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Reality Check: The Science of Amazing Spider-Man 2


Reality Check: The Science of Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is currently swinging through theaters, bringing some spectacular science with it, both biologic and physical. The feasibility of Spidey’s powers has been discussed before, so let’s take a look at the sequel’s specific feats and see how they stack up to our more three-dimensional world.

A Decrepit Legacy

Early in the film, we are introduced to Spider-Man’s main four-color adversary, Norman Osborn, who in this celluloid version promptly expires, allowing son Harry to pioneer the franchise’s Green Goblin role. Norman suffers from something he calls “retroviral hypodysplasia,” and warns that the junior Osborn will suffer his same fate if a cure is not found. A quick Google search doesn’t reveal any real disorders with that name, but if we unpack the words themselves, we might be able to glean something about the fictional ailment.

Good night, sweet maniacal tycoon.
A retrovirus is a nasty thing that inserts its genome into the nucleus of a host organism’s cell, forcing the cell to synthesize virus DNA instead of replicating its own, thus producing the proteins necessary to “birth” more viruses. HIV, for example, is a retrovirus that targets the human body’s immune cells, turning them into parasite factories instead of fulfilling their intended functions.

The stuff of nightmares happens every time you catch a cold.
The funny thing is, contrary to what we might normally think about viruses, some retroviral genetic material can be passed on through generations, hitching a ride in the very fabric of our being. In fact, as much as 5% of human DNA might be made up of bits of these “endogenous” retroviruses, and that foreign stuff might even help in functions such as gene expression.

On the other hand, endogenous retroviruses have also been blamed for certain kinds of cancer. Whatever Norman’s got is obviously debilitating, and degenerative, so a hereditary retroviral disorder is not too far beyond the bounds of credibility.

But what are those loathsome nucleotides actually doing to him? “Hypodysplasia” is a term that just means something didn’t form properly, and can be applied to anything from teeth to your kidneys. So maybe there’s some sort of abnormalities with his cellular reproduction? Something the “regenerative” work of Curt Connors might fix?

Crank the Power

Spider-Man’s last, desperate gambit to lay low his supercharged foe, Electro, hinges on the idea that batteries can explode when overcharged. That’s true, but not for the reasons Peter wants it to be.

Electro’s ready to blow!
Whatever the hell Electro is, he’s not a battery. Batteries are basically little chemistry labs that produce a current when one electrode strips electrons from the molecules of the liquid in which it’s submerged while the other electrode in turn picks them up.

Battery explosions due to overcharging are caused by the chemistry within, not from the electricity itself. Lead-acid batteries, like in your car (and pictured above in simplified form), can produce highly flammable hydrogen gas when juiced too much. Any source of ignition could then send the thing off, just like the Hindenburg. In lithium-ion batteries – the ones from your cell phone – it’s the cobalt oxide inside that can suffer from “thermal runaway” that eventually leads to explosion or rupture. Either way, electrons alone aren’t what make the things go boom.

Spinning a Solution

So that’s a potential thumbs up for the biology and a thumbs down on the physics. What happens when we mix the two?

Spidey’s overcharging idea hinges on the ability of his artificial weblines to conduct electricity. Would it work? We don’t really know the chemical composition of our hero’s sticky homebrew, but if it’s anything like the real silk from a spider’s ass, the answer is … maybe. A 2012 study showed that organic spider silk conducts heat better than more expected materials like silicon, aluminum and iron. Of course heat is not electricity, though, so the jury is technically still out on that one.

HOWEVER, one webspinner from Florida State University may have found a way to upgrade Mother Nature’s design.

“If we understand basic science and how nature works, all we need to do is find a way to harness it,” Eden Steven said in true, superheroic fashion on FSU’s website in September of last year. Steven has been able to coat spider-silk with carbon nanotubes, a miracle material made up of a sheet of carbon with the thickness of a single atom, which strangely conducts electricity pretty well. When the nanotubes are adhered to the silk with a drop of water, the resulting combination transmits a current much like a conduit.

Artist’s conception of a carbon nanotube. Look familiar? From Wikimedia Commons.
“It can be used as a humidity sensor, a strain sensor, an actuator (a device that acts as an artificial muscle, for lifting weights and more) and as an electrical wire,” Steven said. Maybe as a means of dissipating the charge on summer blockbuster’s bad guy, too?

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