This article is part of the Fantasy Science & Coffee column on Film Inquiry
The Marvel superhero, Ant-Man, wears a suit that can make him incredibly small or incredibly large at will. At the beginning of the 2015 film, Darren Cross of Futures Lab, describes the science behind it:
…a particle that could change the distance between atoms, while increasing density and strength.
This is a fairly interesting concept. I would think that not only was he talking about the distance between atoms, but the distance between the nucleus of the atom and its boundary as well, since atoms themselves are largely made up of space.
Take a look at this Ted Ed video:
It describes a useful analogy when trying to visualize just how astonishingly empty an atom really is: if the atom was the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would just be the size of a marble! It makes sense, then, that a science fiction story would make use of this space as a shrinking tool.
When you compare this story to real science, however, shrinking in this fashion opens a huge can of worms. If Ant-Man retains his mass when he shrinks, then that would mean the tank carried around by Pym on a keychain would as well. That’d make for one impossibly heavy keychain. If, on the other hand, Ant-Man doesn’t retain his mass, then he wouldn’t be very strong when it came to blows. If, somehow, his mass was converted to energy a la Einstein’s equation, there’d likely be an explosion every time the transformation happened. The list goes on. Rhett Allain, Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, actually had a pretty neat idea on Wired about using extra dimensions to store excess mass.
Let’s move beyond these massive speculations (see what I did there?) and look at the crux of this article: another nod to physics that took place in the first Ant-Man film, what they called “going subatomic”.
Going Subatomic: Ant-Man vs. Real Life
The term first came to light when Lang decides to ‘fix’ the regulator:
Hank Pym: Do not screw with the regulator. If that regulator is compromised you would go subatomic.
Scott Lang: What does that mean?
Hank Pym: It means that you would enter a quantum realm.
Scott Lang: What does that mean?
Hank Pym: It means that you would enter a reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant as you shrink for all eternity. Everything that you know, and love, gone forever.
Scott Lang: Cool. Yeah. I’m… If it ain’t broke…
While I’m not quite sure I agree with their use of the word ‘reality’, or that he’d continue to shrink for all eternity, one thing’s for sure: events at a subatomic level are truly bizarre and the laws of physics that we are so familiar with in our daily lives would just not work. At a subatomic level, the laws are quantum, dictated by probabilities.
You see, we live in a macroscopic world, governed by classical physics. If you were to toss a ball to your dog, you could easily predict where the ball would land, based on its trajectory and how hard you threw it. Tossing an electron would be completely different, because of the uncertainty principle. You cannot simultaneously predict where the electron is and how fast it’s moving. To your eye, the trajectory of the electron would be bizarre. You would only be able to predict where it is likely to land, without really knowing for sure.
It’s probably a good thing our daily lives aren’t governed by quantum physics. My possibly favourite depiction of quantum characteristics in our macroscopic world is the Quantum Cafe in Brian Greene‘s documentary series The Elegant Universe:
Since the Quantum Cafe is governed by probabilities, even if you placed a definite order for a meal or drink, chances are you would get something you didn’t order. “I’ll try,” said the bartender when Greene asked for orange juice.
So what does this mean for Ant-Man? If someone in the Marvel world were to go subatomic, chances are that someone would be trapped for a very, very long time, due to the bizarre nature of quantum physics. That’s exactly how Pym lost his wife. She went subatomic to disable a bomb, and therefore became stuck in the quantum realm.
Lang went subatomic towards the end of the film, but he escaped thanks to being able to hear his daughter’s voice and come to his senses. Let’s see how that could possibly happen in terms of real science.
Ignoring the fact that a person who accidentally went subatomic wouldn’t exactly have oxygen to breathe, I agree that if one were to shrink to a size smaller than an atom, it’d be terribly difficult to get out but not completely impossible. The sci-fi romantic in me likes to think that the very slim chance of escape would arise not due to his daughter’s voice, but due to something called quantum tunneling.
It basically goes like this: if a subatomic particle is trapped behind some barrier, with no means of escape (for instance: lacking the energy to penetrate the barrier) it may still appear beyond the barrier without actually destroying it. This does sound awfully unintuitive, but it can happen due to the reliance of quantum physics on probabilities. The joke goes: if you truly believe in quantum physics, and you lean against a wall for millions of years, at some point you will pass through it.
So, while I do think that it was remotely possible for Ant-Man to escape the subatomic level, I don’t think he would have been able to hear his daughter, and I don’t think his luck would have come so quickly.
What do you think? Do you agree with me, or do you agree with the film’s depiction of “going subatomic”?
More to Explore
Hyperphysics: The Uncertainty Principle
Wired: Ant-Man Shrinks by Stretching into Other Dimensions (2015)
PBS/Nova: The Elegant Universe