Mathematical Curiosities: A Treasure Trove of Unexpected Entertainments

Mathematical Curiosities by Alfred S. Posamentier & Ingmar Lehmann


I promise not to tell a lie. I found this book a bit frustrating to read. The frustration stems from the fact that half of the time I was mesmerized by the mathematical curiosities promised by the title while the other half of the time I found them rather tedious and tiresome. This may be because my affection for beautiful mathematics is perhaps not as high as I myself expected, but the problems I found with the book also stem from its basic structure. Therefore, this review’s structure will be a bit binal in nature.

(Get it? Bit… binal…binary… Sorry, I’m just finding myself unendurably funny these days).

The book is divided into five chapters, each one devoted to its own branch of mathematical curiosities, kind of.  These are entitled “Arithmetic Curiosities”, “Geometric Curiosities”, “Curious Problems with Curious Solutions”, “Mean Curiosities”, and “An Unusual World of Fractions”. The chapter on problems and solutions was a most dissatisfying travail. The chapter is set up as a series of 90 mathematical problems with very contrasting levels of curiosities. Some are kind of obvious, some are interesting enough while yet others just… aren’t (in my opinion). My disgruntlement with the chapter is that I wanted to know the answer once I tried solving the puzzle in my head. The authors, however, don’t trust the reader enough to show the solution right after the puzzle because one might have an inkling to sneak a peek. This I found insufferable. Once I thought I had the solution (or didn’t want to spend more time of a particular puzzle, flipping back and forth between the puzzles and the solutions is just tiresome and defeats the point anyway of separating the puzzles from the solutions.

Besides this major disagreement between myself and the authors I found their gratuitous self-citations a bit bothersome. „I you want to know more about some interesting stuff, we’ve already written about so buy our other books too. I mean. I’ll admit to self-citing my previously published papers for the citation stats. But in book form, I think it’s kind of lame.

Despite all my aforementioned grievances, I want to give credit where credit is due. The good parts of the book (which accounts to roughly 70%) are electrifyingly interesting. The authors show verve and passion in their presentation of especially the arithmetic curiosities, which are just breathtaking. Strange, weird, hypnotizing. Arithmetic can take the form of artistry and mind boggling magic. When the book is good, it’s magnificent. When it’s not, it’s frustrating.

There is a wealth of number patterns that are explored that left me amusingly bewildered and bewilderingly amused.

number_pattern_10number_pattern_9Courtesy of:

The concept of the Japanese Sangaku tablets are examined and many examples dissected. Sangakus are geometric problems that are presented as geometric puzzles, comprising multicolored triangles, polygons, circles, circular arcs, etc. There is an inscribed geometric beauty about them and a deep mathematical intrigue. When Sudoku falls out of favor. Sangakus could replace them.


Left panel. Ancient Sangaku tablet. Right panel. A modernized Sangaku puzzle. 

The harmonic triangle also makes an appearance. The harmonic triangle is very similar to Pascal’s triangle only it makes use of fractions rather than whole numbers. Each member of the triangular arrangement of unit fractions will be such that the sum of the two fractions below it – the one to the right and the one to the left of the member – will be equal to that fraction. The similarities between the two triangles are quite peculiar and intruiging in their own way as is explored in further detail here.

581098eb5e9213bf6c66e932ed218e08The Harmonic Triangle

In summary, the peculiar numbers, sequences of arithmetic operations, and even some of the curious problems, do tilt my opinion so that I would recommend it to anyone. But I will expect different people to have different reactions to the book. There are enough interesting numbers for anyone I suppose.


Reevaluations of the adjunct vagabond

In January this year I set myself high goals. Maybe even lofty ones. Some I have managed to achieve splendidly, others… not so much. One of my resolutions in the New Year was to allot time every Sunday to write for the purposes of this website-blog-thinga-majigg. This essay has turned out to be rather cumbersome, evidenced by my lack of blog posts for the past couple of months.

Other aspirations I set myself was to be more active in reading research articles. I thus included in my daily schedule 30 minutes during my lunch break, which I diligently dedicated to reading scientific papers. This endeavor has proved to be extremely fruitful and I have read several dozen research articles in the first three months of 2017, by reading in my lunch break. Several of these have been long and extensive review articles, mind you. This added injection to my daily routine in terms of reading habits has been extremely useful as (i) I now have a much better grasp of the theory and technical details of my current measurement setup, (ii) I have read several papers from numerous different research groups whom I have recently applied for postdoc positions, and (iii) I am mentally prepared for upcoming writing responsibilities aimed at dissociative electron attachment (current research) results.

As a part of my reevaluation of my changed habits regarding what works and what does not, I have decided to change things up a bit regarding my writing habits. Instead of trying to write every Sunday for a lengthened period of time, I want to try and write every day for 15 minutes (for my blog). That’s it. Change one thing and evaluate the results. If I manage to agglutinate these 15 allotted minutes to my daily schedule, I believe I can get a great deal more of writing done.

The reasons for my lack of writing for the past two months has, however, not been because of idle hands. I am currently waiting for responses for four different postdoc applications and my personal life has been in bloom during the past weeks and months. I am well aware that as an academic, my personal life should be non-existent, but I am also aware that I risk severe burnout if I aggrandize my stress levels over my website which I initiated out of interest and enthusiasm. I don’t want to force the things that make me happy, especially if they require capacious workloads like researching and writing about what interests and intrigues me.

