Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dark Matter, Dark Multiverse

Galaxies Spin Faster Than We Can Explain
One of the things making superheroes different from ancient myths is the use of modern science – of course, not real science, but a fictional or misconstrued version of it – to explain the source of superheroes and supervillains powers and weapons. The first page of the first superhero story devotes some space to "explain" how the facts of insect strength make it plausible that a super-man could exist. Batman and Robin, back in the Forties, had communication devices resembling modern cellphones. The "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum physics likely helped inspire the Earth Two (and, later, Multiverse) concocted by Gardner Fox and other creators. Antimatter helped inspire Qward and the Anti-Monitor. Radium and heavy water were used to explain kryptonite, the Flash's super speed, and various other things. The various Flashes use Einstein's theory of special relativity. Final Crisis mentions a graviton superhighway. Comic book pseudoscience draws upon real science– frequently newer and more speculative science, the results that have not been explained or understood completely. Dark Nights: Metal is the latest to forge a new connection between cutting-edge science and the comics.

Way back in 1940, when Flash Comics #1 debuted some of the first science-based superheroes to follow Superman, Hawkman's power of flight was said to depend upon the use of "ninth metal." Presumably, the first eight were those metals known to the ancients, which did indeed number approximately, if not exactly, eight (copper, tin, lead, iron, gold, silver, antimony, and mercury). By the time 1940 rolled around, the periodic table had dozens of metals, but the ancient Egyptian setting of Hawkman's pre-reincarnation origin made eight a more plausible number, and so one could imagine that some unknown, undiscovered metal would have unique new properties. The fictional ninth metal in the Hawk-universe, with anti-gravity powers and various bio-enhancements, is considerably more interesting than whatever the actual ninth metal to be discovered was (possibly bismuth, platinum, or nickel, depending on the source). As comic book science caught up with the real world post-1940, someone realized that "ninth" metal was discovered a long time ago and so the number ought to be bumped to the vague, but similar-sounding "nth." This substance is due to play a starring role in Dark Nights: Metal, and its already-impressive list of properties is certain to grow.

The (pseudo)scientific surprise in Metal #1 was the notion of the dark multiverse being something based on the (seemingly) real scientific phenomenon known as dark matter. Dark matter is real, or at least it's a serious proposition that it may be real.

A realization that goes back to Isaac Newton is that the paths of bodies in space are predictable given their masses and initial positions and motion. If you watch bodies in space move for a while, you can figure out their masses. This was applied to the solar system and worked like a charm. But as soon as someone tried to apply it to galaxies, the results came out strange, seeming to indicate that galaxies were heavier than the number and size of stars in them would indicate. In the 1880s, this was noticed in our galaxy. In 1933, the same year that Jerry Siegel published his first character named Superman, it was noticed in other galaxies. At first, scientists figured that whatever they were missing would eventually be found, but 130 years later, there's still no answer. There have been plenty of ideas, but for one reason or another, none of them work. The stars we can see don't weigh enough. Clouds of dust and gas would glow softly in infrared. Scientists even came up with one idea if the dark matter came in big lumps heavier than the Sun (MACHOs = massive, compact halo objects) and another if they were tiny subatomic particles (WIMPs = weakly interactive massive particles). As of 2017, the explanations for dark matter fall into two categories: Disproven or Inconclusive. We still don't know what dark matter is. Along the way, there have been suggestions that dark matter may not exist at all, and maybe something else that we think is true is actually false. Maybe gravity works differently than we think. All speculative. Nobody knows.

But here's why dark matter is such a big mystery: If dark matter exists, there's a lot of it. Really a lot. It's not that we have a universe with regular matter and dark matter is a little something extra on the side. Dark matter outweighs regular matter considerably, by a ratio of 5.5 to 1. However much you weigh, there are five and a half yous worth of dark matter out there somewhere. The universe is mainly dark matter. Well, unless you count something else called dark energy, which adds up to even more than the dark matter. If you add up the mass-energy together, the dark stuff is 19.4 times as much as the regular matter we're made of. For every you, there are nineteen and a half dark yous. Granted, real science speculates that this is probably not grouped into things like you, but we really don't know how it's composed or arranged.

