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The Science of Ant-Man

The latest Marvel superhero film is a blockbuster of a different size; whilst fight scenes in The Avengers frequently cover entire cities, Ant-Man offers a show-down on a Thomas the Tank Engine model railway set. Yes, really.  But is there any real science behind these shrinking shenanigans?

Debuting in the comic book Tales to Astonish back in 1962, Ant-Man was in fact one of the original Avengers from the comics of the day; despite this, he’s not as well known as Iron Man or Captain America. His powers revolve around being able to shrink to the size of an ant, as well as being able to control and command armies of actual ants. So how does he do it?

The Incredible Shrinking Ant-Man

In the film, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is able to shrink thanks to a mysterious substance invented by Dr Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) a brilliant scientist and inventor – and the original Ant-Man. Modestly named the Pym Particle, it’s said to reduce the space between molecules, enabling the user to shrink at will.

In reality, shrinking a human being to the size of an ant would present some significant problems; the way our bodies function just doesn’t scale down in a straightforward manner.

The first problem would be breathing; at full size, there’s plenty of oxygen in each lungful of air that we breathe. Shrink down, and the amount of oxygen available in each lungful decreases – it would be like breathing the air at the top of Mount Everest.

Secondly, a real-life Ant-Man would have some trouble seeing. We can see because light comes through the pupils of our eyes to focus on the retina. At ant-size, your pupils would be a lot closer to the wavelength of light itself, so the light would scatter on the edges of the iris and produce a diffracted and blurry effect. This is why the eyes of insects are so different to ours; they have compound eyes which are much better at allowing them to see movement at that scale.

And then there’s his voice. In the film, Ant-Man can be heard quite normally even when scaled down, but that wouldn’t be the case in real life. As you shrink the vocal cords, their vibration frequency goes up, so he’d be speaking at around 3,500 hertz instead of the normal 200 hertz – and that would be very high pitched and squeaky to full size ears.

However, these issues are somewhat addressed by the fact that the Ant-Man suit is required for successful shrinking – so perhaps it’s equipped with the technology to address those problems.

The Real Stars

The real stars of the Ant-Man movie are, of course, the ants themselves. They work with the titular hero to provide transportation, specialised attacks and much more. There are four species shown in the film; carpenter ants, bullet ants, fire ants, and crazy ants, and the film-makers have tried hard to make them look realistic and get the science at least in the right vicinity.

Carpenter ants are shown as the main method of transportation; this makes sense, as they are heavy lifters of the ant world. The wings, however, are problematic; they only have wings when they set out to establish a new colony, and whilst they have those wings they wouldn’t be carrying anything but a strong desire to spend time with a friendly ant of the opposite gender, if you catch our drift.

Bullet ants are used as a weapon, and they do indeed pack a serious sting. They’re level 4 on the Schmidt Pain Index (which is referenced in the film), making them one of the most painful experiences possible – a pain “so immediate and intense it shuts down all illusion of life as normal” is how the index’s creator describes it.

Fire ants are also used in the movie as a form of transport, building bridges, ladders and even rafts with their bodies – something that they really do in real life, too!

Finally, the crazy ants are mobilised for their ability to short out electrical circuits. Whilst this is something they can do in real life, it’s generally less dramatic, and more along the lines of chewing through vital connections.

One last point; the ants running around in the world would generally be females– so Antony, the one named ant in the movie, should really have been Antoinette.

Of course, whilst Tony Stark could build an Iron Man suit in a cave with a box of scraps, every scientific genius will agree that it’s a lot easier to make your breakthroughs in a properly equipped lab. At Edulab, we can provide you with everything you need, from laboratory glassware to precision lab equipment. For more information, contact us on 01366 385777 today.