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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Pop quiz, Viktor by Sam M. '07

I finally discover what happens when you rapidly cool hot metal. Now my life is complete.

According to my favorite website ever, StatCounter, somebody from Australia found this site by Googling the phrase “what happens when you rapidly cool hot metal?”. Well, that’s what I’ve been asking for a while now. Turns out that there is no page on the entire internet that scientifically explains exactly how the climax of Fantastic 4 works. So, to rectify this, I decided to take matters into my own hands and e-mail Professor Christoper A. Schuh, an associate professor of metallurgy in the department of materials science and engineering (Course 3).

 

Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2005 17:06:10 -0400 [08/02/05 17:06:10 EDT]
From: Sam Maurer
To: Professor Christopher A. Schuh
Subject: Metal cooling question

Dear Professor Schuh,

I am an MIT undergrad in chemical engineering and I have a question that none of my friends in Course 3 have been able to answer.

In the movie “Fantastic Four,” the heroes face a villain whose body is described as “an organic-metal alloy harder than titanium and stronger than diamond.” To defeat him, they heat his body to “supernova temperatures” of 4000 K, which has no visible effect upon him, and then spray him with water from a fire hydrant. This completely immoblizes him and also neutralizes his powers, which involve firing electricity from his hands.

Prior to this, the hero taunts “Pop quiz–chemistry 101. What happens when you rapidly cool hot metal?” My question is whether this complete immobilization would indeed be the effect of rapidly cooling hot metal.

Sorry to bother you with such a question, but I’m assuming that it must have a relatively simple answer and that as a professor of metallurgy, you would be the most knowledgable individual at MIT on this subject.

Thank you very much,
Sam

Much to my surprise, I received a response.

 

Date: Thu, 04 Aug 2005 09:21:10 -0400 [09:21:10 EDT]
From: Christopher Schuh
To: Sam Maurer
Subject: Re: Metal cooling question

At 05:06 PM 8/2/2005 -0400, you wrote:

[Show Quoted Text – 16 lines]

Hi Sam,

Interesting premise you describe here. Rapidly cooling metal will indeed tend to have an
immobilizing effect on the atoms, which vibrate more as more thermal energy is available
(kT), and less as the temperature is lowered. However, this says nothing about thermal
history- if the alloy is at room temperature it is equally “frozen” whether or not it was
heated and quenched to get there. It seems to me that the villain should be frozen prior
to the heating cycle in the first place. The other possibility is that the heating and
cooling cycle changes the microstructure of the alloy, but the details of microstructure
changes are alloy-specific, and probably not the domain of Chemistry 101. As a point of
interest, it is worth noting that 4000 K is hot enough to melt every element in the
periodic table.

Of slightly less technical concern, the comments on the strength of the alloy seem
relatively meaningless. While ‘hardness’ and ‘strength’ do have different technical
meanings, they are actually more or less synonymous. A material stronger than diamond is
guaranteed to be harder than titanium and every other material known to mankind today…
;)

Chris

By the time I got this response, I had already e-mailed a similar question to Brian ’05, currently a PhD candidate in the department of materials science and engineering. Brian was nice enough to offer some insight into the process at the molecular level, which Professor Schuh found to be beyond the scope of “Chemistry 101.”

 

Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2005 17:01:45 -0400 [08/02/05 17:01:45 EDT]
From: Brian N.
To: Sam Maurer
Subject: Re: bad science question

On Tue, Aug 02, 2005 at 04:44:29PM -0400, Sam Maurer wrote:

[Show Quoted Text – 20 lines]

Oh, this is actually quite accurate.

If you very rapidly cool a metal melt, it forms a metallic glass. Of course, all of the organometallic alloys I know of are stronger than titanium, harder than diamond, and don’t melt at supernova temperatures, so I guess this doesn’t apply… this seems to be supported by how they just don’t let him melt.

I suppose in the case where he’s not melted by the supernova temperatures, the structure would already be crystalline and so it wouldn’t form a metallic glass. They might be referring to fracturing that could be caused by the rapid shrinking of the metal as local areas experience vast temperature gradients. Of course, that wouldn’t solidify him so that’s out.

Oh, maybe the organic part of the alloy is super strong and prevents him from melting by holding the metal in, even though the metal is actually in liquid form. That would be cool. In that case, I guess the liquid metal part of his system would become metallic glass.

Metallic glass is way stronger than crystalline metal (it’s nearly impossible to break because there aren’t any fracture planes), so if he was deforming the alloy with the organic part of the matrix, perhaps the organic part was no longer able to apply enough strain to get the metallic part to deform? Yeah, that’s got to be it.

So have faith in your movie heros, there’s usually some way that it might maybe be theoretically possible that what they’re doing would work…

Oh, the stress fracturing thing — I think it basically works like this. High temperature, the spacing between atoms is larger. Low temperature the spacing is smaller. If there’s a change of a million degrees over a millimeter of metal (local temperature gradients) that’s a really big lattice mismatch between adjacent planes that can cause huge numbers of dislocations to form… of course, if his alloy was that strong this would probably just make it stronger, but if it was enough, it might make it crack. I don’t think I’ve actually ever seen this happen myself though.


Brian

“The secret to living a good life is to find something you truly love to do, and *then* find someone to pay you for it.”

-Gerry Sussman

Well, now you know.

13 responses to “Pop quiz, Viktor”

  1. Laura says:

    Yes! Awesome entry. Haha. SO entertaining. =)

  2. Ben says:

    Yes, totally awesome entry, as usual. Now go close that italics tag so this page will look normal. grin

  3. Eric says:

    Wow~ Such an interesting viewpoint! it isn’t the first time i’ve heard about how science fiction in movies can be debated, like Star Trek, one of my favorite old movies (before it sadly was ended)… My favorite now, though, is the science of harry potter – now that’s something really worth debating! Like, what is the nature of magic? And is it possible to recreate that magic physically in the real world?

  4. Mitra says:

    You should also email Barbara Imperiali to see what she thinks. Dr. Tabacco, perhaps?

  5. Stephanie says:

    Go Course 3!

    The only thing I hate about movies referencing science/facts is when they’re wrong. It totally confuses everything for me. But anyway, the responses you got sound right/interesting/plausible. Or something. so I guess that wouldn’t bother me as much.

    -Stephanie

  6. Joe says:

    Finally we have an answer!! Good work Sam smile

  7. Andrew says:

    Actually, as a kid, there was one fantasy series I read by Piers Anthony (his only halfway decent one, really), where he explains the existence of magic as the the fifth force, much, much weaker than gravity. I’ve never read a book on string theory which tries to account for that within total unification though…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. Although one part of Mr. Fantastic’s statement seems to be inaccurate.

    I don’t think this is Chem 101 stuff…..

    :D

  9. Srikrishnak says:

    WoW.Amaging. I came here while searching for the same tag from the climax. Interesting work smile

  10. Tony says:

    Thank you for doing this. I just watched the movie again and was like “How the hell does that beat him?”

    I always assumed that maybe he was partially molten, and when he resolidified from the cooling, he was unable to move.

  11. Missy says:

    I just watched the movie and was very confused with the ending, so as usual, I decided to google it: “what happens to hot metal when it is rapidly cooled?” To my surprise this was the first web page I looked at!!! Good work even though I didn’t understand the answers whatsoever. I’m just glad other people wondered the same thing.

  12. chuchu says:

    I was in the exact same postion as Missy was. Its amazing how minds think alike smile

  13. stanley says:

    Cool, i just re watch the movie and was thinking abt the same thing. Nice response!