Will We Ever Shrink Like ‘Ant-Man’?

Ant-Man is finally arriving this week, and we’re looking forward to seeing a tiny Paul Rudd run around and get punched. But, of course, for some of us, the question is: “When can I shrink like that?” In that regard, we’ve got good news and bad news.

The Empty Atom

You might think “Well, let’s just remove the empty space from atoms!” Which brings us to the bad news: Everything you were taught about atoms is wrong. Instead of the classic big ball with little balls whizzing around it, atoms are more like jawbreakers; there’s a top layer of electrons skittering around, but the space between those electrons and the nucleus is full of other stuff, all those subatomic particles we keep discovering and giving those physicists dump trucks of grant money to find. So the basic idea of a shrink ray, where you just take the space out of the atom, doesn’t work.

Now, you could more closely compact atoms in a substance, but currently, the only place you can do that are locations like the center of the sun and black holes. That more or less rules out the key point in shrinking, which is surviving the experience. Even if you did survive, you’d be shrunk for good. Nobody wants that: That’s why Ant-Man gets his own movie, and Doll Man is stuck hoping Grant Morrison writes a Freedom Fighters movie.

The second option would involve subtracting atoms, and telling people you’re going to remove great big chunks of them probably is not going to be a popular Kickstarter pitch. Which leaves us with the good news, which is that there are still ways to make this work.

Getting Small

The first was proposed by Isaac Asimov, and it’s simple on paper: Create a field that allows you to reduce the constants dictating our size and mass, most notably the Higgs field, which dictates size, and the Planck Constant, which is how much energy it takes for a particle to do something. The main issue, besides the fact that this would require the kind of scientific achievement that makes you Einstein-level famous, is the energy involved; essentially, if you lower the Planck constant without changing the speed of light, it takes an enormous amount of energy. Of course, if you can create a field that alters one of the fundamental constants of the universe in the first place, that won’t really be much of an issue. Sadly, currently physicists are not working on warping the fundamental building blocks of reality, but give them time: There’s got to be an ambitious graduate student out there somewhere.

The other option isn’t quite shrinking, but is a lot more likely in our lifetimes, much cheaper and very familiar to Futurama fans: Building tiny little robots, and controlling them remotely via telepresence systems. Okay, so it’s not quite getting shrunk down yourself, but it has a few virtues, like not requiring entirely new branches of physics to be invented.

Granted, there’s a pretty long to-do list before you buy one of these at Home Depot, but we’re already at work on this: Medical telepresence systems have been developed and refined for decades, and there’s a powerful incentive to develop tinier and better surgical robots. Laparoscopic surgery, or “keyhole surgery,” makes surgery far less likely to kill you. Doctors and hospital legal departments are both big fans of anything that lowers the fatality rate of major surgery, and so there’s an arms race right now to engineer smaller, better, surgical robots.

It also makes their job a lot more fun: Who doesn’t want to drive a tiny robot through the human bloodstream, blasting cancer cells with lasers? The miniaturization and refinement of robots is inevitable, and will trickle down to other industries sooner rather than later; robot companies need to keep the lights on too, after all.

So, if you want to be like Ant-Man, just wait for the tiny robots to be built. As for commanding the insects… well, if you want ants out of your house, you should probably just resort to an exterminator.