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Why radiation can’t give you superpowers

The blockbuster reboot of the Fantastic Four flamed out this weekend, pulling in a meager $26 million at the U.S. box office. Still, the movie raised an age-old question: what would it take to obtain superpowers?

Typically in comic books, the transition to superhuman power involves exposure to radiation. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and can suddenly crawl on ceilings. Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, gets splashed with radioactive juice and can hear through walls. But a new video from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions highlights the extreme unlikelihood of such scenarios.

As the video explains, radiation is everywhere. When you hug your friends, heat radiation emanates from their arms and onto your skin. Switch on a bike lamp, and light radiation illuminates your path. Turn on Spotify or the radio, and sound radiation pumps jams into your ears. On a basic level, radiation is any energy that travels through space in the form of waves or particles. Here on Earth, we typically encounter radiation in the three forms mentioned above: heat, visible light and sound, but in most cases, we aren’t harmed by radiation because its energy and intensity levels are too low.

To acquire superpowers, you would need a place steeped in high-energy radiation. Such a source lurks 600 to 12,000 miles outside Earth in the Van Allen radiation belt, where the planet’s magnetic field traps radioactive particles, like gamma rays created by solar wind or cosmic rays from other galaxies. (Our atmosphere shields most of these cosmic rays). A radioactive particle is an unstable atom that spews energy in an attempt to restore balance. If the energy level is strong enough, then it can pass through solid barriers, like our skin, and cause changes in our DNA.

In many superhero origin stories, those mutations lead to superhuman abilities, but that situation is unlikely in the real world, as University of Nebraska physicist Dan Claes explains in the Reactions video.

Claes says that the main barrier is the human body’s exorbitant number of cells. For the The Human Torch to gain his ability to become a fireball, each of his 75 trillion cells would need to mutate in the exact same way, he says. Even if a person traveled through the Van Allen belt, where they’d be pelted with 15 million cosmic rays per second, one couldn’t guarantee that happening.

When you take deeper look, superpowers become really unfeasible. The DNA helix is like a train track with rails made of chemicals called base pairs. There are 3 billion base pairs in the human genome. So let’s say somewhere in that genome, there is one base pair responsible for Human Torchism. The odds of mutating that single base pair in all of your cells would be close to one in a septillion (1 followed by 24 zeros).

At the same time, your body would be fighting back. High-energy radiation can physically snap the DNA helix or create deletions in the tracks, but cells come with repair systems to fix these mistakes. Or when they reach the point of no return, cells can commit a sort of suicide, a process known as apoptosis. (When these failsafes fall short, genetic disorders like cancer can occur).

Ok, so a full-body superpower is out, but what about something simpler like supervision?

In human eyes, colors are perceived by three light sensors in the eye called cones, but birds have an extra, mutated cone that detects ultraviolet light. In 2013, a study showed that this trait is due to a single mutation and had evolved at least 14 different times among the world’s bird species. The odds for supervision are still against you. Even if you developed an extra cone today, as at least one human has, there’d be no guarantee that your brain could comprehend the visual information or that you’d be able to describe the sensation to others.

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