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SciPop: Where Science Intersects Pop Culture

A series of talks about science in movies, books, and games.

The Radioactive Origins of Marvel Comics

The Radioactive Origins of Marvel Comics


The Radioactive Origins of Marvel Comics

Speaker: Professor Daniel Claes

When: 7:00pm February 18, 2015

Location: Love Library, Talk Zone Room 222

Description: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Dan Claes explores physics topics inspired by iconic comic book characters, their superpowers, and significant events in their history.  Tonight we will explore the Fantastic Origins of the Fantastic Four and the X-men, Children of the Atom!

Q&A With Dan Claes

  1. Someone in the audience mentioned the tendency in comics today/reboots to shift away from radiation to genetics as the cause of mutation. What do you think the reason for this is (perhaps due to popular science/science de jour)?
    In the late 50s and early 60s the promise and mystery of atomic energy (the generation of power, exciting applications in nuclear medicine) captured the public's imagination. What was unknown about the phenomena  simply provided science fiction (and comic book!) writers with wildly new imaginative applications.  Radiation certainly does cause mutations.  We just haven't seen spectacularly cool ones! Since, we've all learned a lot more about the limiteds (and dangers) of radiation. As readers have grown more sophisticated, the writers need to find more plausible explanations.  Right now, we're always hearing discoveries in (and ambitious goals  of) genetic engineering.  It is the science de jour, but makes for seemingly plausible explanations.
  2. Why did NASA/ESA/”The Russians” stop avoiding the Earth’s radiation belt? Why? What happened?

    The Van Allen radiation belts, and the intense radiation there, were discovered by satellite probes.  At the earth's surface we are protected from most cosmic rays by a combination of the earth's atmosphere (absorbing some of the radiation) and the earth's magnetic field (deflecting many, but the most energetic, cosmic rays).  Recognizing that the radiation would be more intense above the atmosphere and outside the strongest parts of the magnetic field, satellites designed to measure this background were placed in orbit.  Early space missions launched rockets north of the central belt.

    That wouldn't have been practical for the moon missions, however.  Additional measurements, calculations and modeling eventually determined that short passage through the belts (provided the rockets moved fast enough!) would not be as deadly as originally assumed.  The Apollo missions did in fact go straight through the Van Allen belts with no ill effects.  But, of course, no cosmic storm.

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