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Quantum Biology and the Science of Superpowers

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The Science of Superpowers

Writers have a kind of superpower. We’re illusionists, of a sort. But where a magician taunts your disbelief, a writer conjures a coherent fantasy from your mind, the way a laser is coherent light. A story drafted with art and skill creates whole people, even entire worlds, that readers relate to with anxiety and frustration, tears and laughter, as if they were completely real.

"Avengers at the Beijing Opera" by Daybreak

I wanted to bring THE MINUS FACTION to life in this way, and that meant the team’s abilities had to be more realistic than something you would find in a traditional comic—not because stories in that medium are lacking, but because prose doesn’t lend itself to the outrageous as well as the four-color press. At the same time, it was also important the series not lose the awe and magic that keeps bringing us back to stories of the fantastic. I didn’t want superhuman abilities that were legitimately, scientifically possible. That just transports the reader out of our everyday world into . . . one just like it, with all the same hazards and frustrations. And that isn’t why we read!

Take the Law of the Conservation of Matter. When your foot swells after an injury, like a snake bite, it’s because your body shunts fluid into the wound, giving your immune cells space to move around and clean up the mess. But your total mass remains the same, and if we were being realistic, then when Bruce Banner’s entire body “swells” to become the Hulk, he would necessarily retain the same mass, just in a larger volume. The only way that’s possible is if he became less dense such that punching him was like punching gelatin.

Of course, a Jell-O Hulk is not a threat. He’s also not very interesting. I needed superpowers real enough you could almost touch them across the gap of disbelief and yet fantastic enough to be fun and exciting to read.

Luckily, Nature is full of inspiration. Birds really do fly, after all. Bats and dolphins really do have sonar. Electric eels really do emit deadly jolts of electricity. The saliva of Komodo dragons really is full of toxic, infectious bacteria. Beetles really do squirt burning chemicals. Chameleons really do become darn-near invisible. And so on.

One can imagine, then, all kinds of science-based ways humans might also do some of those things. For example, many creatures—including humans—have something called heat-shock proteins which they express under extreme conditions, such as after a burn. Heat-shock proteins have different thermodynamic properties than normal proteins. They don’t work as efficiently, but they can operate at higher temperature and buffer cells against further damage. It’s possible, then, that an individual could develop a mutation where their heat-shock proteins absorb incredible amounts of heat, thereby cooling, or perhaps even freezing, anything they touch (since heat flows like a fluid). That’s not exactly the same as the X-men character Iceman, who shoots freezing blasts from his hands, but it’s something real enough that you could imagine it in our world.

There are limits, of course. Just because ants and spiders are super-strong for their size doesn’t mean humans can be. Little animals have a size-to-weight ratio we can’t mimic, which means super-strength isn’t transferable through a spider bite. But that doesn’t mean a variant of human muscle couldn’t (theoretically) be inordinately strong. Evolution hasn’t hit upon every conceivable protein configuration, and modern materials science tells us that carbon-based polymers can be both highly contractile, like protein, and extremely strong, like nanotubes.

But unlike heat absorption, the biophysics of super-strength is tricky. Any creature afflicted with a “super-strong muscle” mutation would also need concurrent mutations that strengthened its skeletal system, which would otherwise snap under the strain, leaving the animal immobile, in pain, and unable to find food! What’s more, strong muscles don’t immediately bring impenetrable skin, or even large size. In fact, to the degree such muscles would be denser, requiring more energy and raw material to build, such animals might actually be smaller than normal given the same number of calories in childhood.

To discover my solution, you’ll have to meet Xana Jace in Episode Two of the story.

But, of course, no science fiction story would be complete without a few ideas that stretch to the very fringe of our understanding, such as John’s ability to “hitch,” to move his mind into someone else's body. I foist it on a real natural phenomenon called quantum entanglement for two (arguably) justifiable reasons. First, as smarter people than me have noted, some kind of quantum effect may very well mediate consciousness, which remains for me the greatest superpower in Nature. Second, there is solid evidence that cells and tissues use “spooky” quantum effects—to use Einstein’s word—as part of their normal function. For example, something called quantum coherence seems to be crucial for photosynthesis, which I would bet is going on very close to you right now.

In short, quantum biology is a thing. Living tissues legitimately employ quantum effects all the time. So assuming some quantum process really does underwrite consciousness, it’s at least conceivable that entangled particles could link one mind to another.

[And in fact, the biggest criticism I’ve received is not that such a thing couldn’t happen, but that in projecting his consciousness, John wouldn’t have the “muscle memory” he would need to employ his specialized training. Just to make it clear, there’s no such thing as “muscle memory.” Muscle fibers don’t store information. What we call “muscle memory” is a type of procedural memory kept, along with all your other memories, in your brain. What’s more, although I don’t really get into it in Episode One, for my idea to work, John’s mind would never actually leave his body, although it would feel to him like it does. Rather, his own brain would still be the seat of his consciousness; it just interfaces with another central nervous system remotely through the (very real) quantum entanglement effect, which allows for instantaneous action at a distance. That means he would still have access to all his memories and skills. Note that in the story, he does not have access to all the memories and skills of the people he inhabits.]

Of course, all of this is still incredibly far-fetched, as Neil DeGrasse-Tyson would surely tell you. But then, much of what we take for granted now would’ve seemed hopelessly far-fetched to someone from an earlier century. In the late 1800s, for example, the inventor-hero Frank Reade, Jr., protagonist of a popular series of juvenile novels, was the Tony Stark of his era, creating such outlandish devices as an electric-powered “air boat” and an automaton that mimicked the appearance, intelligence, and behavior of human beings—that is, a helicopter and a robot. It’s safe to assume a global information network, holding the sum of human science and accessible to everyone via a device that fits in their pocket, would’ve seemed either too ridiculous to print, or a bit childish, like Dick Tracy’s radio watch, which we’ve also created.

The art of good novel-writing, of course, is to marry the science to the speculation such that coherent fantasy emerges spontaneously in the reader’s mind. I hope I succeeded.

For those who would like a short (~14-minute) introduction to the emerging field of quantum biology, check out this video by physicist Jim Al-Khalili or this article from Big Think.

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