July 2, 2020

Pop Science: Fantastical science, energy and power in the Marvel Universe

Previously in Pop-Science we discussed the representation of geometry in Marvel with reference to the Tesseract. But, there’s more to the Tesseract than its flawed and complicated nomenclature. 

We discover in The Avengers that there has been an ongoing attempt to understand and channel the Tesseract’s energy into a source of unlimited power. 

It’s not difficult to see how the Tesseract’s capacity for both destruction and sustainable energy parallels that of nuclear energy in our own universe. For this reason, it’s worth discussing the ways in which the geometrical progeny of comic books is actually something quite conceptually similar to real science … and also the ways in which it’s not.

As an energy source, the Tesseract is unpredictable. In the beginning of The Avengers, there was an unexpected surge of power that was the cause for an evacuation. When Nick Fury asked for a debriefing of the situation, his first question was whether the scientists in charge of observing the Tesseract had tried to simply shut it down. Dr. Selvig responded that, “[The Tesseract’s] an energy source. If we turn off the power, [it] turns it back on.”

This is the first clearly definable technical departure from nuclear power that we can observe from the Tesseract as a source of energy. Nuclear reactions occur naturally all the time, but nuclear explosions do not … at least not often. Spontaneous fission (nuclear explosions that occur in nature, independent of a bomb or laboratory) is exceedingly rare, and even then, there is still a cause and effect relationship taking place. 

In our reality, the dramatic release of energy from a nuclear source is caused by either fission or fusion. Fission occurs when an atom splits into constituent parts; fusion occurs when two nuclei fuse together. Both of these processes expel a phenomenal amount of energy. In both instances, the cause of these explosions is that the atoms that trigger them are unstable; the effect is the expulsion of energy.

Nuclear energy as a source of power is generated in a reactor as a result of controlled fission reactions. Unlike the Tesseract in the Marvel Universe, the fission process in our own world is well understood. In this case, reality may be more spectacular than fantasy, because even in the few instances where something has gone awry, the problems are still explicitly understood and can be avoided in the future.

Instead of harnessing the Tesseract’s power directly like in Marvel, nuclear power is used indirectly. In this analogy, atoms of Uranium are a stand-in for the Tesseract in the production of sustainable energy. 

According to Energy.gov, there are two types of nuclear reactors in use in the United States: boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors, which are most common.

Pressurized water reactors, or PWRs, use water to cool and control nuclear reactions taking place in the core of a reactor. In this case, water is pushed into the core to cool the reactor rods while inhibiting the water to boil. This water then heats a separate chamber, also containing water, until steam is produced. From there, the steam turns a turbine in an electric generator in order to produce usable electric energy.

Although nuclear power reactors aren’t as fascinating to some as its interstellar Marvel counterpart, it deserves the same amount of respect and reverence. Afterall, the desire for sustainable energy is one shared across universes.

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