Iron Man 2 blew away the competition at the box office this weekend, as audiences flocked to see the latest adventures of billionaire Bad Boy genius, Tony Stark. And it didn’t take our beloved nerd-gassers long to weigh in on the science of the fiction, with the most balanced analysis so far coming from Brookhaven physicist Todd Satogata, quoted in Popular Mechanics. Specifically, there’s the question of whether or not it’s really possible to build a particle accelerator in your own home with sufficient power to create a new element.
The short answer: why yes, you can build your own particle accelerator. It’s already been done by physicist Michio Kaku, who built a 2.3-million-electron-volt accelerator (called a betatron) in his parents’ garage for his high school science fair project because he “wanted to play about with antimatter.” You know, the usual high school hijinks. Kaku was precocious enough to catch the eye of Edward Teller, who offered him a scholarship to Harvard and launched Kaku’s physics career.
The long answer is a bit more complicated, as Satogata’s analysis makes clear. The basic building blocks are a beam tube with a large vacuum, charged particles, magnets to bend the beam, and radio frequency oscillators, or RF cavities, to accelerate the particles. Based solely on what’s depicted on screen, Tony Stark seems to be missing RF cavities (although they could be off-screen), and his magnets don’t appear to be large enough for maximum steerage.
There’s also the question of where he’s getting the juice to run his homemade accelerator: on the order of 10 to 15 megawatts, enough to run over 10,000 homes. “For Stark to run his accelerator, he’s gotta make a deal with his power company or he’s gotta have some sort of serious power plant in his backyard.” I humbly suggest that if Stark can build a tiny fusion reactor to operate his suit, finding the energy to run an accelerator isn’t his biggest problem.
No, Stark’s biggest problem is creating that fictional new element. There have been several new heavy elements created in particle accelerators around the world in the last couple of decades, most recently the discovery of element 117, announced by a team of American and Russian scientists just last month. But that team managed to synthesize just six atoms of element 117 by smashing together isotopes of calcium and a radioactive element called berkelium (equally rare) — hardly enough to power Stark’s mini fusion tractor.
Furthermore, these heavy elements don’t hang around very long; they decay in a matter of milliseconds. What Stark creates is something far more unique than just another new heavy element: he has apparently discovered an element that lies within the so-called “island of stability” in the periodic table. In general the heavier the element created, the shorter its lifetime, because artificially synthesized elements are unstable and decay immediately. But with the most recent discoveries, those lifetimes appear to be lengthening once again, tantalizing physicists with the notion that perhaps there is an as-yet-undiscovered element that is both heavy and stable. And who knows what wondrous properties such an element might possess, and what exciting new applications we might find for it?
Okay, so while there’s a real-world basis for this pivotal scene in Iron Man 2, it’s not yet something within the reach of our most brilliant scientists. But our most brilliant scientists aren’t Tony Stark — that’s why he’s a superhero; he can achieve what mere mortals cannot. Emory University’s Sid Perkowitz, author of Hollywood Science, explains:
While the film naturally took some liberties with the details — sci-fi has the luxury of not having to pass peer review — Marvel Studios nonetheless cared enough about plausibility to consult with Mark Wise, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. Wise met with producer Jeremy Latcham and other members of the production team — even bringing along a lucky grad student for good measure — to offer some insights specifically on the laboratory scene where Stark builds his homemade particle accelerator and creates a new element.
Judging from its opening weekend box office receipts, I think people enjoy the film very much. Here’s hoping they also learn a bit of real-world science from folks like Satogata and Perkowitz who approach these “teaching moments” with the appropriate humor and light touch.
Leading image: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) fires up his home-made particle accelerator in the movie Iron Man 2 (Paramount Pictures).