In the last ten years, superhero fans have been spoiled for choice. We’ve seen all the big names from Marvel and DC hit the silver screen, in solo outings and unmatched group movies, with entire cinematic universes being crafted unlike anything in movie history.
Despite this eclectic range of heroes, a large number of them have a similar element to their superhero origin story. Other than the staple ‘Tragic Turning Point’, of course…
Yes, many heroes (and some villains) received their superpowers from a dose of some kind of radiation. But what would happen in the real world? Would a spot of radiation spawn myriad Spider-Men? CBRN equipment provider, Kromek, investigates…
After a simple tour of a science facility school nerd Peter Parker finds himself as the unfortunate victim of a spider bite. But this wasn’t any old spider; this was a radioactive spider. Before long, the nerdy teenager was swinging across New York City and saving civilians from evil villains under the guise of Spider-Man.
But would being bitten by a radioactive spider really do anything in terms of transferring thematic powers to a person? 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 phosphorous, Phosphorous-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.
So, back to radioactive critters and their equally radioactive bites. Due to the half-life of this radioactive isotope of phosphorous being around 14 days, Phosphorous-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 Phosphorous-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.
Sadly, a radioactive spider bite is more likely to give you a nasty nip and a bit of soreness for a few days, rather than super-strength and wall-crawling powers.
The original super-powered hero, Superman is a Kryptonian who gained his incredible powers after coming to Earth and absorbing radiation from the sun. 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.
Long-term sun exposure hastens the aging of skin, as well as encouraging wrinkles. On a much more serious note, the risk that you’ll develop skin cancer will increase too. While Superman may have some amazing abilities, you’d be much smarter applying sunscreen onto exposed skin instead of letting the sun’s rays do their damage on your body!
Secret, experimental tests were the catalyst for Steve Rogers being transformed to a man in peak human physical condition. The conclusion of these 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.
While we don’t know what was in the serum, we do know what wavelengths of radiation will do to the body. 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.
But, being exposed to 100 mSv per year is the lowest level in which any rise in the risk of cancer is clear. 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.
While Steve Rogers benefitted from the exposure, in the real world, you wouldn’t attain peak physical condition. You’d probably just be dead.
Bruce Banner proved himself to be a hero even before he achieved superpowered status by saving a young man from the deadly blast of a gamma bomb. 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 (or, in the original version, grey) whenever he became angry.
In reality, a gamma bomb wouldn’t bless you with rage-induced muscles. It would incinerate your muscles. And your skin, bones, and everything else. 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.
In much lower ranges, gamma radiation does have a medical use. 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.
Everyone’s dreamed of having superpowers at some point. 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.