In an interview FiveThirtyEight's DataLab, James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, dug into the real science behind Marvel's mighty mite, Ant-Man, whose film debuts today. Long story short (get it?), a real Ant-Man wouldn't be so super.
In comic books, Ant-Man uses a mysterious substance known as "Pym Particles" to shrink - and occasionally grow - in size. While in his reduced state, Ant-Man gains incredible strength, while maintaining his normal bodily functions. But according to Kakalios, that last bit wouldn't exactly be possible - you know, if shrinking down to the size of an ant were. And there would be other complications.
“There’s another thing, his hearing would be affected. Your eardrums can be thought of as a two-dimensional vibrating surface. Our hearing ranges from as low as 20 hertz, low-frequency noise, like Barry White, up to like 20,000 hertz,” explained Kakalios. “If the cutoff is at 20 hertz, then at ant size the cutoff would be something closer to 340 hertz. And since normal human speech is at 200 hertz, below that cutoff, what happens is he wouldn’t be able to hear what you were saying.”
And that's not all. Not only would Ant-Man's hearing be affected by shrinking to the size of an ant, his eyesight would suffer, too.
“His vision gets messed up because light is coming through the iris in your eye. The opening of your iris is maybe a few millimeters. If you shrink that down to ant size, now the size of the opening in your eye is not hundreds of times greater than the wavelength of light, now it’s less than 10 times greater than the wavelength of light.”
Why that matters is because the light waves coming in are scattering off the edge of your iris and they’re diffracting and you’re getting interference effects. Everything would be fuzzy and blurred because of this diffraction effect.”
This is why insect eyes do not look like human eyes. Insects have these compound eyes that are optimized to see movement.”
To make matters worse, his decreased vocal cord and diaphragm size would lead to what Kakalios describes as a "Mickey Mouse" voice.
“Our normal speaking voice is in the range of 200 hertz, 200 cycles per second,” said Kakalios. “If you shrink down to the size of an ant, if you model the vocal cords as vibrating strings, his voice will go from 200 hertz to 3,500 hertz or so. So he will be talking in this high, squeaky voice.”
But there is good news for Scott Lang (or Hank Pym, as the case may be). While shrinking in the first place would be impossible without altering such laws of physics as the Bohr radius and Planck's constant - pesky rules that keep our atoms from colliding and collapsing in on themselves - it's not so far-fetched that he could communicate with ants.
“Regardless of how information enters our brain, whether we read it, detect it with our eyes, hear it with our ears, at the end of the day it’s converted to an electrochemical signal. That is then processed, and we translate that into information or noise or what have you,” Kakalios explained.
“Presumably he’s communicating with ants because he’s figured out what those electrochemical signals are once they detect the pheromone. And then he’s broadcasting a powerful electrochemical signal that overwhelms whatever’s going on inside the ant’s brain.”
So there you have it, folks. Turns out the weirdest part of Ant-Man's powers may also be the closest to reality.