For the past few years I have found happiness in working hard and achieving my goals. But I also have to stay grounded and take good care of my head; not to belittle myself for requiring a break here and there. I recently learned about myself that I in all likelihood suffer from imposter syndrome so I already have severe tendencies to corrosively think of what I do and do not accomplish. (I’ve been in therapy in this regard which is going very well, thanks for asking).

At the moment I am looking for ways to escape the Icelandic academia. Well, not so much escape but elevate myself out of it. If I sound derogative, it is not my intention. I’ve had both the pleasure and honor of working with brilliant scientists and I’ve learned so much from everybody here. But I have spent thirty years living in the same place and I need to leave to further my career. And I’m sick of the weather. To which I am physically adjusted. Crap.

As previously mentioned I have a few postdoc applications of whom I am currently awaiting judgement but I have already received an invitation for one interview. Things are getting exciting and I feel that I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I may finally get out and fulfill my dreams of working on state-of-the-art apparatuses at well-equipped facilities employing the best of the best worldwide.

[Rambling] Of course growing roots is not something one does at this stage in an academic’s career. (At least I do not plan that way). Postdocs, more than anyone else, come and go. Traverse the world, gain experience working in different research fields, work themselves to the bone in hopes of getting to the next level. Tenure. Well, at least this is my perception of how the postdoc life is. I’ve been a postdoc for a year or so, but I merely changed research groups in the same institution. I didn’t even move office. Laboratory wise I moved 30 feet tops.

Living in Iceland, one feels a deeply engrained sense of isolation. You are geographically isolated from the rest of the world and if you want to get out, then you have to be good. Really good. Excellent. I’m rambling. [/rambling]

I’ve been writing this blog post in three 15 minute sessions. That’s more work than I’ve done for the past two months. Kudos to myself and to a new and improved way of writing.

Women in Science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world

Women in Science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world by Rachel Ignotofsky


Fact #1. The history of scientific discovery is a vast sausage fest, layered with facial hair of varying majesty.

Fact #2. Historically, the scientific contributions of the double-X-chromosomed half of humanity have often been disregarded and even discredited in lieu of the chauvinistic status quo.

Fact #3. This book helps set the record straight. And it is delightful, beautiful and interesting. My own personal holy trinity.

You know what? I am going to keep this review short and sweet, because it’s exactly what I found the book to be. I was delightfully surprised by its character, low tolerance threshold for B-S-misogyny, and its gorgeous illustrations. It is inclusive and hits precisely the right mark of amount of information to be enjoyed by adults, children, and everyone in betwixt.

4Seriously. How can you not just fall in love with this artwork and honorific presentation?!

Rachel Ignotofsky is an experienced illustrator and crafted everything in the book. The written word and painted picture. I highly recommend all her other scientific illustrations that are available on her website. They are enchantingly informative, gorgeous, and they just fill me with joie- de-vivre.

downloadI just… wow. 

In fact, another book by Rachel Ignotofsky entitled I Love Science: A Journal for Self-Discovery and Big Ideas comes on sale March 17th and can be pre-ordered here. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.


Science of the Alien franchise I – Xenomorphic blood

The Alien franchise is among the most successful sci-fi franchises ever spawned out of Hollywood. It even commingled with the Predator series (famously through one camera shot of a Xenomorph´s skull in the Predator´s spaceship in Predator 2) allowing for Hollywood to exploit our obsessions for details with a series of video games and an Alien vs Predator movie franchise. The film series have even inspired a wealth of Alien comic series with even more outrageous cross-overs such as Batman/Aliens, Judge Dredd vs Aliens, Green Lantern vs Aliens and even Aliens vs Predator vs The Terminator. As the actual science that is swathed throughout the series is extensive; from hypersleep to space travel to the Xenomorph´s life cycle, I will have to contain myself and start with one of the most discussed topics; the Xenomorph´s blood.

                                              avpvtt                                                  This actually exists. How friggin awesome!

The actual aliens or Xenomorphs were designed and developed by Swiss genius/weirdo H. R. Giger, who has crafted some of the world’s most creepy, unsettling, disturbing, and FUBAR imagery (ever!) put on paper. Their big sinister smile, eyeless exoskeleton, and complete indifference and apathy for other lifeforms, make the Xenomorphs among the scariest villains ever put to film. Notwithstanding their genetically weaponized defense mechanism; corrosively acidic blood.

bob-ross-giger“And we’re just gonna put a happy little biomechanoid right here.”

The films themselves cleverly gave as little information as possible as to the chemical composition of the blood, all that was mentioned pertained to “molecular acid”. (What type of acid is not molecular by the way?) The original purpose of this article was to introduce the concept of superacids to display the possibilities of the corrosive nature of the aliens´ acidic extravasate. After a few Google searches, however, it seems like this idea has been done to death. Which isn’t anything bad, but in a nutshell, superacids have the capability of protonating alkanes (which is quite the feat) and the strongest known acid, magic acid, is a combination of hydrofluoric acid (HF) and Antimony pentafluoride (SbF5). I highly recommend this video by Nerdist but the video cements my original idea for this particular blog.

So. All acquainted with magic acid? Good. Now I will take this idea even further to illustrate some more interested aspects of the Xenomorph´s physiology and cosmic origins.

hunter_aliens_colonial_marinesSciencing the scariest of scary fucking bastards.

