometer trip will take an agonizing 1.282 seconds. Moon dust, as we all know, is really bad for your health, so you’ll probably want to head out into the solar system to clear your lungs on Mars. Better pack provisions. The 54.6-million-kilometer trip will take an unbearable three minutes at light speed. Once you’re there, you might be disappointed to find that the high concentration of perchlorates in the Martian soil gives you hayfever. And, well, the atmosphere is too thin to breathe anyway. Perhaps you want to see if there’s any good air to be had on Saturn’s moon of Titan.
You better use the restroom before you go, and have a healthy lunch. At the speed of light, it takes 66.6 minutes to cross the 1.197 billion-kilometers between Mars and Saturn. It’s really, really far.
Of course this is all very academic. Unless you’re the subject of today’s podcast: Marvel’s Monica Rambeau.
This is the second episode of the miniseries Superhero Science. In the last episode we explored some of the science behind the MCU’s Carol Danvers. We learned that she can generate and manipulate energy in the electromagnetic spectrum, letting her blast bad guys and smash spaceships. Monica Rambeau has similar, but even greater powers. Thanks to a run-in with interdimensional energy, she can transform into and manipulate any energy in the electromagnetic spectrum. This potentially makes her more powerful than Carol Danvers, and definitely gives her more freedom.
Now we’re talking about Monica Rambeau from the Marvel comics universe, not the cinematic universe. Monica Rambeau did appear in the MCU, but as the 10-year-old daughter of Carol Danvers’ best friend Maria. This could mean that the MCU has plans for Monica in the future, but for now we’ll just have to stick with the comics version.
So how did Monica Rambeau get her powers? (Fair warning, if you’re just here for the science and you don’t want the character background skip ahead.) Monica Rambeau first appeared in print in 1982 in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual Vol 1, #16. She was a lieutenant in the New Orleans Harbor Patrol known for her unorthodox methods. She gets passed up for a promotion, and almost immediately runs into a mad scientist. The scientist, Andre LeClare, explains that he’s a friend of her father’s and that he has been working on a project to harness energy from other dimensions.
His energy-harnessing invention has been hijacked by a dictator who plans to use it to vaporize a US city. Monica agrees to help Andre shut down his invention. The two sail off to an offshore oil rig that’s been converted to an evil lair. Hijinks ensue, and during the scuffle, Monica smashes the doomsday device and absorbs its extra-dimensional energy. She is instantly transformed into a beam of light and zips back to the mainland. She arrives confused and stunned, but manages to find a radio and call for help. As she’s making the call, she thinks about the oil platform and is instantly transported back.
She returns to a find a rip in fabric of space itself and is pulled into the mysterious dimension beyond. While there, she realizes that she possesses the power to close the rift. She closes it and rescues LeClare from the evil dictator. Later he performs some tests and confirms that Monica can indeed transform into any form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Monica meets the Avengers later in the comic, and eventually takes over as Captain Marvel. She is briefly known as Proton, and later takes the very apt name Spectrum.
So is there any science behind Spectrum’s superpowers? Let’s start with the mysterious interdimensional energy. As far as we know, there aren’t any fantastical otherworldly dimensions overflowing with free energy. In quantum physics, there is something called the Many-worlds interpretation. It tries to explain the quantum weirdness we see at very small scales. I delved into it in depth in the recent Quantum Objective Reality podcast, but here’s the gist: On the quantum scale, it appears that particles can’t be truly defined until they’re observed. Also the act of observing seems to change them in certain ways. This would mean that the observer has some sort of an affect on the thing he, she, or it is observing. Also it seems that two particles can be “entangled” and the act of observing one will change the other. All of this goes against all our instincts and everything else we observe in the universe. To us, things exist as they are regardless of whether anyone is observing them. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, it DOES make a sound.
The many-worlds interpretation tries to explain this quantum weirdness by postulating that there are infinite parallel universes. Whenever something has a probability of doing either A or B, it does both, just in different parallel universes. This means that everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.
To be clear, the many-worlds interpretation isn’t universally accepted by physicists, and isn’t testable with any methods we currently know of. The theory was proposed in 1957 by physicist Hugh Everett and has been hotly debated ever since. Physicist David Deutsch is one of many worlds’ biggest living proponents. He believes we could create a conscious quantum computer that would be able to test the many-worlds interpretation. In fact, he proposed such a thing in 1985. Basic quantum computers are definitely a thing, and more complex ones are on the near horizon. With any luck, Deutsch will get to run his tests.
At any rate, there is a subset of physicists who believe the many-worlds interpretation to be true. This would mean that there could conceivably be a parallel universe that operates under very different physical laws. Such a universe could harbor beings of pure energy, and have physical laws that would allow them to manipulate that energy. Of course, even proponents of the many-worlds theory don’t believe it’s possible to hop over into parallel universes. There is no Rick and Morty portal gun in the real world.
