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Excerpts From The Mad Scientist’s Handbook: So You’re Ready to Vaporize a Human

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In Chapter 4* we discussed the proper maintenance and operation of energy weapons such as plasma rifles and Tesla cannons. In this chapter, you will learn how to direct those beams and blasts like a true mad scientist! (See Chapter 9 for “The Dos and Don’ts of Maniacal Laughter: Part 1″.)

As any successful mad scientist will tell you, energy ain’t free. Popular culture tends to forget this, instead focusing on the destructive capabilities of our finely crafted death rays without noting the massive energy expenditures required to use them. To conserve ergs, the efficient mad scientist knows the vaporization energies of his or her targets, as they may be deceptive. For example, did you know it takes more energy to vaporize a person than it does to accelerate a kilogram to Earth’s escape velocity? Set your phasers to “fun”, because in this chapter of The Mad Scientist’s Handbook you will learn just how many Joules it takes to turn your enemies (or interns) into atomic mist.

Since the 1950s, mad scientists the world over have argued what true “vaporization” means. Does it mean the energy required to break all the chemical bonds in a substance? Or does it mean the energy required to turn a solid substance into a gaseous one, like water into steam? In either case, the target would be well and truly destroyed, but as we will see, the finer points matter.

First, consider the true vaporization–the complete separation of all atoms within a molecule–of  water. With a simple molecular structure containing an oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms, it takes serious energy to break these bonds. In fact, it takes 460 kilojoules of energy to break just one mole of oxygen-hydrogen bonds—around the same energy that a 2,000-pound car going 70 miles per hour on the highway has in potential. And that’s just 18 grams of water! So as you can see, it would take a gargantuan amount of energy to separate all the atoms in even a small glass of water…especially if that glass of water is your analog for a person.

The human body is a bit more complicated than a glass of water, but it still vaporizes like one. And thanks to our spies spread across scientific organizations, we now have the energy required to turn a human into an atomic soup, to break all the atomic bonds in a body. According to the captured study, it takes around three gigajoules of death-ray to entirely vaporize a person—enough to completely melt 5,000 pounds of steel or simulate a lightning bolt.  ZAP!

With such an energy requirement—difficult to get from even top-of-the-line atomizers—it may be more efficient for the successful mad scientist to instead settle for the other kind of vaporization: turning a target into gas.

To turn the water content of an average person into gas—leaving the bones behind for allies to find of course—the successful mad scientist’s death ray would have to output enough energy to first boil the person’s water and then turn it into steam. That is to say, you can add heat until water boils, but you have to add an extra boost to get vaporization. This “heat of vaporization” energy is known for many materials, but for a person we can focus directly on their water. If a person of average mass is around 70% water, then that person has around 56 kilograms of water to boil. To bring that water from body temperature (37 degrees Celsius) to its boiling point (100 degrees Celsius), it would require nearly 15 million Joules. To vaporize that boiling body, it needs an additional 127 million Joules. This all brings the grand total to 142 million Joules—a bit more than a Pacific Rim Jaeger rocket punch to the face.

As it would take more than 70 of the world’s most powerful lasers combined to vaporize the water of just one person, death ray energy conservation is paramount. Remember: A successful mad scientist is as efficient as she is devious.

Note: if our engineers working on the Death Star are available, conservation can be an afterthought.

It takes a mammoth amount of power to vaporize a person, but other materials are even harder to destroy. So, we have our first axiom for Chapter 5:

Vaporize people, not places.

The successful mad scientist refrains from trying to destroy whole buildings like in the sci-fi movies of old and instead focuses on individual enemies. The energy needed to vaporize just five 20-foot steel beams at a skyscraper’s foundation would be almost eight billion Joules. And as any mad scientist worth his or her salt knows, that is more energy than was contained in the largest non-nuclear bomb ever designed—the Mother of All Bombs. A resourceful mad scientist could sublimate twenty-five whole people with that output! In short, bringing down a whole building almost immediately depletes energy reserves, and is not nearly as satisfying nor aesthetically pleasing.

Any naysayers can take it up with Cave Johnson, the handbook’s contributing editor:

Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: why not marry safe science if you love it so much. In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won’t hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired.