The exact composition of the Xenomorphic blood is a hotly debated topic… on the internet, particularly on Reddit. If we take a chapter from the Aliens vs Predator wiki community, however:

“The specific composition of the acidic blood remains a mystery, with its incredibly corrosive properties no doubt limiting the degree to which it may be studied. However, it has been theorized that the blood could be some type of “hydrosulfuric” or hydrochloric acid composition due to its corrosiveness and its conspicuously toxic effects on living human tissue. It has also been proposed that the Xenomorphs are immune to their own acidic blood due to an endobiological build-up, similar to the human stomach’s ability to protect itself from its own digestive fluids. It has also been theorized that the blood is fluorine-based, and that the Xenomorph’s protection system against its own toxic acid is essentially a bio-organically produced Teflon insulation within its body, since polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, or Teflon), being a fluorine-based compound, does not react with hydrofluoric acid. It is known that Xenomorph chitin is resistant to the acid even after it the creature has died or its chitin has been removed.“

In short the superacid HF*SbF5 does not necessarily have to be the main culprit. If anything, it may just be a minor component in the blood considering the prevalence of atomic Antimony in outer space. There may in fact be other various acidic components in much higher fractions than magic acid, like the aforementioned hydrofluoric acid but also sulfuric acid (H2SO4), hydrochloric acid (HCl), nitric acid (HNO3). Considering the relative solar system abundances of these acids´ constituents, they are likely culprits of the acid blood´s corrosive nature.

alien-acid-for-blood11…And just a dash of the Universe´s most heinous molecules…

But is the acid the actual blood of the Aliens? Our blood serves a specific purpose, namely to carry oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body´s organs and tissues and thus enable our metabolism to take place. What is purpose of the Xenomorph´s blood?

Here we need to delve into the comic book lore of the Aliens. In the comic books, a multinational conglomerate called Lasalle Bionational (a subsidiary of the Weyland corporation) that focused on biologica research managed to unravel some the physical properties of the acidic blood. To again quote the Aliens vs Predator wiki:

“While Xenomorph acidic blood is primarily thought of as a passive defense mechanism used to deter attackers, studies show that it in fact plays a far more integral role in the creature’s biology. Research by Lasalle Bionational indicates that the acid is primarily a component of a biological “battery”, generating a powerful bio-electric charge by means of chemical reaction that provides the Xenomorph with its energy, replacing the need for traditional respiration and digestion of food altogether. This would would help to explain how the creature is apparently able to survive in the vacuum of space for significant periods, and also helps to explain how the Ovomorph stage is seemingly able to remain dormant but alive for vastly extended periods of time. However, the means by which the creatures may “recharge” this battery remains a mystery. It is quite possible it simply cannot be renewed, and that Xenomorphs will eventually die naturally as a result of this energy source depleting.”

Buck-ark.pngAlien blood as energy source?

This brings up an interesting point. If this is true, then these species have found an more efficient power source (in an evolutionary sense) than us humans with our food. The purpose of eating is essentially to break down large molecules such as carbohydrates into simpler molecules via burning (reactions with oxygen). This is an oxidation/reduction reaction that involves a simple exchange of electrons. The purpose of eating is to release energy to power our bodies by exchanging reactions. In the process the energy can be used for mechanical and kinetic purposes which (in a nutshell) make up the extent our corporal faculties.

unit=pixelElectricity breathing aliens? Yes, we’ve discovered some of those. 

Recently, organisms have been discovered that do not require food per se, but rather use a stream of electrons as a power source. This means that actual life forms exist that do not require nutrition, only a steady stream of electrons to grow, regenerate, and repopulate. Give beings this kind of efficient natural power source and the proper evolutionary environment and you may end up with the cosmically internecine and malignant species of the Xenomorph family. Facehuggers and all.

The question of the appropriate cosmic environment where this kind of life may evolve gives, however, merely tenuous answers. This is purely speculative, but a water based world like our Earth’s surface is probably an unlikely scenario and a more hostile environment is required for such a tenacious and perniciously resolute creature to evolve. If it puts your mind at ease, I don’t believe space travel will be furthered enough in the coming years to meet such creatures, given that something even worse lurks in The White House.


The Quantum Enigma

The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner


Quantum theory is the most successful theory of our time. No question. Every prediction it has portended by its rigorous mathematics has been experimentally verified.

And even though it contains leagues of strenuous calculations that only the formally initiated (mathematics, physics and some chemistry graduates) can aspire to take on manually, it produces science’s greatest of mind-f***s we’ve encountered in nature. As it turns out, nature is weird. And though nature itself definitely doesn’t mind, some of us do!

The Quantum Enigma is written by Bruce Rosenblaum and Fred Kuttner, both experts in quantum theory and its applications. Bruce is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Fred is a physics lecturer at the same university. The Quantum Enigma addresses the inherent weirdness of quantum theory and the different approaches physicists take to interpret or reconcile its evoked enigmas.

To the uninitiated, the book may be difficult at times, but it is an extremely rewarding reading experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever had to ponder so much reading a single book. I often found myself reading for 15-20 minutes, only to pause and think about what I’d just read for an additional 10 minutes. To be completely honest, this is the first book in a decade I’ve now read twice.

The book is intelligently structured. It begins with an anecdote from when on of the authors (Bruce) met Albert Einstein during his physics graduate studies. Einstein famously disliked quantum theory because of its implications. Two of his most quoted phrases, “God does not play dice” and “I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.” are particularly enlightening about his antagonistic view of the theory. Both phrases are quoted from intense discussions between him and his ‘frenemy’, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who was a staunch defender of quantum theory AND its implications. (Tangentially, there are several more quotes about quantum mechanics by notable physicists to be found on the book’s web page. I particularly like the one by Richard Feynman: “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.”)

feynmanFeynman: That’s right I said it. Nobody!

