(Updated November 20, 2018) Ever notice how a lot of superhero (and supervillain) origin stories seem to be rooted in the aftermath of radiation accidents?
More often than not, radioactive mishaps (such as nuclear experiments gone wrong, a bite from an irradiated animal, or exposure to gamma and cosmic rays) serve as the catalysts for the transformation of these colorful characters (though not always for the better).
These are stories familiar to almost everyone who has ever read comic books or watched movies like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and others that fall under the superhero genre. You have to admit that no matter how weird, scary, and impossible they seem, their pseudo-scientific stories are cool enough to whet your appetite and make your inner (or not-so-inner) geek wish they could become reality.
And while these phenomena are well-known and extensively studied by today’s scientists, the general public’s lack of familiarity with these concepts may cause them to think that exposure to radiation can unlock some sort of superhuman ability inside them.
The question is: Can it, really?
But first, radiation
For starters, radiation isn’t a one-in-a-million, luck-of-the-draw sort of deal. In fact, radiation’s everywhere.
Radiation is the emission of energy in the form of waves or rays. These rays travel through space in the form of light, sound, and heat. The sun, for instance, radiates light and heat energy towards the earth. When you’re on Spotify, sound energy radiates from the speaker to the listener’s ears.
There are two types of radiation, classified based on their energy levels. There is non-ionizing radiation, which registers lower energy and intensity levels, and is treated as relatively harmless. Some examples are microwave energy from mobile phones and radio waves from radios and TVs. On the other hand, ionizing radiation (e.g. x-rays, gamma rays) possesses higher energy and intensity levels.
Ionizing radiation is produced by unstable or radioactive atoms. In an attempt to attain stability, these radioactive atoms emit or spit out excess energies (in the form of particles or gamma rays) from their nucleus. These emissions are called nuclear radiation. Depending on the type of atom and the intensity level, nuclear radiation can possess penetrating power that can pass through human skin and alter our DNA.
Or, in comic books, increase your proclivity for wearing colorful spandex.
But the story doesn’t end there
In comic books and other works of fiction, changes in a person’s DNA can give them superpowers and eventually turn them into a “superhuman” of sorts.
In the real world, however, this is not the case. When an uncontrolled amount of nuclear radiation strikes the human body, it changes the makeup of the cells. This puts the body at risk to sickness, radiation poisoning, or life-threatening illnesses like cancer. Sometimes, it can outright kill human beings.
That happens when radiation messes with the DNA structure, knocking bits of it away – or worse, breaking one or both strands of its double helix. Now, that alone isn’t really damaging, because cells are there to fix the damage. However, the problem arises when cells make mistakes, reach the point of no return, and essentially commit suicide in a process known as apoptosis, causing genetic disorders like cancer.
So… no superpowers?
As for radiation granting you amazing powers? The answer is simply two letters: No.
Let’s start with the Hulk. The fact that Bruce Banner even survived his ordeal is absurd. A gamma bomb (or a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima) will not turn timid scientists into green-skinned behemoths. Forget becoming the Incredible Hulk; Banner would have been incredibly dead, either from radiation sickness or instantaneous incineration. Also, gamma rays aren’t green – they’re invisible.
In the comics and films, the cosmic rays that hit the Fantastic Four gave each of them different powers. Now, human beings get exposed to cosmic rays every day. Though they pass through the body as much as 100 times per second, they are eventually slowed down or stopped and deflected by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field before hitting the human body. However, the Four received a significantly higher dose when they were in the Van Allen belts – a collection of energetic charged particles held together around the Earth by the planet’s magnetic field. Had this been real life, like Banner, each Fantastic Four member would have likely become a fantastic corpse.
As for everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? On the off chance that an irradiated spider bites you, don’t expect to start crawling on the ceiling. There is no pathology – no deviation from the typically expected outcome – for spider venom to alter human DNA. Furthermore, radiation’s effects on the spider may or may not significantly affect how its venom functions. So even if the spider’s venom were to become radioactive, Peter Parker would probably suffer the usual effects of being fanged by an arachnid. Depending on the type of spider, this could range from a painful sensation on the skin to an absolutely horrifying death.
But why radiation?
Now, as to why a significant number of these superhero characters got their powers from such an implausible scenario… Well, let’s hear it from the mouth of their co-creator himself, the late Marvel Comics scribe Stan Lee:
Author: Romelyn Yamio
Romelyn Yamio is a physicist, academic researcher, and freelance writer. She’s also a comic nerd. FLIPSCIENCE LOVES HER VERY MUCH. It has to be true, it’s in all caps.