Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Today S.H.I.E.L.D. hosted a science training and technical orientation session hidden in plain sight as the Marvel's Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. Superhero Science Analysis panel. Kicking off with an ominous, "Doors secured," the panel was a solid hour of the highest intensity technical geekiery.

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Arriving under the masquerade of writing for Slate, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait was lead instructor, moderator, and facilitator for the science staff. After confirming that all attendees were S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and securing the doors against accidental discovery by convention-goers, Plait introduced the secret scientists who research the many abnormalities of the Avengers lineup. Preston Dyches and Randii Wessen have cover-jobs at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory working in communications and advanced concepts respectively, and more relevantly on the physical science of the high technology used by the Avengers team. The biological aspects of how Captain America and Hulk are so much more than normal humans is the domain of Ricardo Gil da Costa, working for Neuroverse, and Sebastian Alvarado, working for Thwacke.

Our briefing on the most confidential case files for the superheroes within the Avengers Initiative was part of the new Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network, or S.T.A.T.I.O.N. Although physically located in New York, Comic Con provided excellent cover to gather the west coast S.H.I.E.L.D. agents of Level 4 or higher for our first lesson without arousing suspicion.

The following are my notes from the session. Handle them with the utmost discretion, and securely destroy them after you have memorized the relevant details:

How did Captain America survive being frozen?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Freezing most humans results in the water within blood and muscle tissue crystallizing into ice. The increase in volume results in shearing cuts, fatally damaging tissue. Captain America's blood is thicker than normal, with an increase in glucose levels. This meant that despite being incased in ice, much like hibernating animals, he never truly froze.

At the moment, it appears this characteristic is part of the epigenetic effects the serum had on transforming Steve Rogers.

Is Captain America still human?

The impact of the serum on Captain America appears to be primarily epigenetic: how his genes are expressed with relation to their environment. Most importantly, he has not undergone mutation, and is not a mutant. His genetics are normal, so he could presumably reproduce in a normal manner. The science team is awaiting the opportunity to experimentally investigate this, but thus far Rogers has denied efforts to run a complete study.

What is different about the brain structure of Captain America?

Brain scans of Captain America indicate increased conductivity between neural pathways. This expanded connectivity is responsible for his startlingly quick reflexes, but has also resulted in greater empathy. His amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, visual cortex, motor, pre-motor, and somatosensory areas are all highly connected, resulting in empathy so powerful that he literally feels what other people are feeling. This is both an asset to his leadership, and a liability in risky situations.

This particular neurological expression of increased connectivity is directly driven by the underlaying personality and nature of Steve Rogers. Injecting others with the same serum does not replicate the results.

What was the serum used to transform Captain America?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

The serum is some form of genome editing tool capable of directly modifying gene expression directly at target locations. The delivery mechanism may have been nano capsules activated by light to release the therapeutic load.

How is the serum different than the process used to transform The Hulk?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Where Steve Rogers transformation was a highly technical precision process that the S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists have yet to replicate, Dr. Bruce Banner took a more brute-force approach by using gamma radiation. "It wouldn't have been my first choice," Alvarado explained, elaborating that gamma rays are ionizing radiation that break DNA, shattering the helix structure. He mused, "There's a lot of things that can go wrong," before quickly glossing over the apparently-failed experiments to replicate Banner's fantastically lucky success.

The rest of the science team concurred, stating that Banner had been extremely lucky, and that no new agents should attempt unsupervised replication of his technique. In the words of head instructor Plait, gamma rays may just be light, but comparing them to lower-energy optical light is like comparing bullets to marshmallows.

How is The Hulk's brain structure different from that of Dr. Bruce Banner?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Where Rogers experienced a subtle change in his brain's connectivity after transforming into Captain America, Banner's brain undergoes drastic structural and morphological changes during transformation into The Hulk. There is a rapid filling in of the amigdala, a reduced prefrontal cortex, and a host of other alterations. The overall impact is that his scientific objectivity and rationality drop, and his impulsiveness and emotional responses take over. However, he also experiences a growth in his visual cortex, massively increasing his spacial processing. This is essential to his ability to accurately land during the extreme long and high jumps made possible by physical changes in his muscular and skeletal structure.

What is the Tesseract?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

The Tesseract triggered an immediate reaction in our teaching staff.

Following on the analysis of Banner and the impact of gamma radiation, instructor Plait demonstrated admirable wariness by immediately declaring, "I haven't seen it. I don't want to."

Dyches took the lead, outlining everything S.H.I.E.L.D. learned in the decades they had access the Tesseract before it was reclaimed:

  1. It's an alien artifact.
  2. It's a cube.
  3. It's blue.
  4. It appears to be a very potent source of energy.

The research team is fairly confident that the device is not a battery, as it never diminished in power output over time. To the contrary, the output even increased! This implies that the Tesseract somehow pulls energy out of space, either from curled dimensions or from quantum foam.