So there is some science behind Andre LeClare’s interdimensional portal, but it’s not proven and probably not ever possible.
Of course when physicists talk about dimensions, they’re not talking about other universes. They’re talking about directions like up, down, forward, and backward… and forward through time. These are the three plus one dimensions we operate in. There could be other dimensions, though, and they could explain some of the biggest mysteries in physics. When physicists talk about these extra dimensions, they inevitably bring up gravity.
Gravity, you see, is ridiculously weak when compared to the other major forces in the universe. To review, there are the strong and weak nuclear forces that hold atoms together and dictated how subatomic particles interact, the electromagnetic force, and finally gravity. To demonstrate the relative weakness of gravity, physicists usually pick up a paperclip with a small fridge magnet. The force of the tiny fridge magnet on the paperclip is far greater than the gravitational force of the entire earth. Gravity is super weak.
To explain gravity’s comparative weakness, physicists postulate that it could be spread thin across several additional dimensions or directions. Think of them as “up plus 2” or “forward minus 3.” Though for three-dimensional beings to comprehend, but there it is. These extra dimensions aren’t at all like the other universes of the many-worlds interpretation. Still, would it be possible to somehow harness energy from them? If gravity is spread across extra dimensions, accessing them may let us experience gravity’s full power. And possibly even manipulate it, giving rise to real-life telekinesis—being able to move things without touching them. Unfortunately, getting even indirect evidence of extra dimensions is quite complicated.
Because if you want to find evidence of extra dimensions, you need to smash subatomic particles. Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in France/Switzerland will be looking for evidence of extra dimensions when it comes back online in 2020. You see, when you smash two particles together, the energy released could be enough to move them in those extra dimensions. We wouldn’t be able to see them wiggle in those dimensions, but instead we’d see them gain mass. Or perhaps we’d see multiple copies of the same particle. Either or both could happen—we have to run the experiment to find out. Just to refresh your memory, the LHC has a 27 kilometer circumference and accelerates particles up to 0.99999999 the speed of light. It takes less than 90 microseconds (μs) for a proton to travel around the ring.
Marvel doesn’t go into quantum or particle physics, so we’ll just have to assume that Spectrum has indeed somehow become a being of pure energy. So what can she do? First, she’s able to instantly transport herself great distances. It’s unclear whether transportation is truly instantaneous, but at light speed it may seem to be.
In the last episode about Carol Danvers, we talked about time dilation. As Danvers approaches the speed of light, she experiences time differently than someone here on Earth. Basically, the faster you go, the slower you experience time relative to someone at rest. At 99% the speed of light, one day to her would seem like seven days to us. At faster speeds, the effects of time dilation are 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. At light speed, time would appear to stop altogether.
Of course Danvers is still a physical being with mass, and thus would never be able to reach the speed of light. But Spectrum is pure energy and can travel at light speed. To her, time would stop and travel would seem instantaneous. So that 66-minute trip from Mars to Saturn would be instantaneous for Spectrum. But there’s no getting around the laws of physics and time would march on for us. Spectrum could decide to visit our nearest star, Alpha Centuri, but during her trip nearly nine years would pass on earth. Such a trip would mean a huge sacrifice and if she were intent on keeping Earth safe, she’d probably stay home.
In addition to being able to travel at light speed, Spectrum can transform into and manipulate any form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum. It covers radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. This gives Spectrum a wide variety of powers. She can turn invisible, pass through solid objects, take on the appearance of, well, anything, and create energy blasts. But how?
Turning invisible is pretty simple, as most of the electromagnetic spectrum falls outside of what we can see. In fact, visible light is only a very small slice. If Spectrum transforms into nearly any other form of energy, she’ll be invisible. Radio waves, microwaves, infrared, and of course X-rays and gamma rays are all invisible.
Invisibility has long been a dream of science fiction authors and, well, perverts. But recent developments promise to deliver real-world cloaking devices that could make almost anything invisible. In 2018, researchers at Harvard debuted a broadband achromatic metalens. The tiny lenses can bend light around an object. Weave a ton of them into a cloak, or slap them onto the surface of a jet, and you get a cloaking device. The researchers famously demonstrated the metalens in cloak form, showing a researcher half-cloaked before a tree and a grassy field. It’s truly stunning—she appears to be completely gone from neck to knees.
In addition to becoming invisible, Spectrum can play tricks with the visual spectrum of light as well. According to the comics, she has complete mastery of light and can project hyperreal 3D images in all directions. This makes her a kind of shapeshifter, but as pure energy she’s intangible. She can look like anyone or anything, but objects will pass right through her.
