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A realistic look at superhero origin stories

Wondering if wall-crawling is just a spider bite away? Radiation monitoring devices supplier Kromek tells a realistic version of superhero origin stories.

A realistic look at superhero origin stories

Unless you’ve been living on Krypton, chances are you’ve watched a fair few superhero movies over the last ten years. In fact, we’ve been positively spoilt for choice – both Marvel and DC have been hitting the grindstone and producing floods of movies and TV shows for their most iconic, (and not-so-iconic) characters!

There’s even been the incomparable cinematic universe, particularly for Marvel, built over the course of many years.

But there are many superheroes with a similar origin trait. Beyond sharing a penchant for Spandex and tragic backstories, a good number of them have also been on the wrong side of a large dose of radiation. But for those of us who have ever wondered if wall-crawling is just a radioactive spider bite away, radiation monitoring devices supplier Kromek is here to tell a more realistic version of superhero origin stories.

Captain America

Radiation experience: Exposed to vita-waves.
Original outcome: Achieved peak human condition.
Realistic outcome: Complete collapse of immune system, and/or death.

Steve Rogers was graced with the utmost level of peak human condition of a man in his prime. The conclusion of laboratory tests saw Rogers administered with the Super-Soldier serum before being subjected to a series of vita-rays — a unique combination of wavelengths of radiation designed to both accelerate and stabilise the effects of the serum on the body.

We don’t know what was in that serum, but we doubt it could protect a man from radiation. The unit sievert measures radiation, with this quantifying the amount of radiation that is absorbed by human tissues. One sievert equals 1,000 millisieverts (mSv), while one mSv equals 1,000 microsieverts. We are exposed to between two and three mSv of natural radiation per year. Have a CT scan and the organ studied typically receives a radiation dose of 15 mSv if you’re an adult and 30 mSv if the individual is a newborn baby, while a standard chest X-ray often involves exposure to around 0.02 mSv and a dental X-ray usually 0.01 mSv.

Exposure to 100 mSv per year is the lowest level that a notable increase in cancer occurs. Meanwhile, cumulative exposure to one sievert is said to cause a fatal cancer many years later in five out of every 100 individuals exposed to the radiation. Become exposed to large doses of radiation or acute radiation though and your central nervous system, as well as your red and white blood cells, will be destroyed and your immune system compromised.

Sadly, for Steve, in real life, he wouldn’t get to don the stars and stripes and take down evil with his trusty shield. In fact, he’d probably struggle to take down a common cold.

The Hulk

Radiation experience: Caught in a gamma bomb explosion.  
Original outcome: Turns into a huge creature with super-strength when angry.
Realistic outcome: Rapid radiation poisoning, and/or death by incineration.

Bruce Banner was pulling out heroics before he even gained powers, as he attempted to save a man who had unknowingly driven into a gamma radiation test site. However, his efforts saw him take a direct blast from an experimental gamma bomb — a turning point in Banner’s life as it turned him into The Hulk and saw him grow huge and green, (originally grey), whenever he became angry.

In reality, a gamma bomb would incinerate you. There would be little time for you to get angry — or feel any other emotion, for that matter! This is because gamma rays represent the highest energy form of light — they lie beyond violet on the electromagnetic spectrum with shorter wavelengths than ultraviolet rays and X-rays. One gamma ray offers at least 10,000 times more energy than a visible light ray. Gamma rays also knock electrons about in rapid fashion, with the charge particles then disrupting any chemical bond that they come into contact with.

Gamma rays can have a more productive use though. Take the gamma knife for example, which is a medical device which aims gamma rays at a patient’s brain in order to kill tumours.

Spider-Man

Radiation experience: Bitten by a radioactive spider.
Original outcome: Wall-crawling, super-strength and agility.
Realistic outcome: A sore, itchy bite.

Peter Parker, the school geek, was bitten by a radioactive spider during a tour of a science facility. Before long, the nerdy teenager was swinging across New York City and saving civilians from evil villains under the guise of Spider-Man.

How would a radioactive spider bite really end up? Technology publication Gizmodo has shed light on this by imagining a scenario where a person is bitten by a spider whose phosphates in its DNA backbone had been replaced with a radioactive isotope of phosphorus, Phosphorus-32. As a quick side note, be aware that while fans have never been told exactly what the spider that bit Peter Parker was irradiated with, recent origin stories of Spider-Man have at least mentioned DNA hybridisation.

Let’s look closer at this radioactive spider. Due to the half-life of this radioactive isotope of phosphorus being around 14 days, Phosphorus-32 would only stay in the human body for a short amount of time and actually likely be excreted eventually through the urine. Gizmodo also points out that Phosphorus-32 is a beta emitter, and so would be blocked by a thin sheet plastic to prevent too much harm being caused to those who stood nearby the person who had been bitten by the radioactive spider.

So, a radioactive spider-bit would more likely cause a bit of a nip than superpowers. Sorry, Peter.

Superman

Radiation experience: Living on Earth and absorbing the radiation of the un
Original outcome: God-level powers of everything  
Realistic outcome: Sunburn, and/or death by skin cancer

Kryptonian alien Superman gained his variety of powers from the Earth’s sun and its radiation. In the real world though, ultraviolet rays in sunlight can be harmful to the skin when the body is exposed to too much of it. Subject the skin to a large amount of sunlight and you may witness mild reddening in the short turn and suffer from sunburn, whereby the skin will be blistered and eventually will peel.

Really, long-term sun exposure would just wrinkle and age your skin. On a much more serious note, the risk that you’ll develop skin cancer will increase too. Superman may have some amazing abilities then, but you’d be much smarter applying sunscreen onto exposed skin instead of letting the sun’s rays do their damage on your body!

You’ve probably toyed with the idea of having superpowers. However, our human bodies seem incapable of going through the transformation that many of our comic book heroes did when they came into possession of their abilities.

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