What follows the short anecdote is an intriguing fable of a physicist who encounters a shaman who supposedly can reproduce quantum experiments on a macro-scale with humans. This evidently disturbs the physicist and plants the seed for the coming discussions of quantum weirdness.

The tell-tale physics fable is followed by a logical historical perspective in tandem with the historically relevant experiments and natural phenomena (oscillating electromagnetic fields, wave mechanics, etc.) that laid the foundations for quantum physics.

More to the point, the enigma itself stems for the fact that a conscious observer irrevocably influences a system under inspection. The act of observation yields a result, created by the observation itself! Up until the point of observation, the results are correctly predicted by quantum mechanics. But without the observation, the results are superpositions of possibilities, coexisting synchronously. A wave of probabilities, suspended between objective realities. The discussion of these intangible facets of nature in The Quantum Enigma are coherent, well written, and engaging. It renders you perplexed yet curious of what we consider reality and where the line is drawn in the sand what constitutes reality and what doesn’t.

This is inherently weird for humans. Our brains did not evolve to account for nanoscale mysteries. They evolved to help humanity hunt and survive the entropies and onslaughts of the wilderness. Niels Bohr said once: “Anyone not shocked by quantum theory, has not understood it”. You totally get where he is coming from, but it is also a bit clouded by a sense of bias, that the world should be the way it is, because that’s how we see it. Reading this book has helped me overcome this intrinsically biased view. Nature is strange to us, and it’s okay. Either way it is fascinating.

Without going into any more specific details, The Quantum Enigma addresses the role of consciousness in quantum theory, explores some of its technological applications and quantum entanglement, which includes transporting information faster than the speed of light… in a nutshell. If you are interested in learning more about the book’s contents (without actually reading it), you can check out the aforementioned website dedicated to the book. There you will find all sorts of additional goodies such as amusing quotes, a complete chapter walkthrough, and original drafts of the chapters along with a bunch funny little illustrations the authors drew to accompany the text. It’s really quite endearing.

untitledA couple of examples of the writers’ creative drawings. As I said. Endearing.

I highly recommend this book, but only to those who are ready to have their minds blown.

Rating: 95/100

Reading and writing habits

I think it was about time to start writing again. For my website that is. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing postdoc applications and preparing my teaching schedule for the coming semester which includes one half of a single course. This means my teaching workload will be a mere quarter of last semester‘s. (Yay!). More time for science!

But I have been reading and writing a bunch (in regards to the aforementioned postdoc applications) which I consider to be a good and healthy practice since I am trying to secure my future in the academic research sector. Not the easiest of career choices.

At the moment I have plenty of stuff to write about as The Cosmic Chemist; everything from lasers to cosmic acids.

What I really wanted to do for now, though, is share with you my reading schedule. Yes, reading schedule. Let me explain.

A few years ago I realized I was piling up books I was dying to read but my reading habits were, well, non-existent and rather unbalanced or patchy. I would read diligently for a period and then completely lose focus and not read at all for a while. I wanted to get back on track but realized that I needed to do so in a more efficient manner. Thus, I reshaped my reading schedule, so that every day, I would start my day by reading for half an hour. That’s it. Just make time in the morning for myself to read for a little while. That way, I’d read every day to nurture that unquenched thirst for the books I’d been piling up. (I am a frequent Amazon customer with a penchant for hoarding books.)

At this time (around 2012-2013) I was starting my PhD so most of the reading material was in some way scientific; both papers and large lexicons on spectroscopy. This was also the time when I was really getting into popular science books, e.g. Carl Sagan, Michio Kaku, bibliographies of famous scientists, etc. I realized that half an hour was not enough for me in the morning so I upgraded my reading schedule to two times thirty minutes. That way I could ready popular science for half an hour and then thick heavy set school books for a half an hour.

On a tangent, I actually set my timer to 31 minutes for each session as I allot an extra minute for glossaries. English isn’t my first language (though it’s still quite proficient, I assure you) and I continually want to extend my vocabulary, so I keep with me a small notebook for words I’m unfamiliar with and I want to add to my regular diction. After an hour of reading in the morning I look through the words I’ve glossed and add them to a magisterial Excel spread sheet I’ve organized over all the glossed words amassed over the past three years.

Anyway, once I finished my PhD I had made myself the promise I would get back to reading fiction again and there have been some big ones I still haven’t read. The first works of fiction I would read would be the Harry Potter books. Then The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then Game of Thrones. Then the complete works by Douglas Adams and… something. I haven’t decided what should follow Adams.

My morning reading schedule thus consists of 30 minutes of fiction and 30 minutes of popular science. (Don’t get me wrong, I still read scientific papers, but I do so at work, as it still constitutes as work.)

I finished the Harry Potter books last November. The Hobbit followed in December and now I’m halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring.

What writing is concerned, I have copious amount of material to cover. I have three book reviews pending (The Quantum Enigma, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, and Mathematical Curiosities: A Treasure Trove of Unexpected Entertainments). I have planned sci-fi blogs on the aliens from the Alien franchise, the “science” of Flash. And as an added bonus, I plan on writing about lasers and high-tech spectroscopic methods I worked on during my PhD as well as some astrochemistry related material. But more on that later.

