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'Avengers: Endgame' and the Science of the Marvel Universe

Kevin Feige, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, Avengers: Endgame
'Avengers: Endgame' stars Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Feige, producer and president of Marvel Studios (extreme left) participate in the Hand And Footprint Ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

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In "Avengers: Endgame," the surviving heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will square up against the mad titan Thanos – but what are their chances for victory?

Scientist and author Sebastian Alvarado, Ph.D. knows a thing or two about their powers, having authored "The Science of Marvel," an entertaining and informative breakdown of all the comic book super powers in the MCU and just how they match up with real-life scientific principles

"I'm very optimistic," Alvarado tells HowStuffWorks via e-mail. "The remaining half of the Avengers is the most experienced, prepared and powerful team.

"Between Thor, Captain Marvel, and the Hulk, the Avengers are wielding the power of a god, the sun, and gamma-fueled rage," he adds. "That should be enough for tacticians like Cap and Tony to find an opening while Ant-Man can coordinate several unseen attacks. The one concern I have is that they may be facing off with new foes that they know nothing about. "

To refresh, 2018's "Avengers: Infinity War" saw the mad titan finally succeed in collecting all six infinity stones. He locked them into the Infinity Gauntlet and snapped his fingers – an act that erased half the life across the universe.

It's a devastating moment in the film, reducing several beloved Marvel super heroes to dust. But Alvarado points out that, taken in the context of past extinction events on Earth, the snap didn't do that much damage.

"In the 3.5 billion years life has been around, 99.9 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are already extinct," he says. "That's definitely more than half, but it didn't occur during a snap of a finger. Thanos' snap is just another extinction event."

And as for Thanos' reasoning for his attack — that it would save an overpopulated and unsustainable universe from true extinction — it turns out he's been leaning pretty heavily on outdated 18th century demography.

MCU Meets IRL

As Alvarado points out in his book, English cleric and economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1824) theorized that a growing human population would outstrip its ability to produce adequate food. However, Malthus never envisioned how advances in agriculture and technology would transform food production and transportation. His predictions of spiraling starvation didn't hold up over the centuries of human history to follow.

book cover for The Science of Marvel
"The Science of Marvel" was published in April 2019.
Simon & Schuster | Adams Media

That's not to say modern humans (or their MCU counterparts) have achieved a post-scarcity society. Sustainability is still an issue. But if you're going to address sustainability problems across the universe with an almighty gauntlet, why resort to a mass extinction snap?

"Imagine being omnipotent with the power of the Infinity Gauntlet and interstellar travel," Alvarado says. "I think we can be a little more creative with that power to sustain life than to just eliminate it. I preferred Thanos' cosmic love affair with Death from the comics. That made more sense since we can all relate to the crazy things we do to impress someone we love."

But then again, we are talking about the mad titan here and not the perfectly reasonable titan, so perhaps we should cut big screen Thanos some slack.

Not everyone wants to think about quantum physics during a cinematic superhero battle. Sometimes we just need to lose ourselves in the CGI excess of a good Hulk rampage. But for Alvarado, however, the scientific questions are half the fun.

"Since I was old enough to pick up a comic book and argue over which hero or villain would win against who and why," he says. "Nothing motivated me more to win such arguments than learning about science. This became a little more serious when I started consulting on these matters during my Ph.D. The only difference there was to communicate the science effectively."

By day, Alvarado studies molecular ecology and behavioral neuroscience at Queens College, City University of New York, where he serves as an assistant professor. But, in keeping with his love of science communication through super heroics, he also cofounded the science and communication consulting firm, Thwacke! The company works with films, video game companies and exhibits to ensure that scientific subjects are portrayed more realistically.

In "The Science of Marvel," Alvarado weighs in on every corner of the MCU. To account for Groot's amazing growth, he considers how the plant-based alien from "Guardians of the Galaxy" might depend on meristematic cells (undifferentiated cells that become the various organs of a plant) – and a super dose of energy through pubescent leaf growth. In pondering the powers of the heart-shaped herb in "Black Panther," he turns to such examples of real-life pharmacology as the use of stimulating and psychoactive herbs in traditional Chinese medicine. The real-world analogs don't necessarily explain everything we see on screen, but they do drive home the fact the natural world packs plenty of weirdness and wonder to rival anything up Tony Stark's sleeve.

"I was really surprised by the new fields I had to dip my toes into," Alvarado says. "Like quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, aerospace engineering, etc. For example, Falcon's Redwing in ['Captain America: The Winter Soldier'] could see enemies behind walls, which seemed a little far-fetched until I learned that this is something that can be inferred from antennae detecting long wavelength electromagnetic radiation like WiFi. Other examples include how time, space, gravity and light can be controlled or understood under incredibly controlled experiments. To me, this was like finding out the secrets of every magic trick ever invented."

And there are more than enough scientific glimmers in an "Avengers" movie to keep Alvarado thinking.

"For the MCU, you can often see them putting together these incredible set pieces inspired by science," he says. "Consider Nidavellir's neutron star that was used to forge Thor's Stormbreaker. I don't need to know what a neutron star is or how impossible it is to contain, but I know it's enough to almost kill a Norse god and pique the interest of a cybernetic raccoon. If I get more curious, I can read a book about it, tweet a scientist, or browse YouTube to learn more. When you realize something like the Avengers can make you curious about the world around you, it's like being a kid."

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