Scientists who don’t live in comic books have yet to unlock the secret of the serum that turned a 98 pound weakling into a block of ultra-patriotic, Nazi-pounding supermuscle, sadly.
However, Suveen Mathaudhu, a program manager in the materials science division of the U.S. Army Research Office and adjunct materials science professor at NC State University (plus a big, damn comic book geek), thinks he can explain certain aspects of Captain America‘s trusty vibranium shield to us mortals:
Specifically, Mathaudhu is interested in the shield’s uncanny ability to absorb force.
I remember seeing Avengers and watching Cap block a blow from Thor‘s hammer. Now, bear in mind I’m not a comics reader–I just like the movies and tv shows. Thing is, I knew vibranium was tough enough to take the blow without breaking–but I remember turning to my roomie and asking: “Shouldn’t that have at least broken his arm?”. Cap is more resilient than the average human, but he’s not indestructible.
Apparently, HAD I read the comics I would be aware that Cap’s shield is well-known not only for being essentially unbreakable, but for being able to absorb even a punch from The Incredible Hulk.
Here’s what Mathaudhu had to say about that:
…from a scientific perspective, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about the first law of thermodynamics. Energy is conserved. It doesn’t disappear, it just changes form.
Such energy would normally either be stored, or converted into heat and sound–but other than the shockwave Thor’s blow created in Avengers, which was likely for dramatic effect, the shield seems to take blows without emitting ear-piercing noises or waves of heat. This leads to the assumption that the shield absorbs such energy:
That absence of heat and sound means that the energy has to be absorbed somehow; the atomic bonds in the shield – which is made of vibranium – must be able to store that energy in some form
The theory, put simply, is that vibranium–as well as being indestructible–also acts as both a battery and a capacitor. This would explain the material’s ability to absorb energy, but capacitors also release energy–dig this:
If the energy is being stored in the bonds between the shield’s atoms, that could explain the variability in the shield’s physical characteristics
Translation: THAT’S why the shield can ricochet off objects and return to Cap’s hand–or cut into Winter Soldier‘s bionic arm in one blow, or do any number of things that should be impossible for a simple metal disk.
Now, I can’t prove that this is what the writers at Marvel had in mind when they made Cap’s shield: I’m pretty sure no physicists were consulted in the writing of any comic Captain America was featured in. Odds are they just thought letting his shield do these things was really badass–and they’re right.
I love it when respected scientists actually take the time to go a step further, and show us how something we’d dismissed as pure fiction COULD actually work–in theory, at least.
Source: The Mary Sue