I usually write my science blogs on Sundays though I do tend to research the blogs on and off during the week or during evenings, depending on my schedule. I like to assign a particular day to writing because… I pretty much have to. I’m a creature of habit, and I enjoy habit. It keeps me productive which releases dopamine molecules in my brain. Or in other words, it makes me happy.

The inspiration for my writing schedule actually came from reading some of Ryan Holiday’s work. He’s one of the most interesting people to follow on Facebook because he is just brimming with useful advice on reading, writing, life stratagems, and… stoicism. I may end up writing about stoicism in the future once my ideas for everything else science related dries up.

Even though my reading schedule is pretty solid at the moment, I’m still looking for ways to enhancing and upgrading my reading habits. I’ve tried to squeeze in 20-25 minutes of reading during my lunch break and I do confess that many of my evenings are spent aimlessly on social media. My aim for next week is to read for something like 20 minutes every lunchbreak and then 15-20 minutes before I go to bed.

Ready, set, go!

P.s. I’ve made a few adjustments to this page, most notably I’ve added all my scientific publications under ‘Research’. Feel free to browse if you’re interested.

The Physics of Superheroes

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios


I loved this book! No segue necessary. I really really loved this book. The reason is probably because I‘m probably at the epicenter of target audiences. I‘m a teacher and a scientist and I love science fiction and comic book…. movies. I‘m really sorry, but I‘ve never been into the comic books themselves, but I try and keep up with most of the comic book movies and comic book Netflix series, now running rampant. (Obligatory Flash reference, sorry).

This book is written by a true lover of physics and comic books. A professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, Prof. James Kakalios is lifetime fan of the superhero comic books and his writing shows it.

The inspiration of the book comes from the physics course Prof. Kakalios teaches at the University of Minnesota; a rudimentary physics course that focuses on applications of undergrad level physics to superheroes. Reading through the book the fearless reader learns about Newton´s laws, the laws of thermodynamics, torque, quantum mechanics, material science, etc.; all through worked examples of the powers and abilities of superheroes and villains in the DC and Marvel universes.


Yeah. What she said.

The beauty of Kakalios‘ work is how much of the comic book world seems to become plausible and even possible when viewed through the objective prism of physics. Comic book heroes defy the laws of nature… sometimes, and sometimes they do not. With an experienced physicist at the helm, the demystification of impossible but plausible (or vice versa) superhuman abilities becomes a fascinating and engaging endeavor.

The book has already inspired an exam question I wrote for my physical chemistry class about the required energy input for the Flash during his race with Superman around the world, and it inspired my last week‘s blog about Magneto. As previously mentioned, Prof. Kakalios is an avid enthusiast about comic books and provides an interesting historic perspective of comic books and the DC/Marvel rivalry. The book erupted (in myself) a sense of newfound respect for Aquaman through an enlightening discussion of his super-strength in terms of the enormous underwater pressures he brushes off effortlessly. Furthermore, even though it sounds weird and nonsensical. The science of fish telepathy is given its due diligence and well… It’s not as far-fetched as one might think.


I’m totally team “Aquaman doesn’t suck”.

The book includes endless stories and examples that work as excellent demonstrations in the classroom. Being a teacher of science myself, I feel the book was almost written for me, personally. There is so much in here I would like to use as illustrations of how underlying physical principles in physical chemistry work, with reference to various superheroes and villains. I just don’t know where to start! Ant-man, Magneto, the death of Spiderman’s Gwen Stacy, Green Arrow, Flash. Everyone gets their fair share of scientific assiduity.

The sincerest aspect of The Physics of Superheroes is, however, how forgiving Prof. Kakalios is to the most glaring violators of the natural laws or the diaphanous knowledge of some the heroes or villains who supposedly ought to know better. I can relate. Iron Man 2 pissed me off but it got me to study nuclear chemistry to a greater extent. Even though the fantasy world of Superheroes gets the science occasionally wrong, they should deserve a permission slip or a get-out-of-jail-free-card reading “suspension of disbelief”. When all is said and done, it’s still fiction. And it is fun to speculate on the possibilities of superhuman abilities that woo us.

Most important of all. The book inspires me to start reading comic books. It might well be the Christmas present I give to my future self.  It may even have swayed me to go with the flow regarding the cavalcade of movies and TV series flooding Netflix at the moment.

Rating: 98/100

I really really really really loved this book!


Magneto-dium leviosa

Seemingly, the X-Men (or rather the original authors of the X-Men tales) are natural law breakers of the natural laws. Given many of their departures from the physical bounds that most of us (who have not succumbed to genetic mutation) still adhere to, I can sympathize with the hostility their kind is often shown by humans… to a very certain extent.

Don’t get me wrong. My problem has nothing to do with them being different. Genetic mutations are a thing of magnanimous and unbound beauty that gives, not just humans, but the entire flora and fauna of our home planet it’s wondrous pizzazz. Whether it be colorful insects, the variety of flowers, the resilience of life itself in the most hostile environs the cosmos has to offer, genetic mutations resonate life’s endurance through applied stress by its environment and make life as we know it, utterly and unconditionally amazing.

nn3Look deep into my convex photo-receptors that formed through mutations in my prehistoric ancestors millennia ago. 

My problem with (some of) the X-men, is how poorly their abilities resulting from genetic mutations, are accurately described by the physical laws that govern our universe. In fact, a top 5 or top 10 list of the individual X-men whose abilities defy the laws of nature, is something that is on my to-do list for science blogs. But for now, I want to fixate my powers on the powers of Magneto.

