But Not Simpler

But Not Simpler

Thinking way too hard about science and pop-culture

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

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!

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...)

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

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