Wessen elaborated, explaining that every cubic centimetre of space has the potential for particle pairs to pop into existence, and within 10-44 seconds, annihilate each other. However, if the pairs pop into existence on the edge of a black hole, with one falling in, the other survives as Hawking radiation. It is potential that the Tesseract harnesses this energy in some yet-to-be-determined manner.

Switching back to Dyches, he promoted the possibility that the Tesseract was capable of capturing or even manipulating primordial micro-wormholes. If one of these wormholes could be pried open, it could be used for the invasion of downtown Manhattan, "...but it probably wasn't rated for that purpose."

The only way to differentiate between the theories is for another event. Given the high risk of demolishing major population centers should another event occur, the team is content to live with insufficient data and continuing scientific infighting in the break rooms.

Likewise, Plait ponders that Dr. Foster's reports of seeing different star patterns through the portal may be indicative of seeing through a wormhole stretching to some distant part of the galaxy, or some strange form of warping analogous to gravitational lensing distorting our own stars into unrecognizable patterns.

What is Thor's hammer, Mjölnir?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

It appears that Thor's hammer has a deep, fundamental connection to all four of the fundamental forces of the universe. If so, it is the physical manifestation of the Grand Unified Theory that terrestrial physicists have been fruitlessly pursuing for decades.

Dyches' theory is that the hammer manipulates electromagnetic fields to call and control lightning, while enabling the manipulation of gravity to lift or fly. Finally, the selective immobility of the item suggests the ability to control how things bond on an atomic level through manipulation of strong and weak forces.

As S.H.I.E.L.D. has deep pockets for the most advanced technologies, they have access to the world's only truck-sized accelerator mass spectrometer, equipment that usually occupies an entire room. The spectrometer was used on the hammer, determining that it is made of iron 60. As that particular isotope of iron is only produced in supernova, and has a half-life of 2.6 million years, this indicates that Thor's hammer was literally forged in a supernova.

Further analysis was impossible. Dyches ruefully acknowledged, "No one could lift it," thus they were unable to even determine the weight of the hammer! As an astronomer, Plait was particularly frustrated to have a piece of the center of a star right in front of them, yet be unable to understand it.

How does Iron Man's suit function?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Gil da Costa set the tone immediately, declaring, "Tony will say he's doing all the work, but it isn't true." The control of the suit uses a neural interface. A simplified version of the concept is available for training purposes at the S.T.A.T.I.O.N. base in New York, where brain activity read by realtime electroencephalography scanning (EEG scanning) and eye gaze are used to control the suit. Stark's version is more complicated, including a head-up display and algorithms to anticipate flight and attack manoeuvres. It isn't perfect — Gil da Costa acknowledged, "After party nights with Tony, it's hard..."

What is the suit composed of?

The Iron Man suit isn't actually iron. Instead, it uses a variety of alloys, metals mixed together to produce specific properties. For example, while titanium is hard and resists corrosion, it is also extremely expensive and difficult to machine, so is typically not used in prototypes. Although the team have only limited access to Stark's suits, they have observed that he is undergoing constant prototyping and iterating of his designs, upgrading the suit to customize his specific needs.

What powers the suit?

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

The Iron Man suit is powered by a small, round arc reactor. Although never permitted to investigate it directly, Dyches suspects that the reactor uses a tokamak design paired with low-temperature fusion. These two concepts have never been paired together before, making the design so unconventional that it is utterly bewildering.

Wessen continued, explaining that the capacity to actually harness energy in this manner has been perpetually 25 years in the future for the past several decades of research. However, Stark has apparently found a way to get it to work, shrink it down, and have it not kill him.

Open Questions

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

At this point, the structured briefing was complete. Plait opened up the room to questions from agents, warning us that, "Some answers may be above your paygrade."

The first question was asking of S.H.I.E.L.D. was responding to the increase in responsive materials to recruit an inanimate matter psychologist. The team found this an idea worth pursuing, jotting down notes to discuss it with their superiors.

The agent also asked if the Tesseract's distinctive blue glow could be attributed to Cherenkov Radiation. Cherenkov Radiation is produced by particles moving faster than the speed of light within a material, producing an optical shockwave. Apparently, this is plausible, but the Tesseract produces so much energy over such a broad range of frequencies that the full process is likely more complex.

Finally, an agent clearly designed to be fast-tracked into the biological research unit asked if Captain America also demonstrated changes in his mitochondrial and ATP synthesis during freezing. Unfortunately, they hadn't measured it at the time, and Alvarado explained the challenge of follow-up studies as, "We'd have to put him on ice. He doesn't like that, and he's very busy."

Sneaking Into the Science Training for New S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents

Briefing complete, we were once again admonished to maintain secrecy of the scientific analysis, and encouraged to report to the S.T.A.T.I.O.N. base in New York for further training. Like our briefing, the base hides in plain sight, staying in the public eye to be utterly overlooked.

All images credit Marvel.