Magneto is the ultimate villain. Quite literally. He was, matter of fact, ranked as the greatest comic book villain of all time by Imagine Game Network (IGN) in 2011 . And for good reason. His intense backstory, incredible powers, genius intellect, former alliance with Prof. X, or if I reference the review by the aforementioned IGN: “it’s hard to argue that there has ever been a villain more complex, nuanced, sympathetic and yet irrevocably evil.”

700461-magnetoThe perfect evil genius. 

As his name suggests, Magneto’s powers can influence magnetism. Which, as it turns out, is a pretty powerful and encompassing ability. Magneto can levitate heavy machines such as a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine or any ferrous and nonferrous material. He can affect electromagnetic fields, including photons; projecting visible light away from his body, rendering himself invisible to people around him. His abilities not only grant him (almost) unlimited powers, but also a great deal of strength and resilience by projecting force-fields around his body; allowing him to withstand the enormous strain of nuclear weapons and outer space. But what is magnetism precisely?

Magnetism is a force field, produced by the motion of electric charges. As I draw a whole lot of inspiration for this from Prof. James Kakalios’ “The Physics of Superheroes” (review coming next week, I promise), I will quote an excerpt from that book where the origins of magnetism are aptly described.

“Think about two very long train tracks lying next to each other, one with a large number of negative charges equally spaced exactly one inch apart, the other with an equal number of positive charges, also one inch apart. We next bring in a test charge – a positive charge, for sake of argument – some distance from these lines of charges. This test charge will feel no net force, as it is pushed away from the line of positive charges as strongly as it is attracted to the negatively charged array. Now the two tracks start moving at the same speed in opposite directions, the negatives to the left and the positives to the right. If the test charge is stationary, then the same number of negative charges and positive charges, in a given length, pass by it, and there is still no net force. An extra force develops, however, if the positive test charge moves to the right at the same speed as the positive charges on the track, also moving to the right.”

The point about the moving charges is that relatively speaking (i.e. in accordance with relativity), from the point of view of the test charge that moves along with the same direction and speed as the long line of positive charges, the test charge sees the positive charges on the track still being spaced one inch apart. The array of negative charges moving in the opposite direction, on the other hand, are contracted in length (remember, relatively speaking, relativistic effects and such) and will therefore be closer than one inch apart to the moving test charge. This causes a disproportional electrostatic push and pull on the test charge which means it feels a net attractive force; a pull towards the negative charges. This effect caused by the fluid movement of electric charges is called magnetism.

Since the atoms themselves are composed of positive protons in the nucleus and negative electrons orbiting around the nucleus, atoms inherently have magnetic properties, which differ in tandem with the number and arrangement of the electrons. The particular kind of magnetism that Magneto manages to influence is called diamagnetism. Diamagnetism is caused by atoms’ and molecules’ reaction to an externally applied magnetic field. When the electronic configurations of the atoms and/or molecules in question, they tend to line up “against” the direction of the applied magnetic field in an attempt to balance the magnetic field out.


When placed in a magnetic field, diamagnetic materials line up against the applied field. Paramagnetic materials line up with the applied field. 

Diamagnetism is weak in comparison to other forms of magnetism (e.g. paramagnetism or ferromagnetism), but if the human body is placed in a magnetic field roughly two hundred thousand times greater than the Earth’s magnetic field, the diamagnetic atoms can be induced to all point in the same direction. I.e. opposite to the applied field. Magneto’s capabilities in magnetic field production require a great deal of effort but this sort of thing can and has been done!

Researchers at the University of Nijmegen have demonstrated that grasshoppers, frogs, strawberries, etc. can be magnetically levitated by a strong magnetic field. I highly recommend their website if you want to learn more but some of their videos have been posted on youtube as well. Fun fact. One of the head researchers behind this work is Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who received the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.

hqdefaultI like my strawberries like I like my comic book villain superpowers.

Okay, so we’ve considered the plausibility of magnetic levitation and influence from an external magnetic field. But, exactly HOW can Magneto alter and/or produce magnetic fields with his own free will?

That really is the million dollar question and becomes the point where we have to suspend our disbelief when watching the X-men movies or reading the comics. Creating a magnetic field means that you have control over all your physical processes that require movement of electric charges. That means you have to be self-aware and constantly vigilant in guarding your heartbeat, eyesight, electrical impulses, pretty much every single electrochemical process in your body, which includes your thought process. If Magneto truly possess this sort of self-control, then he embodies the great shaman who is quite literally in complete control of his actions and thoughts. That he turns out to be evil is actually a very scary thought.

magneto_430Literal self-control. Shaman embodiment. The result. Pure malice.

Can a person achieve this kind of electrochemical control through genetic mutations? Probably not. But let’s appreciate what this kind of power entails. If you have the ability to induce magnetic fields, emanating from your own body, that means you have complete control over any kind of flow of electric charges. So what?

So everything! Electrochemical reactions govern our brain chemistry, all our senses, eyesight, heartbeat, pretty much all of our bodily functions! Thus, having control over these reactions furthermore implies complete control over your own metabolism. Being able to selectively break apart the correct number of molecules and synthesizing new ones to acquire the required amount of energy needed to drive an electrochemical reaction onward. Sorry Prof. X. Magneto’s brain power surpasses yours. Starting to sound scary?


