As promised, I’m following up with a post looking at the science in one of the sub-plots in Iron Man 2.  Mostly because it gives me the chance to write about some interesting real world science.

** Warning Spoilers Ahead**

Poisoning pigeons with palladium

The sub-plot in question revolves around palladium, used by the ARC reactor in Stark’s chest, slowly poisoning him.  Now the obvious solution is – don’t keep the reactor in your chest!  From the first film we know that the reactor powers an electromagnet that keeps shrapnel in his chest from reaching his heart.  (I’m not even going to touch the issue of whether this remotely makes sense.)  But there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason for Stark to put the reactor in his chest rather than having it sit outside and just having a power lead connecting the reactor to the electromagnet.  Well. No logical reason other than that it would make for a much shorter film.

Palladium is certainly poisonous so this isn’t a case of bad science as much as Iron Man carrying the Idiot Ball (I’ve said before. Tvtropes will ruin your life).

Instead we find out that Stark has been trying every known element as a substitute for palladium in his chest reactor without success.  However hope springs eternal.  Rummaging through some of his dad’s old stuff suggests a new element can power the reactor without poisoning him.

So Iron Man quickly knocks up what looks like a small particle accelerator and uses it to fire a beam at a target.  Hey presto, he has his new wonder element.

Lets compare all this with the real world.  Scientists have actually created new elements and they do so by using particle accelerators.   One example, Copernicium, was created by firing zinc nuclei from a particle accelerator at lead; the lead and zinc nuclei combined to create Copernicium.  Looking good so far for Iron Man 2.

The elements created by these sort of processes have all been very unstable and quickly suffered radioactive decay.  This is because a nucleus is made up of neutrons and protons held together by the strong nuclear force.  Working against the strong nuclear force is the electromagnetic force.  As the protons are all positively charged they repel each other and try to break the atom apart.   The strong force is stronger than the electromagnetic force when particles are close together which is how the nuclei of atoms hold together.  However over longer distances the electromagnetic force is stronger.  The new elements that have been created have nuclei that are so big that the strong nuclear force can’t keep the nuclei together for long before they split apart.

It is possible though, that there are stable new elements that could be created.  Such elements would belong to the hypothesised island of stability in the periodic table.  Maybe it is one of these elements that Iron Man has created.

Still looking good, science-wise.  Unfortunately there are a few snags – the first is that we have only managed to create a handful of atoms of new elements using the methods described above (less than 1,000 Copernicium atoms in the last ten years).  Stark seems to be able to create a large chunk in no time at all – at least a few billion trillion new atoms of his element in one afternoon.

Health and safety – do not stand next to the ionising radiation

Another potential problem is that Stark stands next to his circular particle accelerator.  Such an accelerator would be giving off radiation while in operation.  (Standing next to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN while it is on would be fatal.)  Since we don’t know what energy the accelerator is operating at maybe the radiation isn’t lethal.  We’ll give him a pass on this one.

Image courtesy of GogDog @ Flickr

Iron Man models a new glow in the dark look after standing next to his particle accelerator

Through a glass darkly

While making his new element, Stark uses a mirror to reflect the particle beam out of the accelerator and into his target.  Now, a mirror wouldn’t reflect particles.  It would only reflect light.  But we know the beam can’t be made up of light because the beam is travelling in a circle around Iron Man’s particle accelerator.  This suggests the beam is made of charged particles with Stark using magnets to keep them going in a circle.  I can’t think of any explanation for this reflection that makes sense.

The final head scratcher is why Stark even bothers reflecting the beam out through air and into his target.  The air would interfere with his beam.  It would be far simpler to put the target inside the accelerator, which presumably has a vacuum inside it.  This is how it’s done in real life.

Still, although it’s not quite true to real life the film seemed generally an exaggeration of real world science rather than complete fantasy.  Not bad for a comic book film.