Friday, September 26, 2014

Captain America 2

Belladonna and I watched Captain America 2 last weekend.

It was a delight to see a Hollywood movie treat the erosion of due process the risks of a heavy-handed government in a serious manner.

One of the more obscure backstories, one that Belladonna did not particularly care to hear involves how Marvel Comics decided that gamma radiation could be a convincing agent of strengthening.  Both Captain America and The Incredible Hulk were "improved" by gamma rays.  The thought that radiation (outside of a tanning booth) could be beneficial is simply unheard of today.

Series of experiments


Series of experiments were run by top agricultural institutions from the 1920s to the 1950s involving radiation.  The results were tantalizing.

A very specific photo was going to be core to this essay.  It was a photo of two graduated cylinders filled with Solanum jamesii (or fendleri) tubers.  These are both wild potatoes that are native to the American southwest.  One cylinder was a little less than half full of marble sized tubers.  It was the control.  The other cylinder was 70%-to-80% full and the tubers were visibly larger.  Those were from seed potatoes that had been irradiated with gamma rays before planting.

Today we understand that potatoes are susceptible to a host of plant viruses, many of which are asymptomatic.  They sap the vigor and vitality of the plant and reduce production.  Reproduction from seed typically provides a firewall between the infected plant and the progeny but potatoes are propagated vegetatively....from cut pieces of potato (eyes).

That is why "new" varieties would typically out produce the old varieties.  They had not yet acquired all of the viruses floating around the field.  In time they would become old and enfeebled because they were infected by the bites of sap sucking insects and by dirty knives used to cut seed potatoes.  Then they too would be surpassed by the latest new variety that was really not any better...it was just not fully infected.

Viruses are quite vulnerable to radiation.  Just the right amount of radiation, gamma radiation, would shred most of the viruses and leave the tuber "sun burnt" but still viable.  Those potatoes were super potatoes.

Seeds were also irradiated to induce mutations.  The scientists knew that most mutations would be of zero or negative benefit.  But given enough mutations there existed the hope of discovering vitamin and protein rich grains and plants with leaves that would repel munching insects.  Yes, scientists are dreamers too.



Another facet of the early Captain America period is that Americans were avid consumers of science magazines like Scientific America and Popular Science.  It is easy to see how the frothy stories of scientific discoveries would make gamma rays appear to be just the ticket for changing 78 pound weaklings into Captain America.  Look at what it did to the potatoes.

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