Last week I had a blast hosting Marvel.com's Live Red Carpet show for the IRON MAN 3 premiere. The movie comes out on May 3rd in the U.S., so I thought it'd be fun to take a look at some of the science behind the sci fi in the IRON MAN films.
STARK INDUSTRIES TECH
The Marvel Cinematic Universe all begins with the comics, and in this piece on ScientificAmerican.com, E. Paul Zehr goes back to the source with "Iron Man's Top 10 Heavy Metal Moments: Reflections on the First 50 Years of Scientific R&D from Stark Industries."
Zehr traces the development of Iron Man armor all the way from its "birth" in March 1963's TALES OF SUSPENSE #39, through the suited-up fight scene between Tony Stark and Col. James Rhodes (soon to be War Machine) in IRON MAN 2. Some of the upgrades along the way have included changes in color, a more modular suit that's storable, an waterproof exoskeleton, and a neural interface.
Getting into the suit has become easier as well - the first Marvel IRON MAN film introduced motorized robotic equipment for dressing Stark. And although it's not mentioned in Zehr's "Top 10" list, I was a big fan of the "suitcase suit" in IRON MAN 2.
While Zehr says that, "Right now we don’t even have the technology to safely dress Tony Stark in the Iron Man as shown in the robotics, let alone create the Iron Man armor itself," he points out that there are a few other elements that we're a bit closer to realizing. For example, inventor Phil Nuytten has created "swimmable" Newtsuit and Exosuits that seem to share some design elements with the Iron Man exoskeleton in INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #218 “Deep Trouble” (1987), in which Iron Man hits the water.
For a deeper dive into Zehr's take on the reality of creating an Iron Man suit, check out his book INVENTING IRON MAN: The Possibility of a Human Machine.
A REAL IRON MAN SUIT?
Discovery News also attacks this topic with a fun piece - and some nice pics - on the realities of various features of the Iron Man suit. Exoskeleton systems? In development. Head mounted display? Already functional in military and engineering applications. Repulsors? Unfortunately, not going to show up in our world any time soon.
As we know, Tony is proud of his rep as a tinkerer, and loves spending time in his lab...something that causes some problems between him and Pepper at the beginning of IM3. Here's what the piece has to say about Tony's latest additions:
"Iron Man 3" introduces at least one new technology to the Stark armor, although the details are sketchy indeed. Early in the film, Tony Stark is seen experimenting with a substance that he injects into his bloodstream, which then allows him to telepathically summon his armor to him across great distances. Each piece of armor has its own rocket system and latches onto Stark automatically after it flies across the room (or the country, as the case may be).
As a sci-fi conceit, the concept combines ideas of nanotechology, biotechnology and long-range wireless communications. Stark has also developed a system for remotely piloting Iron Man suits from the ground. The suits essentially become unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, a recurring concern in movies these days. In real-world news, just this month the FAA will begin allowing civilian agencies to fly UAVs weighing no more than 4.4 pounds in U.S. airspace.
THE ARC REACTOR
Emory University did a series of videos titled EMORY LOOKS AT HOLLYWOOD featuring faculty members applying their areas of knowledge to some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. In this 2010 video, Sidney Perkowitz, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics, gives his take on the possibilities for a real suit and gets specific on the science behind the power source.
He, too, suggests that an Iron Man-type of suit is a real possibility in the near (or not so near) future, given the current experimentation with exoskeletons. The military has spent a lot of money building them, and while it'll probably be quite awhile until they cover us head to toe and have a complete neurally integrated sensory system, Perkowitz believes "A walking kind of Iron Man that is stronger than the average soldier, I think clearly that can happen." Sadly, he wasn't so optimistic about the flying part.
A power source is necessary in order for an Iron Man suit to work, especially for the advanced functions. Perkowitz explains that though there are indeed ARC reactors in the real world, their uses are not quite as flashy as what we see in the IRON MAN films.
He says, "As far as I can judge from the film, what Tony's ARC reactor means is a fusion reactor...this idea of making energy by smashing together two hydrogen nucleii and turning them into helium. That's what goes on in our sun. It's a great power source. Physicists have worked on this idea for 60 years. They haven't made it work yet."
Part of the issue is size. Perkowitz explains that in reality, the machines that would generate this would be the size of a building. However, Tony Stark has managed to create a device that will do this same smashing together of hydrogen nucleii in something that's about 3 inches in diameter.
The film actually quotes the power level that Tony's ARC reactor puts out, and Perkowitz was intrigued enough to do some calculations. He determined that the reactor puts out somewhere between 1-16 million horsepower. 1 million hp is the equivalent to 2000-3000 Corvettes...so we're talking about something pretty damn powerful coming out of a device the size of a hockey puck.If one could actually manage to do this, then Perkowitz says that the Iron Man suit could do just about anything, from punching through walls to - yes - even flying!