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Iron Man Month 2010

Marvel Science: How Iron Man Fights

Would Iron Man's weapons systems work in the real world? Find out with our resident tech guru

We're celebrating the May 7 (April 28 internationally) release of "Iron Man 2" with Iron Man Month 2010! Get ready for a monthlong mega mix of all things Shellhead right here on Marvel.com!


By Ryan Haupt

Marvel has a proud history of science-heroes, with many Marvel heroes emerging as accidents of science or the product of their own scientific ingenuity. Tony Stark is one such hero and in order to analyze his plausibility we brought in an honest to goodness scientist to figure it out for us

Ryan Haupt holds two Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Geology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and is going back to school in the fall to get a Masters in Paleontology from Vanderbilt University. Currently, he helps research a variety of topics ranging from stable isotope geochemistry, mammalian paleoecology and oceanographic paleoclimatology. He hosts the podcast "Science... sort of" (http://www.sciencesortof.com/) with two grad student friends where they hang out while talking about science and geek culture. He occasionally fights rabid and rogue elephant seals, but only for science.



It's been a month. You've done your homework learning the ins and outs of how to build, fly and operate your own Iron Man suit. But it's all for naught if you can't help defend the people that need you, so we enter the final chapter in the science of the Armored Avenger, and that is how to fight!

Even though repulsors may seem the most interesting and iconic weapon in Tony Stark's arsenal, the trend we've established thus far is to start with the plausible and work up to the fantastic. So why waste any more time? Let's go!


If Tony Stark has one bona fide superpower, it must be to take things that are usually big and make them smaller but still just as effective. Twice in "Iron Man" he does this with missiles. First with the Mark I cave suit which looks to be little more than a bottle rocket with some sort of explosive in the front. It flies straight and goes boom; however, later in the film Iron Man successfully takes out a tank with an even smaller looking armament. "Successfully" in this sense being defined as it works so well he can turn and walk away from the explosion without looking back as only a mega awesome badass can do. The only plausible way a missile

that small could do that much damage without containing some secret gizmo only Stark has access to is if the weapon is "smart." A smart missile is one that can target the weak points of a structure to inflict maximum damage with minimal payload.

But missiles get shot at Iron Man too, and that's something that needs to be dealt with. In the movie, Jarvis is warning Tony of incoming missiles and showing him their trajectory on his HUD (Head-Up Display). Missiles that can target and chase you are tough buggers to deal with. You can fly right at them and get so close that you activate their proximity detector and they explode as you zip past-which is really dangerous and doesn't always work-or you can do what Tony does and release flares. Flares, usually containing magnesium, burn hot enough to trick an infrared missile that they are the target causing it to explode too soon. Tony even uses these offensively against Obidiah Stane to blind him temporarily during their fight. Kids, don't look directly at burning magnesium or you'll wind up in a robotic suit fighting your protégé.

The U.S. military is currently testing out active defense systems that target and destroy incoming projectiles, both missiles and tank shells, using lasers! (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/11/video-fix-activ/) The suit probably doesn't have one of these already because Stark Industries likely didn't waste time on "defense," being a company that prided itself on offense. But defense is important, both of the suit and while inside it. So Tony better learn and fast, which is fortunately something he's good at.


Tony should be more careful, he does have a heart condition after all. Getting hit by tank shells in the chest can't be good for the shrapnel in Tony's heart. The source of his magnetic field was explored in our first article, but just how is it physiologically keeping him alive even in the heat of battle?  Well we went straight to cardiac surgeon Dr. John Perry for some answers.

We know that Tony's chest shrapnel is intercarial, or inside the heart itself, based on statements made by Dr. Yinsen expressing concern over Tony's atrial septum, which is the bit of tissue separating the top two chambers of your heart right now! It's kind of important. So having shrapnel near there sounds bad, but it's whether or not the shrapnel moves that makes it truly dangerous. If the shrapnel doesn't move it may not even be worth removing, because the body will form scar tissue over it and it'll be stuck in place for as long as you're using your heart.

If the shrapnel is mobile you could be in trouble. It could tear an artery/vein, part of your heart or be pumped somewhere else like a lung or even your brain. This is all bad news, so if the shrapnel has the potential to move around, measures must be taken against it doing so. Say it's in Tony's left atrium, because left is worse for shrapnel than the right side; right really only pumps blood to and from the lungs, the left

side is responsible for the rest of the body. That's why you feel your heart beating in the left side of your chest, it's doing more work.

