A new challenger approaches.
The AiPT! staff has some interesting conversations. As we’re all fans, eventually we get around to the dorkiest of all arguments — the “rumbles.” Which of these two comic book characters would kick the other’s ass?
Somehow Magneto (the Master of Magnetism) vs. Graviton (gravity-wielding chump regularly punked by the Avengers) came up recently, and as the site’s Science Editor (who happens to have an honest-to-goodness geophysics degree), I thought, “Ooh, I can say something about that!”
Turns out someone already did. PhD physicist Frank Heile votes for Graviton, in part for the obvious reason — gravity affects everything that has mass, while magnetism only moves (some) metals (well, if he’s the master of electromagnetism, Magneto should be able to affect anything with a charge, but even then, he’s hamstrung).
“But, but …,” I stammered. Gravity is really weak! Sure, the magnetic force diminishes more than the gravitational force does over the same distance (it’s an inverse cube law rather than an inverse square law), but electromagnetism itself is much stronger than gravity, on the order of 1037 times as strong. That’s a one followed by *37* zeroes, or a little more than a trillion trillion TRILLION.
Think about it. Gravity has the entire mass of the Earth working for it, but a little bar magnet can overcome all that to lift paperclips off your desk. No one really knows why this enormous discrepancy exists, but it’s been speculated (maybe wildly, depending on your thoughts about string theory), that gravitons (the messenger particles of the gravitational force, from which fictional physicist Franklin Hall got his codename) may “leak” into other spatial dimensions, reducing gravity’s strength in our 3D world.
Reading on, Heile does acknowledge that gaping difference, but says if these guys are truly “masters” of the fundamental force each embodies, with few limitations on their power, Graviton just has to will the components of his equations big enough until he’s on equal footing with Magneto.
Okay, fine, but if THAT’s how we’re going to play this game, both Graviton and Magneto would get stomped by Halflife — the mistress of the weak nuclear force.
Four Color Forces
Let me back up for a second. Electromagnetism and gravity are the two most well-known of the four fundamental forces of the universe. Along with the nuclear strong and weak forces, these are the interactions that govern all that is, and the things that physicists are trying to further combine when you hear about a “unified field theory.”
The idea that everything can be described as expressions of a single field is attractive to scientists who note the remarkable simplicity of the universe and, apparently, to Steve Englehart, too! He even gave West Coast Avengers #13 the title “Unified Field Theory,” as it featured four villains meant to represent the fundamental forces. Alongside leader Graviton were Zzzax, representing the electromagnetic force (I guess Magneto was busy?), and new characters Quantum and Halflife, meant to embody the strong and weak nuclear forces, respectively.
The nuclear forces are hard things to wrap your head around, since they don’t (obviously) affect us in our everyday lives. They’re both incredibly important, though. The strong force is what holds together quarks — the basic building blocks of matter — to form protons and neutrons.
I’m not sure how the powers exhibited by Quantum — presumably named for quantum mechanics, the study of the very small — line up with that, though. He seems to … make copies of himself? That beat people up with brute strength, but are immediately scuttled by a Hawkeye smoke arrow? I don’t know.
The weak force is kind of the opposite, as it’s responsible for radioactive decay. It can actually transform a quark from one type (or “flavor”) to another, making the composite (“hadron”) particle unstable. In the case of beta decay, the weak force causes a neutron to become a proton, an electron and an antineutrino (a teeny, tiny bit of antimatter).
“Half-life” is a real term, defined as the amount of time it takes for half an amount of an unstable, radioactive substance to decay. Halflife the character … makes people age half their remaining life expectancy when she touches them. Which is a pretty crappy power if you understand the concept of mathematical limits, and you realize that after the first time or two, she’s not doing anything all that drastic.
Another, sort of hidden effect of the weak force is its role in the burning of stars. Beta decay occurs after nuclear fusion has smashed two hydrogen atoms together to form unstable helium, and it’s a vital part of the proton-proton chain reaction that kickstarts the stellar furnace. Without it, we wouldn’t have the sun’s light and heat, or the heavier elements produced in a star’s core.
Both the strong and the weak forces only operate over incredibly tiny distances, but extrapolating from the Rule of Heile, that shouldn’t matter — these people have mastery, remember! So imagine a being that can easily alter the very protons and neutrons in your body and make them FLY THE F--K apart, while emitting destructive antimatter and potentially synthesizing, almost alchemically, anything made out of iron and all the elements with a lower atomic number, which includes metals like titanium and silicon, plus carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. Oh, and the weak force affects all fermions (like quarks), thus avoiding the Magneto Handicap.
Ladies and gentlemen, Halflife is the undisputed champion of the four-way fray between the fundamental forces. Or she would be, if her powers actually resembled the weak nuclear force in any way at all.