Controlling electrochemical reaction in a single cell in your body requires an extraordinary ability. Now remember, the human body consists of 15 trillion cells. 

Ultimately, this kind of power can only come from your own self-control that resides in your brain. Though well documented, the brain and its functions on an electrochemical level, are a pretty mystic piece of biological machinery. Could this sort of brain power ever come to fruition? Probably not in our lifetime, if ever. But this is the scariest thought of them all. If someone like Magneto, who is in complete control over his own electrochemical reactions, can alter his own brain chemistry at will, his heartbeat, eyesight, etc.; influence others is ways we can’t begin to imagine. If he, above all others, is indeed truly evil. Do we really want his power of magnetic control? Are we perhaps better off being… human?

Are you maybe starting see my initial objection to that particular aspect of mutants?

If anything, Magneto is the ultimate villain. His powers are immense and uncanny and they question some deep unnerving aspects of humanity. Humans notoriously pride themselves in their brain, its sophisticated complexity and the origin of their feeling of superiority over other species. If the ultimate super-brain, i.e. if the greatest functioning brain in the cosmos is in fact just another impetus to do evil…

Are we as a species, fucked?

The day Iron Man fixed his heart, but broke mine

*spoiler alert*


Iron Man 2 is truly ridiculous. If anything, I barely know where to start with this movie. There is just so much dodgy science that it makes your head spin. In terms of characters, story line and you know, the stuff that’s kind of important to keep the audience interested and invested in its characters…. they kind of suck. Unfortunately the film succumbs to the ultimate failure of having pretty pictures and a lame story.

arts-iron-man-2-584If you don’t like it, you can just talk to the hand cause the face doesn’t want to hear it.

But let‘s give credit where credit is due. Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast and he runs with what is given to him in style. His on-screen chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts is genuine and enjoyable to watch. (Yes, I think the movie’s slow moments between the two of them work and it is entirely thanks to the actors that have to carry the lame script). And Mickey Rourke as a bad guy can do no wrong. But he is totally underutilized by not being given enough stuff to do. Or say. In his Russian accent. In short, the film is well acted and equally well cast, but very poorly written. Mostly it serves as an Avengers publicity stunt. You know, they made a movie to say they’re going to make another movie that will be much better. Thanks.

This brings me to the day I saw Iron Man 2 for the first time. I was watching it with my wife and a bunch of physics undergrads in a Marvel marathon. (My wife was a physics undergrad at the time). I was the only chemist in the bunch. We heckled the film during some of the most glaring contradictions and plot holes, all in good fun, but when the movie tried to pass sci-fi-science off in the form of distorted chemistry nomenclature, I fell off my rocker. Twice I had to pause and rant over how morosely incompetent the writing staff were. (The writing staff of the movie can’t all take the blame, most of these stem from flaws in the original comic book).

The first time was over ‘lithium dioxide’, which was injected into Tony Stark’s neck to combat the negative effects of the excruciating ‘palladium poisoning’ afflicting him due to his new heart/reactor (acquired from the first movie). To anyone who knows anything about chemistry nomenclature (it’s one of the first things you learn in chemistry class), you know that the combination of lithium (a metal) and oxygen (non-metal), will yield a product of their two most stable ionic forms. I.e. two lithium ions (both with a charge of +1) against an oxygen ion (with a charge of -2). The charges cancel out, see. Since the charges themselves reveal exactly how many atoms of which element are required to form a compound between the two, we do not need to specify how many atoms of which are present. The proper name would therefore be: lithium oxide.

But there are other forms of oxygen ions that can be formed. Specifically, if we wanted to form ‘lithium dioxide’, we could couple two oxygen atoms to a positively charged lithium ion. The two oxygen atoms can share one negative charge, but in that case it is called superoxide. The correct term would therefore be: lithium superoxide instead of lithium dioxide.

avengersprequel1-1Lithium superoxide even sounds much cooler than lithium dioxide! What gives?

It’s a little embarrassing how much this ticks me off. Mainly because it seems like you would have to go out of your way to intentionally get this wrong in order to produce the line ‘lithium dioxide’. It just doesn’t make sense.

The second time I had to stop the movie to rant was when Hammer was introducing some sort of ammunition that contained the compound “cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine”. This is actually the correct name of an explosive compound often designated as RDX. So, how can you get something that’s much more chemically complex right, but something like lithium dioxide so terribly wrong??

image034Weapons grade high explosive. At least they got some things right.

This brings me to the scene that brought me to my knees in frustration and effectively paralyzed my brain. All it took for Iron Man to fix his synthetic heart and stop his continued exposure to Palladium poisoning was to “discover a new element”.


The periodic table was a way to organize all known elements according to their physical characteristics, reactivities, etc. It arranges all the elements according to their atomic number, which is the number of protons in the nucleus. It was astonishingly successful and even a few new elements were found as the original periodic table by Dmitri Mendeleev contained some “holes” where elements seemed to be missing. To make a new element you must “simply” add more protons to the nucleus and voila.

Recently, a slew of new elements were given names in honor of their discovery. These are elements 113-118 and the most stable of them have half-lives (time required for one half of the material to deteriorate) of just of few seconds. Meaning, they are incredibly unstable. Any other heavier elements that remain to be discovered are just as or even more so unstable than elements 113-118.

Or are they? If we give the writers the benefit of the doubt. The whole “Iron Man discovers a new element” jig, doesn’t have to be as mind-numbingly stupid as it originally seemed.