So if Tony has a piece of shrapnel is his left atrium and it's floating around, that's bad; it can tear stuff up inside the heart or block valves, preventing blood from flowing properly. It couldn't be immediately removed cause of the whole "stuck in a cave in Afghanistan" situation, so Dr. Yinsen came up with a novel solution: magnets! Since the force of the magnetic field is operating perpendicular to the wall of the heart, the shrapnel will be pulled up against the inner wall of the heart itself and be then immobilized. When Tony's chest reactor is removed by Obidiah Stane, Tony looks like he's about to faint, a medical condition called syncope, which could be caused by the shrapnel in his heart blocking the flow of blood through the atrium. As soon as he reapplies the magnetic field, the problem is solved and Tony can get back on his feet. The bottom line to all this squishy science (i.e. biology) is that Tony can take hits to the chest and be ok with regards to the shrapnel.

We've already established that his armor is tough enough to take a hit, but Tony is a bit softer so he'll need some serious padding inside the suit if he wants to not get beaten to a pulp just being inside the thing. The best way to do this would probably be a cushioning system built out of some non-Newtonian fluids. Water, a Newtonian fluid, is incompressible, so it behaves the same way under pressure as it would in any other circumstances. Non-Newtonian fluids change behavior when force is applied. Next generation bullet-resistant armor is starting to incorporate shear-thickening fluids which are liquid under normal conditions but become much harder when force-like a bullet-is applied. Sound too good to be true? Mix equal parts water and corn starch in a pool and you can run across it as if it were solid, just don't stop moving (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2XQ97XHjVw). It makes sense Tony would augment his armor with this kind of fluid because it could be moved around inside the suit to where it would be needed most.

Shear-thinning, the opposite flavor of non-Newtonian fluid, would also be handy and comfortable. The fluid is viscous when at rest, but flows when force is applied. So it'd be like a couch cushion that molded to you as you jumped on it. In the early issues of THE ULTIMATES, Tony appears covered in some kind of goop as we takes off the suit, so Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch may be even farther ahead of the curve than we give them credit for. There's no cool video of shear-thinning, you just need to go to your local diner and try to pour some ketchup; it's thick at first, but hit that bottle a few times and it flows like, well, something less thick. Shear-thinning, baby!


There's a scene in "Iron Man" where terrorists are holding hostages at gunpoint because they're terrified Iron Man will hurt them. The plan is

ill-conceived because Tony has a secret weapon: shoulder-fired bullets with computer targeting. His eyes and Jarvis decide who's hostile and then they are dealt with, but bullets usually require a gun to work very well, right? If only that was the case. Metal Storm, a company specializing in superposed load ballistic technology, makes a product of the same name which would be perfect for what Tony has in his shoulders (http://www.metalstorm.com/content/view/58/91/). The bullets are self-contained with their own propellant and just need to be placed in a tube, jolted with some electrical charge to ignite them, and sent on their way. There's not much more to say until the science isn't speculative anymore. Tony Stark's job exists in our world, and there are some very smart people working very hard at it.


One thing no non-fictional company has cracked is the repulsors. They're the final bit of science-magick we just can't seem to crack. At first glance they seem to have a lot in common with Iron Man's chest reactor and rocket boots, and some have argued that this is indeed the case. But there are some confounding factors at play. Let's look at what we do know about the repulsors from the movie.

1.      No obvious moving parts.
2.      They require a very brief charging period.
3.      They seem to impart a kinetic force on the target; there is no obvious thermal or chemical damage.
4.      They can be used without the rest of the suit.
5.      Regardless of what the comics say, there is some recoil against the user.

Based on these known principles of repulsor technology we can conclude that there is something else going on here besides his chest reactor and rocket boots. The repulsors seem to have more in common with the newly developed 'sound bullets' which use an acoustic lens to direct high intensity sound to a specific target much in the same way repulsors do (http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=acoustic-lens-generates-bullets-of-2010-04-05).

At the end of the day, the most important thing we know about repulsors is that they are "proprietary Stark technology." Meaning it's their toy and you only get to play with it for a significant fee. Now that we've been through our text-based industrial espionage to break down Tony's armor piece by piece it seems fair we leave Mr. Stark something to turn a profit on. Building new suits every half hour ain't cheap. Besides, we haven't even seen the movie yet, why guess when we could go collect more evidence? That's the scientific way. Thanks for reading and learning along with us this month and we'll see you at the theater this Friday.


This article would not have been possible without the help of some spectacular science-types who have specialized in fields I ran screaming from my freshman year of college. I'd like to thank Ben Tippett (University of New Brunswick), Daniel Oliphant (University of Pittsburgh), Jacob Stump (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University), Dr. Bruce Haupt (Holzer Clinic Orthopedics) and Dr. John Perry (Holzer Cardiovascular Institute). I couldn't have done this without their knowledge and willingness to converse endlessly about the awesomeness that is the Marvel Universe. Thank you very much. To anyone I've forgotten to mention, thank you too.

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