Degenerate Matter

1 June 2010

At Kingdom Kane (a 'blog focussed upon the art of Gil Kane), Mykal Banta has reproduced The Birth of the Atom. a story which contains what I have long regarded as an epitomal sequence of what I call comic-book science: Ray Palmer leaps over a wall in pursuit of a meteor seen in the distance, about to hit the Earth.Ray Palmer excavates a meteor composed of about 1000 cu cm of degenerate matter from a white dwarf star, buried about two feet in the earth. 'So heavy-- I can hardly lift it!'Palmer, holding the meteor, looks at in amazement. 'Puff!'Palmer carries the meteor back to his car. 'Puff!'

As I noted to Mykal, a white dwarf star has a density of about 1 million grams per cc, and the meteor appears to be about 1000 cc, so the whole thing should mass at about 1 million kilograms.

It's not apparent why 1 million kilograms should stay compressed into such a small volume. In the case of a dwarf star itself, the gravitational mass of the star as a whole creätes sufficient force, but this is just a fractional piece of such a star. It ought to fly apart as a terrible burst of radiation. But let's assume that this somehow doesn't happen, that the meteor just stays together in a nifty one-liter piece.

The meteor that creäted Meteor Crater in Arizona was under 30,000 kilograms. Ray wouldn't be excavating the meteor at all; he would have been killed by the shock waves from the impact. Those who later did excavate the meteor wouldn't find it buried just a couple of feet deep.

At the surface of the Earth (which itself masses about 5.97 × 1024 kilograms), this meteor would weigh about 11 hundred tons, but Ray picks it up! He subvocalizes a few puffs, but he manages to carry the thing back to his car! Now-a-days, they don't make cars that can carry 11 hundred tons. I don't think that any grad students can lift 11 hundred tons. And, really, Ray ought to be sinking into the ground, as even if he has big feet and has both feet on the ground he is applying over 7000 kPa of pressure to the soil.

It might be suggested that the meteor, while perhaps of material that were once compressed to a density of about 1 million grams per cc, were subsequently uncompressed, and that what Palmer recovered were only, say, 100 kilograms of material. But I don't know how, then, it would be recognizable as originating from a white dwarf star. For example, the core of the sun compresses matter to a greater density than 100 grams per cc.

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5 Responses to Degenerate Matter

  • Gaal says:

    Comic book science: like daily newspaper science, but with more exclamation marks.

  • 28bytes says:

    Clearly, the object has previously unidentified magnetic properties that cause it to be strongly repelled by something buried deep in the earth. This repulsion is strong enough to entirely compensate for the effects of gravity; the puffs are therefore not a result of him lifting the object, they are a result of him moving it, since it has quite a bit of inertia to overcome due to its mass.

    Or perhaps the object just has a center containing an unknown substance with a large negative mass.

  • Mykal Banta says:

    Amazing breakdown of the absurdity of comic-book science (I have always favored “atomic age pseudo-science” for the way it rolls off the tongue).

    You have to admit, though, the part a bit later in the same comic where Ray Palmer grinds the white dwarf material into a clear lens capable of condensing the atomic structure of the human body was pretty accurate, science-wise.

    • Daniel says:

      Comic-book science and atomic-age pseudo-science are over-lapping notions. The origin story for the silver-age Atom is both comic-book science and atomic-age pseudo-science. On the other hand, Gardner Fox's 1940 explanation for the powers of the Flash would be an example of comic-book science not invoking the jargon or concepts of the science and technology of the Atomic Age.

      Your endorsement of Ray's lens may come back to haunt you as you sit before a Senate Confirmation Committee.

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