We may be able to create invisibility cloaks, but realistic holograms are still a ways off. Sure, Tupac famously rose from the dead to play a sold-out concert, but that stunt required several giant projectors, a screen, and a very dark stage. AV Concepts is the company that created the Tupac hologram for the 2012 Coachella concert. They used a rather old-fashioned illusion called Pepper’s ghost. The trick was developed by English scientist John Henry Pepper in the 1850s.
Pepper setup two rooms in an L shape with a pane of glass at an angle between them. Visitors could see one of the rooms, but not the other. The glass between the two rooms would reflect whatever’s happening in the obscured room. Pepper put a fake ghost in the obscured room, turned on the lights, and it would seem to materialize in the other room. It was a clever trick, but ultimately it was just a reflection.
For Tupac’s return, AV Concepts performed the Pepper’s ghost trick using an ultrathin film of transparent mylar. They projected Tupac’s image onto the film using several high-definition projectors and voila, a life-size Tupac appears on stage. Of course he wasn’t really three-dimensional, but he seemed real enough from the perspective of the audience.
True 3D holograms are much trickier to make and display. You’ve probably seem them in museums or science fairs. They are flat, two-dimensional panes that seem to have depth. You can stare into them, and they change as you move around them, just like an object in real life. How does this work? Simple answer: Lasers.
Holography is the technique of recording the three-dimensional light field of an object or scene using lasers. Photographic film (or a sensor) records the light bouncing off an object on one two-dimensional plane. It’s difficult to explain without images, but I’ll try to do my best. Laser light isn’t like other light. It travels in the same direction, has the same wavelength and it’s coherent, which means all the light waves are in sync. When two laser beams meet, they create nice regular interference patterns. Holographic film records this interference.
Here’s how it works: Split a laser beam in two. Shine one part on the object you’re recording. It bounces off the object and hits the holographic film. Shine the second part of the beam directly on the film as a reference. The holographic film records the interference between the two beams. To view the original scene, you just have to shine a laser light through the other side of the holographic film.
Holographic film isn’t like a photograph. Without the laser, you can’t see a thing. It just looks like a semi-transparent film littered with incomprehensible dots. Holograms are a lot like CDs or records or even magnetic tapes in that way. They hold encoded information that’s inaccessible without the proper player.
Physics Girl has a great video explaining how holography works on YouTube. It’s worth a watch. I’ll link to it in the show notes. Go check it out.
But what about those floating realistic holograms we all saw in Star Wars or Star Trek? Out of the two, the blurry glowing holograms of the Star Wars universe are more realistic. In fact, we can create similar images now by projecting light into clouds of vapor or other particles. The most striking example I’ve seen comes from artist and activist Joanie Lemercier. He projects images onto an ultrafine water mist, creating ghostly apparitions that hover in mid air. His projectors also use off-the-shelf tracking technology to modify the projections based on the observers’ location, giving them a true 3D appearance. He calls his creation a no-logram. Again, it’s hard to explain without pictures. I’ll link to one of his videos in the show notes. It’s truly stunning stuff.
A Japanese company called Aerial Burton has managed to get the closest to projecting 3D images directly into the air. Their system uses infrared pulse lasers to ionize air molecules at specific points. The ionized air molecules spark and shimmer like tiny stars. Aerial Burton can make simple shapes and animations with the shimmering sparks, creating fantastic light shows even in bright sunlight. The company hopes to use the technology to create signs and directions during disasters. Imagine a small backpack-sized infrared laser projector that could create bright, easy-to-see text anywhere, any time of the day. It would be perfect to help people coordinate their efforts in the aftermath of disasters. Again, I’ll link to a video of the tech in the show notes.
In the Marvel comics, Spectrum can change her appearance and create realistic projections without any screens, metalenses, or infrared lasers. She simply wills the light to bend and project in a way that recreates whatever she’s thinking about. I’m not sure how this would work. She could be a source of light, projecting images out in all directions. But those projections would have to adjust based on the observer. And if there were multiple observers… it seems like an impossible task. Unless she can somehow create billions of tiny pixels of light in mid-air that together act as some kind of ethereal LCD display. Even then, I’d imagine she would have a glowing, ghostly quality that would be a dead giveaway that something strange was afoot.
But even if Spectrum’s powers of illusion are questionable, her ability to drift through solid objects isn’t. If she transforms into radio waves, she can pass through many common materials—glass, walls, plants, dirt, cats, celebrities. X-rays and gamma rays can pass through an even wider variety of materials, including metals and stone. But not without consequences. High-energy X-rays and gamma rays can strike the nuclei of atoms, knocking off a neutron or proton to create unstable isotopes. Those neutrons and protons can cause further damage if they strike surrounding nuclei. In most materials this isn’t a big deal, but in people, animals, and plants it can deadly. High-energy gamma rays can disrupt critical physiological functions, causing illness, cancer, and death. Gamma rays can easily ionize water molecules, which make up, you know, most of us. Those ionizations can create secondary free radicals that gunk up the normal functions of a cell. The free radicals can mess up hormone functions, metabolism, protein synthesis, and more. And if a gamma ray strikes DNA, it can split it apart. This, of course, can disrupt virtually every function in a cell.
