Can We Manipulate Matter Like Thanos? (Quantum / Superhero)

Being able to manipulate matter has been a long-standing goal in material science. Would it not be amazing if we could control matter on the grand scale that Thanos does when in possession of the Infinity Stones in Avengers: Infinity War? Now, Ravensteijn and colleagues evaluated how far mankind has come in the pursuit of Thanos-like matter manipulation powers. Their study appeared in the Journal Superhero Science and Technology.

They have shown that controlling matter, regardless of the length scale, requires control over the forces between objects. To control large (macroscopic) objects, a large amount of energy is needed. One way to control such objects is to acquire the Infinity Gauntlet complete with the six Infinity Stones, just like Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. But, we can now mimic part of Thanos’ control over matter at the colloidal scale.

“We can now make a wide range of colloidal particles with tunable responsiveness, patchiness, shapes, and sizes. By controlling the interparticle forces, we can manipulate billions (yes billions!) of colloids at the same time by varying triggers such as temperature, pH, and light.”

— authors of the study.

What are colloidals?

The world of colloids lies between atoms and the objects. Colloidal materials consist of a large number of small particles such as solid particles, gas bubbles, or liquid droplets, that are mixed through a medium (such as a liquid, gas or solid). Due to their small dimensions, the earth’s gravity has little to no effect on these particles. This means that colloids dispersed in a medium do not (or barely) sink to the bottom of the container in which you keep them. However, this does not imply that colloids are immobile. Colloids are continuously moving, a phenomenon that scientists refer to as Brownian motion. These movements are the result of constant collisions between molecules of the dispersing medium (such as water molecules) and the colloids.

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the dimensions of objects ranging from the molecular/atomistic world to the macroscopic world. Representative examples of objects from life (real world and the MCU) are depicted to illustrate the specific length scales. The red triangular arrows depict the contribution of thermal motion and gravitational forces for objects with different characteristic dimensions. The colloidal domain ranges from roughly 10¯8 to 10¯6 m and is highlighted on the diagram. © Ravensteijn et al.

What scientists achieved?

Similar to Thanos’ ability to modify matter with by activating or triggering the appropriate Infinity Stone in the Infinity Gauntlet, colloid scientists started to study colloidal systems that can switch between the assembled and disassembled states, or even between assemblies with different internal structures. A popular and successful route for scientists towards these responsive particles is to decorate the surface of the colloids with molecules that can feel and respond to external changes or triggers in the environment, such as changes in pH, temperature, or the level of illumination with particular types of light (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Illustration of responsive colloidal systems. Upon applying Trigger i, e.g., a change (Δ) in pH, temperature, or illumination with UV light, the particles are switched from a non-interacting (left) to an activated state (right). In the active state assembly takes place. The assembly can be disintegrated by applying Trigger ii. Controlling these triggers is analogous to Thanos activating an Infinity Stone to manipulate matter. Switching between the disassembled and assembled state can be followed by microscopy or even macroscopic color changes. Scale bars: 5 μm. Microscopy images were adapted from ref. 50. 2015, Nature Publishing Group. © Ravensteijn et al.

Initially, the particles are not drawn to each other (they are in a non-interactive state). But, applying a trigger creates an attractive force between the particles that eventually leads to the creation of hierarchical structures. Applying a second trigger (or stopping the first one), removes the attraction between the particles and the assembly gradually falls apart again. This is a genuine “activation of the appropriate Infinity Stone” moment to manipulate colloids.

“In contrast to the instantaneous changes Thanos can make with his gauntlet, the assembly and disassembly of colloidal particles generally takes some time. A little patience is required to allow the colloids to find or move away from each other via Brownian motion. The time required for (dis)assembly can vary from seconds to hours and depends on the particle concentration and the strength of the attractive or repulsive forces generated by the applied triggers.”

— authors of the study.

Finally, scientists proved that, to manipulate matter, the Infinity Stones are not strictly necessary. There is no need to roam the universe for the stones just like Thanos did in Avengers: Infinity War. The answer may very well be right in front of us, and at the microscopic scale. The answer is colloids.


Reference: van Ravensteijn, B. G., Magana, J. R., & Voets, I. K. (2020). Manipulating matter with a snap of your fingers: A touch of Thanos in colloid science. Superhero Science and Technology, 2(1), 19–30. https://doi.org/10.24413/sst.2020.1.5329


Note for editors of other websites: To reuse this article fully or partially kindly give credit either to our author/editor S. Aman or provide a link of our article

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