This little science lesson impacts the story as follows. Remember back in a little crossover called Crisison Infinite Earths when we had an infinite number of matter dimensions and one antimatter dimension? Well, there's a real physics tidbit behind that. In our universe, there really is a lot of matter and, so far as we know, only a tiny bit of antimatter. On paper, they are equal and in some ways opposite, but out there in space, matter is enormously more common.

So, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, in invoking a dark multiverse, aren't just paraphrasing a couple of sentences from a science magazine into their story. They're setting up this dark (and hostile) thing up to be something big, bigger than whatever our heroes and their multiverse have to throw against it. As Kendra Saunders explains briefly in Metal #1, "Dark matter and dark energy actually make up the great majority of our universe."

So, credit the Metal creators with this: They have followed a long tradition of drawing upon real science as the basis for comic book pseudoscience, and will probably educate readers at least a bit along the way. But for now, the more striking thing is the implication that Kendra's speech balloon introduced and this post explains in more detail – this promises to be the biggest threat that has been introduced yet. At least, if we measure threats in kilograms. Suffice it to read their intention: This thing is big and bigger than our heroes. Unlike the Injustice Gang, unlike the Joker, or Sinestro, Bizarro, the Antimonitor, or the Crime Syndicate, the bad guys in this story aren't going to be like our heroes' dark doubles, but as something much bigger, stronger, and more numerous. Wish them well.


  1. Rikdad -- Nicely explained. Your post, and Metal itself, are love letters of sorts to Gardner Fox, whose stories at times could be as educational as a science textbook.
    He once said this to uber-comic fan Jerry Bails: "I maintain two file cabinets chock full of stuff. And the attic is crammed with books and magazines....Everything about science, nature, or unusual facts, I can go to my files or the at least 2,000 books that I have." (source: Wikipedia)

    Scott Snyder, perhaps the most verbose comics writer since the days of Fox in terms of words per page, is clearly cut from the same cloth. The "Superheavy" arc in Batman in which James Gordon wore the cowl for about a year was all about science and pseudoscience. For a writer who started on the horror end of the spectrum, he's embraced the possibilities of the DC Universe with the greatest of bear hugs in recent years ("Zero Year" was a truly wild ride.)

    I admit to anticipating Metal more than any DC effort since Batman Inc. Many threads, the promise of new layers of discovery and flat-out high adventure. Funny how this might eclipse (sorry) the Watchmen-related Doomsday Clock story to come from Geoff Johns, which from this vantage point seems contrived.

  2. Great article Rikdad! I've always tried to wrap my brain around the concept of Dark Matter and this article really helped. I am loving this series, and the mention of Barbatos really had me geeking out too. I am looking forward to following along with you

  3. MW10E,
    I think Fox's development of the Multiverse is a legitimately profound expansion on the idea of Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    So far, Metal has really pleased me. I felt like the first and third issues were great; the second sagged a bit, but that's still a very good average. It at least challenges Doomsday Clock for the main event of 2017, with a little bit of creative friction between them, as multiple stories over the last 2 years have alluded to something big coming, and from the characters' point of view, how is Metal not a strong interpretation as what those allusions were pointing to? (Of course, we know that DC creative control means the Geoff Johns story.)

    1. I like your point about how from the characters' point of view, this could be the big thing that has been alluded to. I am hoping that Snyder drops a few teases to Doomsday Clock at some point to help separate the threats for the characters.

    2. I'm sure nobody is going to want to create an insurrection within DC Comics. Generally, when creators get out of sync, it's not good for anyone, like when Death of New Gods was largely contradicted by Final Crisis.

      We've seen less-publicized plots loom gigantic before. JSA had a "Fourth Reich" storyline in which the future of the world was at stake and most superheroes died until the timeline was undone. Seemed like a huge story, but it only impacted the JSA title. Metal may work a little like that.

  4. Jonny, I'm glad the science explanation helped. Somehow or other, it seems likely that Dark Matter is "all around us" although it's quite open as to whether those are a few big lumps far apart of lots of little lumps inside and around our bodies right now. ("Lump" being a term that Richard Feynman used for quanta.)

    Certainly my eyebrow raised when Barbatos came up. That and the Multiverse map indicate two ways that Snyder is now overtly building on Morrison concepts – though Barbatos precedes Morrison. The bat-demon idea goes back to before Milligan's story, too:

  5. It seems that while the DC Universe as a whole is integrating Watchmen, the Batbooks might very well be taking on a very Morrison bent...