Islands of Stability

Glen Seaborg was a remarkable scientist. He is the only scientist to have an element named for him, whilst still alive. He pioneered the experiments which birthed superheavy elements, i.e. heavier elements than Uranium, nature’s heaviest naturally occurring element. As Seaborg started to bombard smaller elements into heavier ones (thus forming superheavy elements) he noticed a disparaging trend. Namely, as the masses of the newly formed elements increased, their stability and lifetimes decreased radically. He called this trend “the sea of instability”. As he saw it, as he formed heavier and heavier elements, he was walking up a peninsula of stable atomic nuclei. But the shore was approaching fast. Nothing stable remained ahead of him. Except for a theoretic combination of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Protons and neutrons are not in complete disarray within the atom’s nucleus. They are actually somewhat ordered in their configurative combination. As nuclear physics predicts, a very ordered and stable configuration of a precise number of protons and neutrons should form stable nuclei. More stable than existing for just a few seconds. Perhaps on the order of eons. This is what is called the island of stability.

dsc-bi0315_04Was “Iron Dad” on to something? Maybe he really disliked Glen Seaborg not to entrust this information with him?

Is this what Tony Stark’s dad stumbled upon? Could the new element that saved Iron Man’s life just be among the nuclei found on the island of stability? Maybe. Exactly how Tony Stark synthesized the new element in the film does, unfortunately, make no goddamn sense whatsoever!

ac2nn5dojhigcjx87sxfBelieve it or not, this is where they lost me. 

To create these superheavy elements, heavier atoms must be accelerated to high speeds; fractions of the speed of light, before being bombarded onto heavier elements, in hopes that they combine to form an element that is a combination of the two atoms. In the film, Stark created a high-energy laser beam that he shot onto… some material… and thusly created the element whose inner architecture his dad hid in a model of a park. Maybe the light beam included some metallic atoms? Maybe it included quarts clusters accelerated to high speeds that all combined to reach the island of stability? Maybe the effective temperature of the radiation was high enough to induce some sort of a “local thermal atomic merger”.

Maybe it’s just all bullshit and the movie sucks. I mean, despite everything, the movie did catalyze me to familiarize myself a bit more with nuclear physics/chemistry. Did Citizen Kane manage that feat?

Dissociative electron attachment

Dissociative electron attachment (DEA) is the process wherein an electron attaches onto a molecule and causes it to dissociate and / or fragment. The sizes of the molecules chosen to undergo DEA are comparatively enormous to the size of the attached electron (remember, electrons are tiny, tiny substituents of atoms, which in turn, bind together to form molecules). The process of DEA can thus be compared to a mosquito landing on the head of an elephant and causing its head to fall off!

rgmfygmmgz-8Fragmenting elephants with flies. Because science!

So why do such a violent thing to such innocent little critters like molecules?! Well, generally if we are interested in learning how a piece of machinery works, one may be inclined to take it apart, piece by piece, and then reassemble it back again. It is in fact a very straight-forward and effective method to learn about how stuff works.

The problem with molecules is that they are very, very small. In order to learn about their structure and architecture, inner workings, physical characteristics, and behaviors in times of great distress (e.g. under high-intensity radiation, low pressures, magnetic fields, etc.), we can take them apart, but not really put them back together again. This sort of experimental physical chemistry (or chemical physics) is actually a bit like forensic science, in that we violently disintegrate or fragment molecules with lasers and/or electron beams and photograph the resulting crime scene; documenting all formed fragments to piece together the dynamics of the resultant fragmentation process. In this way we manage to get a glimpse into molecular processes or dynamics which reveal to us information regarding the molecule’s characteristics. Imagine a forensic scientist that blindly shoots someone in some part of the body and then documents everything that happened in order to study exactly how that someone lost an arm and a leg. That’s what I do.

20160903_101510My work station. Where the magic happens. By magic I mean science. 

The importance of DEA research cannot be overstated. Electron transfer is an elementary process in many chemical and biochemical reactions. Transferring electrons is one of the first things you learn about in chemistry in oxidation/reduction reactions. These include important reactions that allow us to extract energy from our food, whole industries are built around chemical reactions where electrons are moved from one chemical to another, even negatively charged molecules can be found in certain regions in space, where they play a key role in maintaining and balancing the chemical enrichment of the cosmos.


The basic premise. An electron (e) attaches to a molecule (AB) and as a result the molecule dissociates into the fragments (A & B).

Without going into too much detail, the molecule I am working on at the moment is H2FeRu3(CO)13 (see below). When an electron attaches onto the molecule a cavalcade of dissociations take place; carbonyl groups (CO) start leaving the molecule, Ruthenium atoms (Ru) and the iron atom (Fe) leave as well along with some carbonyls. I.e. a bunch of different fragmentation channels are possible for the molecule and we are documenting all the fragments, i.e. all the different masses of formed fragments.


A big ass molecule (H2FeRu3(CO)13) with a myriad of dissociative electron attachment channels. Photo courtesy of Ragesh Kumar.

I may go into some more grueling details later regarding the spectra, experimental setup and more. For now, however, I’m going to continue reading up on the subject by reading the two reviews my new instructor (Prof. O. Ingólfsson) co-wrote.

See: Bald, Langer, Tegeder, Ingólfsson. International Journal of Mass Spectrometry, 2008, 277, 4-25. & Ingólfsson, Weik, Illenberger. Internation Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Processes, 1996, 155, 1-68.