So if Spectrum transforms into radio waves, she can pass through many materials. If she needs to pass through a few feet of steel, she can do it by transforming into X-rays or gamma rays. But she’ll need to be careful not to inadvertently irradiate bystanders.
If she chose to, Spectrum could easily lay waste to any lifeform with a blanket of high-energy gamma ray bursts. In fact, a sufficient gamma ray burst could sterilize soil, killing all plants, bacteria, and even viruses. An extremely powerful multi-directional gamma ray burst could turn a forest into dead matter in seconds. Not even fungi or bacteria would survive to decompose the dead plants. Eventually decomposers would creep in from the periphery to clean up the mess, but in the short term the forest would be lifeless.
Disturbing thought, and good thing Spectrum isn’t a super-villian. Come to think of it, the Marvel universe has been really lucky that an inherently evil person hasn’t been gifted with similar powers. Given Spectrum’s speed, invisibility, and power, she’d easily mop up any of the most powerful superheroes. Perhaps Thor, a literal god, may be able to stop her. But we can save that for another episode. Or an endless and excruciating Reddit thread.
Irradiating stuff with gamma rays is bad, but not the worst thing Spectrum could do . Gamma rays can, in certain circumstances, create antimatter. Researchers have seen it happen during lightning strikes. An intense gamma ray burst from the lightning strike hits the nucleus of a nitrogen atom, knocking off a neutron. These unstable nitrogen nuclei break down further, emitting a positron—the antimatter equivalent of an electron. If Spectrum focused superstrong gamma rays at a single spot, she could create a bunch of antimatter. This would instantly react with regular matter in a giant explosion. Just one gram of antimatter reacting with one gram of ordinary matter results in a theoretical 42.96 kiloton release of energy. For comparison, Little Boy, the fission bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945, yielded 15 kilotons.
Creating antimatter is one thing, but containing it is another. Remember, it’ll react with ANY matter instantly. Whenever researchers have managed to make antimatter in the lab, it annihilates itself with a regular atom. But in 2010 researchers at Berkeley Lab in California managed to trap a single antihydrogen atom in a magnetic bottle. But only for two tenths of a second using superconducting magnets.
Spectrum, though, would have complete mastery over electromagnetism. It would be feasible for her to create antimatter with gamma rays, contain it within an electromagnetic field, then react it with regular matter at will. She could use this ability to obliterate pretty much anything, or to make a stable antimatter reactor. Such a reactor could generate enough energy for the entire world without producing any harmful waste. She would have to sacrifice herself to the cause, though, as the reactor would require constant concentration.
It would be more practical for Spectrum to just feed electromagnetic energy directly into the power grid. She wouldn’t even have to touch a wire. If you run a magnetic field over a copper wire, it produces an electrical current. And because Spectrum can manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, and thus generate magnetic fields, she could pump power into the system at will.
Spectrum is starting to feel overpowered...
But moving on, Spectrum can also generate and control energy in the infrared spectrum. Infrared radiation is just below the visible spectrum. It’s better know to us as simply “heat.” With infrared, Spectrum could easily make anything as hot as she likes. She’d make a fantastic pizza chef, and would be able to roast a turkey like nobody’s business. I imagine Spectrum using infrared energy to cook at home and saving quite a bit on utility bills. All joking aside, infrared energy would, again, make Spectrum extremely formidable. She could easily heat metal to its melting point, or quickly boil any water within a person’s body.
On a lighter note, she could use infrared lasers to create sparkling spots of ionized air, creating a fantastic fireworks show. Spectrum could easily create the sparkly display that Aerial Burton makes with its laser projector. Between that and the ability to quickly superheat pizzas, Spectrum would be a blast at parties.
And speaking of blasts, Spectrum can generate them. She’s known to create energy blasts similar to what we see Carol Danvers do, but on an even grander scale. In the last Superhero Science episode we learned that Danvers is more than capable of creating devastating energy blasts, and Spectrum’s could be even greater. But I’ll leave figuring that out to the Marvel comics aficionados out there.
Spectrum is truly a force to be reckoned with. I have a hard time imagining any problem she couldn’t tackle, except perhaps trying to unite warring factions or convincing Star Lord that Footloose wasn’t the greatest movie ever made.
I could go on about Spectrum’s powers for ages, but I won’t. I’ll leave that up to the creators at Marvel, who seem to have plans for the character both in print and on the screen. I hope Spectrum becomes part of the next generation of heroes in the MCU. Perhaps Carol Danvers, Peter Parker, and Sam Wilson will bridge the gap between the original crew and the new one.
And that’s it for this one. Next time we’ll explore a completely different type of superhero—and superhero science.