What's in a Power? Honey, I Shrunk the Hero

How DO size-changing powers work? I mean, you can throw out words like Pym Particles all you want, what are the actual physics principles at work? Well, short of "magic-don't-ask", there are three basic ways superhero comics tend to view these powers (growing and shrinking, but we'll mostly talk about the latter because it's more complex and we've got Ant-Man on the brain). I'm not inventing anything here. Inspiration comes from the Marvel Universe Handbooks and the Dragon Magazine addenda to the Ultimate Powers Book.

Smaller atoms
The one that seems the least complicated from the perspective of what's on the page, this version of the power is also the least credible in terms of the real world. If your atoms are smaller, then you can't possible breathe oxygen, because your lungs' tiny molecules are no longer compatible with the air's bigger ones. A size-changer wouldn't be able to eat or drink either, or could, but couldn't metabolize any nutrients from it. The only way to make this work is if the hero is consistently shrinking molecules in his immediate vicinity - the air, at the very least - which could lead to some interesting practical applications; or else has a breathing apparatus, which is an interesting wrinkle in its own right.
Denser atoms
In this version of the power, the hero can compress the space between atoms, or possibly even between particles inside his atoms. This is how the Ant-Man movie SAYS it works, though a compressed man couldn't actually ride an ant. Because the way this works, the character's mass would not change. A 180 lbs. man would still weigh as much (at 1G, of course). Inversely, a growing character with this version of the power wouldn't become a giant so much as a vaporous cloud or light balloon. (Power Pack's Mass Master is one of the few characters to actually manifest this version fully.)

Fewer atoms
As the hero shrinks, his mass is shunted to another dimension (let's call it the Pym Dimension), just as a growing character would import mass from it (and indeed, as the shrinking hero must when he returns to full size). This dimension would be nothing but conceptual mass, unless you want to imagine people being violently stripped of their atoms by an unaware hero. (A variant would have the mass come from SOMEwhere, near or far, but then you'd have to contend with some pretty spectacular chemical reactions and radiation.) Most shrinking heroes have both fewer AND denser atoms, to explain their suite of powers. Somehow, the human body works with fewer atoms, which probably speaks to a link between the self and what's been deposited in the Pym Dimension. You may have a tiny brain in the here and now, but a lot of the processing is being done elsewhere. The Atom, for example, has been able to put more "weight" into a punch by drawing from that invisible store of mass, making himself more or less heavy as situations required.

Weird ways
There are other ways a character could change size, but these are definitely weird. There's the proxy method, where one's mind is uploaded to a miniaturized version of oneself, like in Doctor Who's The Invisible Enemy, though that's cheating. For growing, you could do it the old-fashioned way, with cell division (which is how we grew from tiny babies to full-grown adults), but that doesn't account for shrinking back down, unless the larger body can be shed like a husk. So imagine a hero who could generate a tiny version of himself and leave his larger body behind, if you like. Or the hero could split into several selves, each using the original's total mass. The more you split, the smaller the copies.
The subatomic problem
Whatever version of the power you look at, things get real wonky when the hero shrinks down to subatomic size (even before then). Your atoms can be more densely packed, but can they contract to smaller than an actual particle? You can have fewer atoms in your body, but what happens when you're just ONE atom, or less? Perhaps "smaller atoms" is the only possible explanation, since it would theoretically allow for atoms smaller than a particle, and certainly, there's no air to breathe down there and it doesn't seem to affect anyone. Notably, the "quantum realm" makes an appearance in Ant-Man as this unexplainable place, but the very fact that it's possible to go there puts the lie to Pym's "denser atoms" theory. In the comics, the Marvel Universe proposes a Microverse, another dimension that's accessed when you go too far down. But that's cheating. Here again, the Pym Dimension is our key to understanding the true shrinking hero's ability to sit on an electron and admire the view: If one shunts ALL their mass into the Pym-D save a stray gluon or other particle building block, one is simply using that gluon as a probe into the quantum realm. The hero interprets this world into understandable images (rotating spheres, his own body, etc.), but he's physically in that other space, as mass and consciousness.