Study Reference:

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, University of Leicester. (2013). Complete Vaporisation of a Human Body. Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics.

Image Credits:

Warning unauthorized use may vaporize you by bengt-re


*The Mad Scientist’s Handbook is not a real handbook (though it wouldn’t take much persuading for me to make it one…)

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Chickaloon 4:11 pm 09/12/2013

    Um, if it takes 460 kJ of energy for one water bond, and 3 GJ of energy to vaporize me, I must only have 6,522 water molecules in my body. No wonder I feel parched.

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  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:48 pm 09/12/2013

    Hey, something really cool! Please write more!

    I like stories about fictional mad scientists producing death rays, satellite-snatching spaceships and cloned dinosaurs.

    Imagine a world where a mad scientist would have enough money and expertise to single-handedly produce a death ray. By logic, there would be also not-so-mad scientists who would produce many safe and useful inventions solving the world problems. Such a world would be, in fact, extremely safe and pleasant place to live.

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  3. 3. hbergeronx 5:59 pm 09/12/2013

    Chemistry fail. The figure of 460kJ to break the O-H bond is for a mole of bonds. There are two in a mole of water, which weighs about 18 grams. There are about 82kg in a human body, so assuming it is mostly water, that’s 460 * 2 / 18 * 82000 = ~4.2 million kJ. As for a 180ml glass of water, only 9200 kJ, about 20 times as much as “a single bond”- that is, a mole of bonds.

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  4. 4. hbergeronx 6:04 pm 09/12/2013

    4.2 million kilojoules, or 4.2 gigajoules, is less than the potential energy from combustion in a barrel of oil. (

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  5. 5. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 7:07 pm 09/12/2013

    Thanks for the corrections.

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  6. 6. David_Bressan 6:05 am 09/13/2013

    Actually, if you use death rays just to vaporize people & take ove the world you are not a mad scientists, but a mad engineer!jbh5Q

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  7. 7. fche5 9:33 am 09/14/2013

    If you’re going to invent a random meaning for “vaporize” (rather than … “turn into vapor” as in evaporate), might as well go whole-hog and break atoms apart, and the nucleii, and the protons, and the quarks, and …

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  8. 8. danadurnford 12:45 pm 09/15/2013

    why did you remove my comment for ? it wasn,t abusive , its wasn,t off topic . It was articulate ,factual ,not captious , referenced with MSM links , and i did screen captures it after i posted it . Now i,m have to call you out publicly because the only reason your trying to silence that narrative is because you understand what you seen in those links . Its disappointing i have to now spend my day off to hold you accountable , its important you don,t get to deny your readers that narrative .

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  9. 9. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 1:00 pm 09/15/2013

    I removed your comment because it has nothing to do with the post you are commenting on, is completely off-topic, and will likely discourage others from commenting due to the conspiracy narrative you are trying weave. I will also remove subsequent comments that do not deal with the post above. This is not a soundboard for YouTube “I’m just asking questions” videos. Feel free to comment elsewhere where it will be relevant to the conversation.

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  10. 10. karl 10:16 pm 09/20/2013

    sooo, that’s the reason the martian contractor I hired (he sells refurbished tripod death rays for cheap) said I’d need “a few” D cells per shot!
    Now I’m glad I sneezed in his face.
    going to Star Trek style vaporization (according to it’s tech manual it is a sub atomic desintegration), the energy requirements would be even higher, break nuclear bonds, then mess somehow with the weak and strong forces…
    guess I’d stick to a big stik then.

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  11. 11. Blacksheep 4:11 pm 09/30/2013

    Loved the article – very amusing!

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  12. 12. Quinn the Eskimo 11:48 pm 11/16/2013

    Wouldn’t a 9 mm cap be cheaper. Leave something for the cops to investigate.

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  13. 13. S'am Juno 7:17 am 01/10/2014

    The kill setting on your phaser may save you energy but it is cheaper than the cost of a Cleaner to eliminate the body. Not to mention time effective if you have to make a quick getaway. Unanswer is which is more humane to a Red Shirt in an sanctioned off world mission.

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