A Sword as Sharp – Science vs. The Sword

wwswoComic book writers mostly aren’t scientists, but sometimes they say things that make then sound like scientists.  Sometimes the things they say sound cool enough that it becomes repeated enough for a character or concept and then it becomes a fact.  When Mark Waid and Alex Ross depicted Wonder Woman in their landmark series Kingdom Come they gave her a sword which was said to be able to shave electrons off of atoms.  Since the new 52, the sword has become a common accoutrement of the  Amazon heroine, and so too has the fact that it can either shave off the electrons or cleave atoms in two.

Is that really as impressive as it sounds though?  From a physical chemistry perspective in fact it doesn’t really mean much.  As one of the basic building blocks of matter, the atom is made up of three basic particles (in addition to a lot of not-so-basic particles) – the proton, the neutron and the electron.  Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus, with the electrons spinning around them in valance shells.  These are roughly circular regions around the atom in which the electrons orbit the nucleus, and the combination of the three form an atom.  Is it so difficult to get an electron away from an atom?  Not necessarily, but a lot of elements lend their electrons away quite easily, which is the basis for the prevalence of modern electricity among many other applications.  Even so, electrons are not even particularly hard to move.  In the Rutherford gold foil experiment it was shown  that a piece of metal foil could be easily penetrated by a stream of electrons, in which case electrons passed through the valance shells of other atoms, both in and out, many mostly unaltered from their original path.  Equally some chemists will regard all electrons in the universe to be in the valance shells of essentially every other atom, only by degree of relative proximity does an electron belong to an atom.  By comparison then, shaving an electron off of an atom is not very impressive.

wwswo001What this therefore comes down to is a kind of pseudo-scientific way of saying that the sword is very very sharp.  By being able to slice one of the smallest pieces of matter, it means that something would have to be very sharp.  Does it need to be that sharp?  In terms of the heavy hitters in the comic worlds, most of them are invulnerable, meaning that bullets bounce off of them.  A really sharp sword in this case would be somewhat useless, thus a really sharp sword would only be useful against someone that was actually vulnerable to it.  In terms of what a sword would need to be able to cut, there are few parts of normal humans that cannot be cut by a regular sword made of regular steel.  However, the cutting ability of a surface is a combination of two things, its sharpness and its pressure.  As Wonder Woman is both ridiculously strong and fast, the amount of pressure that he could put on a cutting edge would be immense.  She wouldn’t need a sharp sword to cut, she could do so with a lot of blunt objects.  The sharpness of the word might be important for a weak character, but outfitting one of the strongest characters in comics with a sharp sword is redundant.  Also being sharp is not the equivalent of being hard, and Wonder Woman would need a durable sword much more than a sharp one, because after a few blows, the blade would be dull or broken if the material used to create the sword was weak.

The medium of comics is often one of superlatives, where things are unbreakable and where people become planet-busters, invulnerable or faster than light.  While the superlatives invoke great powers, sometimes the superlatives mean actually very little, such as the sword that can slice atoms, and it can be interesting to think about such claims in the face of real science.