Now the real question: Is there more money to be made with the Pym Particle/Dimension from the military or as a miracle diet?


Delta said...

In Lieber's "Swords of Lankhmar", the Gray Mouser shrinks down to (were-) rat sized and leaves behind most of his body as a big puddle of blood. When he gets restored, the magic sucks mass out of a nearby large woman leaving her surprised to be suddenly svelte.

Siskoid said...

Hahaha, love it!

Toby'c said...

"As the hero shrinks, his mass is shunted to another dimension (let's call it the Pym Dimension), just as a growing character would import mass from it (and indeed, as the shrinking hero must when he returns to full size). "

This was basically how morphing was explained in Animorphs #10, "The Android".

Ax: When you morph something smaller than yourself, your body mass must go somewhere. So it goes into Zero-space. Zero-space is the space that ships travel through when they are going faster than light. It's not very likely to happen, but sometimes a ship travelling in z-space will intersect with a temporarily parked mass.
Jake: So right now there's a big bag of Jake floating in Zero-space? And it's possible some spaceship will zoom along it and hit it and splatter it all over?
Ax: No, no, of course not. No ship would actually HIT a floating mass. The ship's shielding system would disintegrate the mass. That's what troubles me about doing small morphs. The odds are millions to one. But it could happen.

I don't think any explanation was ever given for much larger morphs, though.

Andrew said...

The "Pym Dimension" has been canon and has a name--Kosmos. The Thunderbolts went there in an early story. It's never been stated directly (so far as I know), but I also tend to think it's where Ben Grimm and the various Hulks and other gamma monsters get their extra mass from when they transform.

This Kosmos has no relation to the original female form of the evolved cosmic cube that used to be the Beyonder.

Siskoid said...

Toby: That's an interesting wrinkle!

Andrew: Kosmos? Really? That's what they went with? But yeah, all shape-shifters who gain and lose mass must have access to this dimension.

Andrew said...

I've only read the Thunderbolts story, but a quick search suggests it was first mentioned back in 1963. Stan gets a pass because the general rule was "as long as it sounds future-y," but Kurt Busiek has no such excuse.

Brian said...

In the movie, Pym *introduces* the technology by describing how he *discovered* the way to shrink the space between atoms. That gets Scott into learning how to deal with (in his training with Hope) how to use a large man's mass in a small man's body. It's after that that Pym show him the regulator technology, warns him about the quantum-effect dangers of fiddling with it (especially if too small) and then introduces him to feats that would require him to be an appropriately-lighter mass, such as riding ants (before, when he first donned the suit, all that was controlled remotely).

I get the sense that basic cinematic Pym particles collapse and expand the space between atoms, as was described as the initial discovery. What the suit and especially the regulator does is shift atoms to and from quantum space as the wearer shrinks, allowing for mass and volume to exist in different relationships and controlling the electromagnetic bonds between atoms (which would be more strongly attracted when closer and would be unstable in organic molecules versus crystalline or fluid molecules – hence why Cross, who hadn't yet perfected the regulator that Pym had created had such issues gelatinizing living creatures as he shrunk them).

Dale Bagwell said...

Wow. Defintely enjoyed the topic on this one. I don't know how often or how in detail this particular topic has been addressed, but it definitely makes you think.

I guess in the end, the real answer is, its comic book science man. It just works;)

LiamKav said...

There are also characters like The Hulk that would need to use this (or a similar) explanation. Unless the science is that gamma radiation can somehow metabolise air and convert it to muscle, which seems... wonky, at best. Likewise, where does all that extra mass go when the Hulk reverts to Banner?

Siskoid said...

Dale: Well obviously ;-). Superhero universes' physical laws aren't quite as rigorous as ours.

Liam: Exactly.

Siskoid said...

I've also written a post about how "talking to animals" (like Aquaman does) might work.


If you've got any more ideas for powers that need this treatment, don't be shy with your suggestions.


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