11-16 Stan Lee

[Image above] Stan Lee, one of the driving forces behind the Marvel Universe, died Monday, November 12 at the age of 95. Though not a scientist, he extensively used scientific-sounding reasoning in the creation of his characters. Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Regardless of whether you are a die-hard comic book fan or a person who only watched the films, anyone who gave themselves over to the Marvel Universe cannot help but know Stan Lee.

Though not a scientist—something he stressed in interviews—Stan Lee’s use of scientific-sounding reasoning featured extensively in the creation of his dynamic characters, from the gamma rays that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk to explaining how Thor used the momentum of his hammer, Mjolnir, to throw himself great distances.

With the death of Stan Lee this week (Excelsior!), I decided to take us on a small foray into the science that featured in Stan Lee’s work, to see just how realistic that science was and how it might feature in real research today.

Nanobot suits

Back in March, we did a post on vibranium, the metal that makes up Black Panther’s suit. But what about the nanotechnology that dictates the suit’s storage capabilities?

Both T’Challa (Black Panther) and Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) suits use nanotechnology. A swarm of nanobots—tiny bots on the scale of 0.1-10 micrometers—cover T’Challa and Tony in a layer of protective gear, and can self-replicate like bacteria when damaged. While tapping a button and being covered in instant armor would certainly be useful, how close are we to that in real life?

Iron Man’s suit, the Mark 50, uses nanobots. Credit: Movies TV, YouTube
Black Panther’s suit—made of vibranium—also uses nanobots. Credit: Marvel Entertainment, YouTube

However, completely artificial, non-biological nanobots do not exist. When researchers talk about current nanobots, these nanobots are mainly organic (for example, created out of DNA strands). The name nano“bot” is a bit of a misnomer because the name refers simply to the bot’s size and does not mean a mechanical robot on tiny scales. To create a completely mechanical nanobot, we first need to develop a power source that small.

Even if we create a completely mechanical nanobot, will they be able to self-replicate? Despite the “gray goo” doomsday scenario, creating self-replicating nanobots is highly unlikely. In an article on the website Debunking Denialism, Emil Karlson summarizes the reasoning quite well, writing:

“It is probably possible to construct a very wide range of fine, nanoscale non-protein structures, but those structures are unlikely to be robust enough, strong enough or enzymatically varied enough to fulfill the fantastical beliefs of proponents of self-replicating nanobot-mediated atomically precise manufacturing.”

Even though nanobots won’t be self-replicating suits into existence for us just yet, nanotechnology might get us an Iron Man-esque suit soon. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) being developed by the United States Special Operations Command uses nanotechnology to create a liquid-ceramic material. In theory, the liquid-like fabric will transform into a much harder shell when hit with a bullet. The command plans to demonstrate a functional TALOS prototype of the exoskeleton subsystem in 2019.

Sand into glass…and back

As much as some movie-goers wish to forget Spider-Man 3, there is one reason I dare bring it up: Sandman.

Sandman is much more a villain (later ally) to Spider-Man in the comics than on the big screen. Flint Marko (real name William Baker) became the Sandman when radioactive sand fused with his body and changed the molecular structure.

Being made completely of sand had its disadvantages, like easily being sucked into a vacuum cleaner. However, one disadvantage—sometimes advantage—important to discuss is that Sandman can turn into glass.

To turn sand into glass requires raising the temperature to the sand’s melting point. If we assume Sandman was made from ordinary sand (silicon dioxide), he would need to raise himself to a temperature of at least 3,090°F (1,700°C) to change into glass! And once turned into glass, there is no easy way for Sandman to turn back into the original sand. Even if he crushes himself back up into small fragments, this “sand” would be made of the non-crystalline amorphous form of silicon dioxide rather than quartz crystals.

Sandman did not turn into glass in Spider-Man 3, but he does several times in the comics. Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing UK, YouTube

In the comics, Sandman is generally turned into glass around 3,400°F (1,871°C), since his body is not pure sand. And while it is clear that Sandman cannot convert back to sand as easily as he becomes glass, the comics do not delve into if Sandman returns to quartz crystal sand or amorphous sand. Of course, even if Spider-Man 3 included such a nice technical detail as this, the movie would still have a long way to go for redemption in people’s eyes.

Not all glass containers can be recycled back into other glass products, so turning glass back into sand is an alternative way to recycle. This finely-crushed glass sand is used in a variety of ways, from civil construction applications to replenishing eroding beaches.

Fire resistance of asbestos

For our final look at Stan Lee science, I’ve chosen a bit more obscure character that likely only comic fans know: Asbestos Man.

Asbestos Man was a one-time foe of the Human Torch and appeared in nine issues. Asbestos Man was the alter ego for scientist Orson Kasloff, who created a “Super Asbestos” suit made of chrysotile (most common form of asbestos), calcium, and iron to fend off Johnny Storm’s (Human Torch) heat.

Asbestos refers to a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals that are known for their long, thin fibrous crystals. Because of their fire resistance and high tensile strength, asbestos was used extensively in buildings throughout most of the 20th century until they were linked to cancer, at which time the use of asbestos was drastically curtailed so now products must contain 1 percent or less of asbestos (recent proposed regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency may modify some of the specifics). Products containing asbestos today include insulation and prefabricated cement.

In the 1930s, firefighters used asbestos frequently in their fire proximity suits for its fire resistant property, so it is no surprise that Asbestos Man would try using asbestos as well to take on the Human Torch. But even though asbestos is fire resistant, could it really withstand the heat of the Human Torch? It could—if Storm used only his regular heat.

Asbestos Man came at a time the public was learning of the carcinogenic danger of asbestos. Credit: Marvel Comics, Marvel Database

Asbestos fiber mechanically breaks down at about 1,500°F (816°C), but does not completely disintegrate until 2,770°F (1,521°C). Ordinarily, the Human Torch is enveloped by a low-level plasma of 780°F (416°C), well below asbestos’ melting point. As long as Storm did not suddenly conjure his “nova flame,” Asbestos Man’s suit could probably hold up.

Unfortunately, the truest aspect Stan Lee included in the creation of Asbestos Man was his death. Asbestos Man supposedly died from cancer he contracted from the “Super Asbestos” suit, as did a similar villainess, Asbestos Lady.

The last cameos

Even as Stan Lee left us, he will continue to inspire on the screen for a little while more. Both Lee’s agent and Avengers director Joe Russo stated Stan Lee’s cameos in Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 were filmed before his death, so expect to see Lee’s last return to the screen in 2019.