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Biology, Physics

Mini post: The Hulk and Gamma Radiation

I went to Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at Telus World of Science Edmonton yesterday so I had to take a photo of the Hulk.

The Hulk. Statue at Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes

The reason I had to take a photo is that when I teach the electromagnetic spectrum in an intro physics course I always talk about the Hulk when it comes to gamma radiation. So here is a quick post about gamma radiation and why we probably won’t get the Hulk.

Gamma rays are extremely short wavelengths (shorter than x-rays which help us see our bones) so they fit inside of our DNA. They are produced by a number of different things nuclear fusion (adding atomic nuclei together), nuclear fission (splitting nuclei apart), and two types of nuclear decay where a heavy atom either gives off smaller nuclei and gamma rays (the energy that is no longer needed) or just the gamma rays themselves. This can be harnessed to treat cancerous cells, but it also occurs naturally.

In a 2006 study, Sudprasert, Navasumrit, and Ruchirawat found that even low doses (those recommended as the upper limits by the International Commission on Radiological Protection) can cause significant DNA damage including causing one or both strands of DNA to break, deleting parts of chromosomes, and newly found in this study, causing decreased expression of two genes that are known to help repair DNA. Therefore, not only does gamma radiation damage the DNA directly, it also makes it less likely to be repaired. A double whammy.

So the Hulk… Here’s the thing: Dr. Bruce Banner would never have survived the exposure to gamma rays from the bomb that supposedly triggered his transformation. If doses within the maximum permissible range can cause significant damage than the amounts released by a bomb would be lethal. His super strength could be possible through a genetic mutation, although the switching back and forth between a normal looking human being and the muscled Hulk would not happen because you can’t turn muscle size on and off. So, while gamma rays will definitely cause damage, the Hulk (unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately) would not happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the story or reflect on thoughts of how we do change when we become extremely emotional.

My apologies, this became not so mini but it was interesting.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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