Seemingly, the X-Men (or rather the original authors of the X-Men tales) are natural law breakers of the natural laws. Given many of their departures from the physical bounds that most of us (who have not succumbed to genetic mutation) still adhere to, I can sympathize with the hostility their kind is often shown by humans… to a very certain extent.
Don’t get me wrong. My problem has nothing to do with them being different. Genetic mutations are a thing of magnanimous and unbound beauty that gives, not just humans, but the entire flora and fauna of our home planet it’s wondrous pizzazz. Whether it be colorful insects, the variety of flowers, the resilience of life itself in the most hostile environs the cosmos has to offer, genetic mutations resonate life’s endurance through applied stress by its environment and make life as we know it, utterly and unconditionally amazing.
Look deep into my convex photo-receptors that formed through mutations in my prehistoric ancestors millennia ago.
My problem with (some of) the X-men, is how poorly their abilities resulting from genetic mutations, are accurately described by the physical laws that govern our universe. In fact, a top 5 or top 10 list of the individual X-men whose abilities defy the laws of nature, is something that is on my to-do list for science blogs. But for now, I want to fixate my powers on the powers of Magneto.
Magneto is the ultimate villain. Quite literally. He was, matter of fact, ranked as the greatest comic book villain of all time by Imagine Game Network (IGN) in 2011 . And for good reason. His intense backstory, incredible powers, genius intellect, former alliance with Prof. X, or if I reference the review by the aforementioned IGN: “it’s hard to argue that there has ever been a villain more complex, nuanced, sympathetic and yet irrevocably evil.”
The perfect evil genius.
As his name suggests, Magneto’s powers can influence magnetism. Which, as it turns out, is a pretty powerful and encompassing ability. Magneto can levitate heavy machines such as a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine or any ferrous and nonferrous material. He can affect electromagnetic fields, including photons; projecting visible light away from his body, rendering himself invisible to people around him. His abilities not only grant him (almost) unlimited powers, but also a great deal of strength and resilience by projecting force-fields around his body; allowing him to withstand the enormous strain of nuclear weapons and outer space. But what is magnetism precisely?
Magnetism is a force field, produced by the motion of electric charges. As I draw a whole lot of inspiration for this from Prof. James Kakalios’ “The Physics of Superheroes” (review coming next week, I promise), I will quote an excerpt from that book where the origins of magnetism are aptly described.
“Think about two very long train tracks lying next to each other, one with a large number of negative charges equally spaced exactly one inch apart, the other with an equal number of positive charges, also one inch apart. We next bring in a test charge – a positive charge, for sake of argument – some distance from these lines of charges. This test charge will feel no net force, as it is pushed away from the line of positive charges as strongly as it is attracted to the negatively charged array. Now the two tracks start moving at the same speed in opposite directions, the negatives to the left and the positives to the right. If the test charge is stationary, then the same number of negative charges and positive charges, in a given length, pass by it, and there is still no net force. An extra force develops, however, if the positive test charge moves to the right at the same speed as the positive charges on the track, also moving to the right.”
The point about the moving charges is that relatively speaking (i.e. in accordance with relativity), from the point of view of the test charge that moves along with the same direction and speed as the long line of positive charges, the test charge sees the positive charges on the track still being spaced one inch apart. The array of negative charges moving in the opposite direction, on the other hand, are contracted in length (remember, relatively speaking, relativistic effects and such) and will therefore be closer than one inch apart to the moving test charge. This causes a disproportional electrostatic push and pull on the test charge which means it feels a net attractive force; a pull towards the negative charges. This effect caused by the fluid movement of electric charges is called magnetism.
Since the atoms themselves are composed of positive protons in the nucleus and negative electrons orbiting around the nucleus, atoms inherently have magnetic properties, which differ in tandem with the number and arrangement of the electrons. The particular kind of magnetism that Magneto manages to influence is called diamagnetism. Diamagnetism is caused by atoms’ and molecules’ reaction to an externally applied magnetic field. When the electronic configurations of the atoms and/or molecules in question, they tend to line up “against” the direction of the applied magnetic field in an attempt to balance the magnetic field out.
When placed in a magnetic field, diamagnetic materials line up against the applied field. Paramagnetic materials line up with the applied field.
Diamagnetism is weak in comparison to other forms of magnetism (e.g. paramagnetism or ferromagnetism), but if the human body is placed in a magnetic field roughly two hundred thousand times greater than the Earth’s magnetic field, the diamagnetic atoms can be induced to all point in the same direction. I.e. opposite to the applied field. Magneto’s capabilities in magnetic field production require a great deal of effort but this sort of thing can and has been done!
Researchers at the University of Nijmegen have demonstrated that grasshoppers, frogs, strawberries, etc. can be magnetically levitated by a strong magnetic field. I highly recommend their website if you want to learn more but some of their videos have been posted on youtube as well. Fun fact. One of the head researchers behind this work is Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who received the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.
I like my strawberries like I like my comic book villain superpowers.
Okay, so we’ve considered the plausibility of magnetic levitation and influence from an external magnetic field. But, exactly HOW can Magneto alter and/or produce magnetic fields with his own free will?
That really is the million dollar question and becomes the point where we have to suspend our disbelief when watching the X-men movies or reading the comics. Creating a magnetic field means that you have control over all your physical processes that require movement of electric charges. That means you have to be self-aware and constantly vigilant in guarding your heartbeat, eyesight, electrical impulses, pretty much every single electrochemical process in your body, which includes your thought process. If Magneto truly possess this sort of self-control, then he embodies the great shaman who is quite literally in complete control of his actions and thoughts. That he turns out to be evil is actually a very scary thought.
Literal self-control. Shaman embodiment. The result. Pure malice.
Can a person achieve this kind of electrochemical control through genetic mutations? Probably not. But let’s appreciate what this kind of power entails. If you have the ability to induce magnetic fields, emanating from your own body, that means you have complete control over any kind of flow of electric charges. So what?
So everything! Electrochemical reactions govern our brain chemistry, all our senses, eyesight, heartbeat, pretty much all of our bodily functions! Thus, having control over these reactions furthermore implies complete control over your own metabolism. Being able to selectively break apart the correct number of molecules and synthesizing new ones to acquire the required amount of energy needed to drive an electrochemical reaction onward. Sorry Prof. X. Magneto’s brain power surpasses yours. Starting to sound scary?
Controlling electrochemical reaction in a single cell in your body requires an extraordinary ability. Now remember, the human body consists of 15 trillion cells.
Ultimately, this kind of power can only come from your own self-control that resides in your brain. Though well documented, the brain and its functions on an electrochemical level, are a pretty mystic piece of biological machinery. Could this sort of brain power ever come to fruition? Probably not in our lifetime, if ever. But this is the scariest thought of them all. If someone like Magneto, who is in complete control over his own electrochemical reactions, can alter his own brain chemistry at will, his heartbeat, eyesight, etc.; influence others is ways we can’t begin to imagine. If he, above all others, is indeed truly evil. Do we really want his power of magnetic control? Are we perhaps better off being… human?
Are you maybe starting see my initial objection to that particular aspect of mutants?
If anything, Magneto is the ultimate villain. His powers are immense and uncanny and they question some deep unnerving aspects of humanity. Humans notoriously pride themselves in their brain, its sophisticated complexity and the origin of their feeling of superiority over other species. If the ultimate super-brain, i.e. if the greatest functioning brain in the cosmos is in fact just another impetus to do evil…
Are we as a species, fucked?