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Reality Check: The Science of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

Reality Check

Reality Check: The Science of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

Some call the recently released film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best to come from Marvel Studios yet, but how is the super soldier’s science? Could a bionic, World War II POW return to wreak havoc in the 21st century?

Miracle Metal

Let’s first look at the Winter Soldier’s heroic counterpart or, at least, his weapon of choice. Cap’s iconic shield is said to be composed of an alloy of iron cut with the fictional metal vibranium. While the movie origin of this substance is yet to be revealed, in Marvel Comics, vibranium is a naturally occurring material found most often in the African nation of Wakanda.

Wakanda rose to technological prominence thanks to its vibranium reserves.

Although it’s never been clearly defined, as we’ve seen, vibranium can’t really be its own element, or we’d have it on the Periodic Table by now. Perhaps a novel crystalline structure of an existing element? Materials can have different polymorphs -– with the same chemical composition but different atomic arrangements –- due to variations in temperature or pressure where they’re formed, or if there are different solvents or impurities present. The most well-known real-world example is carbon. Both diamonds and graphite are made up of pure carbon, but one is the hardest substance known while the other flakes off in thin sheets. It’s all in how you put it together.

Diamonds can only be formed at a narrow range of temperature and pressure. Is vibranium an even rarer form of another element? Figure from

The properties of vibranium are typically described in greater detail, although they may seem counterintuitive at first. Captain America’s shield is said to absorb all vibrations, making him virtually untouchable on the battlefield, yet the mighty disc can somehow ricochet off surfaces like a rubber ball, instead of immediately dropping to the ground after taking the normal force from the impacted structure and not giving back enough oomph to propel the stars and stripes on.

But materials don’t have to have the same properties in all directions. Returning to an earlier example, the graphite in your pencil sloughs off when pressure is applied in the direction of its sheet-like laminations, but instead snaps when a force is in the opposite, perpendicular orientation. This “anisotropy,” as it’s called, could explain why a punch to the broadside by the Winter Soldier can be absorbed, but a strike on the edge can have a more usual reaction.

This one … is harder to explain.

Go to Sleep

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we learn that Steve Rogers isn’t the only one to travel through time thanks to being frozen, but it’s more controlled in the case of his former best friend, Bucky Barnes. And it happens over and over again, as the brainwashed Winter Soldier is enlisted in secret assassination missions through the decades, thawed and then put back on ice to await his next assignment.

In his recliner, ready for a long nap.

Hydra is employing the practice of cryonics, preserving a human body at very low temperatures, creating a sort of “suspended animation,” and then reviving the subject at a later date. Actual cryonicists deal not with healthy people that need to be stored away, but with the recently deceased who hope that one day the cause of their deaths can be cured and they can be revived, patched up and reintroduced to society.

The liquid nitrogen bath is less comfortable. From

The sad part is that while some people have undergone the first step, the second half of the equation is likely never to be completed. Freezing the water in cells can rupture them, and even when they don’t burst, they can be displaced and cause organ damage. The prevention of neural damage is more difficult – and more problematic – as the mind is likely just an emergent property of the brain and a lot of “you” would probably be lost. And even if you COULD avoid all that cellular destruction, and you COULD cure whatever ailment sent the poor victim to the icebox, you’d still be left with the dilemma of making the dead person … um, not dead. Cryonics proponents usually wave their hands when you mention necromancy, preferring to believe that anything is possible in the wonderful world of the future!

Contrary to popular belief Walt Disney’s head was never cryonically frozen, so there’s no need to worry about him waking up and inserting Mickey Mouse in the next Thor sequel.

Taking Control

A more promising bit of sci-fi comes in the form of Bucky’s bionic arm. He doesn’t seem to have lost much function or dexterity in the limb, even though it looks to be entirely metallic. Although they’re more likely to be composed of plastics and polymers, prosthetic limbs have come a long way since simple hooks with straps.


Many prostheses in use now have incorporated electronics that control the limbs by converting muscle movements at the attachment point into electrical signals. More invasive procedures that connect a prosthesis directly to motor neurons could soon offer more dexterity, or maybe even introduce some sensation into artificial limbs.

Artist’s conception of neural sensor implants. From

Mind-controlling a prosthetic body part is actually the easiest thing to achieve in Winter Soldier’s science. We can even control the actions of other animals! A commercially available kit allows you to remotely control a cockroach by hijacking its antennae nerves. For the full on Avatar experience, check out this study from February that showed that one monkey can mentally control the body of another that has been artificially paralyzed.

Doesn’t even require neo-Nazi brainwashing. Just don’t tell PETA. From

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