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Beware The Phaser's Maximum Setting

Real vaporization is so much worse than science fiction shows. Everything in our best science fiction is more advanced, from the ships to the computers to the weaponry, but it's not just the weaponry itself that is advanced, it's the way that they dispatch enemies that's so futuristic. The most powerful sci-fi weapons can vaporize targets, reducing them to nothing but a flash of light and a puff of smoke, but almost no science fiction in media has shown you just how terrible and horrendous vaporizing someone would actually be, so let's do it. That's my directive. (upbeat music) Sci-fi weapons that vaporize or disintegrate matter have been around since the concept was introduced 120 years ago by the book Edison's Conquest of Mars.


Since then, movies like Mars Attacks! have put their own spin on the idea, and TV shows like Star Trek have been vaping for decades. Sick. There are many variations, but if these weapons are actually vaporizing people, we've never seen a popular depiction that is scientifically accurate. Real vaporization would look very different, by which I mean super gross. First of all, since terms are very important here, when a sci-fi weapon is said to vaporize a target and not disintegrate it or otherwise disassemble it, what does that mean? Computer, phaser, green. (computer beeps and whirs) No, red. (computer beeps and whirs) No, green. Okay, I'm done. Well, like we've said on this program before, what it means to vaporize something is right there in the name. It's adding enough energy to matter to change it into a gas from what it was, or vapor. Computer, Earl Grey. It's the same essential process as using this phaser to heat up this mug of tea until the water inside boils and then turns into steam. Ooh, it's hot. The simplest interpretation, then, of what a vaporizing weapon does to something or someone is put enough energy into that something or someone to turn all of its liquid and solid constituents into gas or vapor. Computer, on screen.


On screen. (computer beeps) This is about changing the phaser color back and forth, isn't it? (computer beeps) Fine. There are four elements that make up the majority of your mass. Oxygen, for example, makes up 65% of your body's mass, but it's almost always found in conjunction with hydrogen in the form of water. The majority of your body's mass, therefore, is a single molecule. So instead of calculating all of the complicated ways that all of the chemicals in your body, no matter how much there are of them, vaporize, and different energies, and all of that, let's just say that a vaporizing weapon will be effective if it turns all of your water in your body, nope, into steam. (phaser gun hums) Who's flute is that? Being the good science officers that we are and using a little bit of thermodynamics, we can exactly calculate how much energy it would take to turn all of someone's water into steam.


Using my body's mass as an example, and the fraction of it that is water, the total amount of energy it would take to take all of my water from body temperature to boiling and then to steam is 130 million joules, which is a lot. That is more energy than a (screams) light saber puts out in four seconds, and this thing could easily just cut through this hull. (light saber hums) Wow, I was certain by now it probably would have (screams). A weapon flinging around this kind of energy would be dangerous enough, but it's what this energy actually does that's the worst part. When water turns into steam, there is a dramatic increase in volume, and if that increase occurs very rapidly, steam expansion can pack a serious punch. Computer, show the videos.


Come one. (computer beeps and whirs) No, you; fine. Watch what happens when guy with a bad idea throws a bottle of water into a vat of molten metal. Yeah; it causes an explosion that would have messed up the Terminator. Now watch what happens when you pour just a tiny bit of water into boiling oil. The steam expansion throws the burning oil everywhere, and it are often incredibly dangerous. And watch how quickly steam shoots out of this volcanic vent when cold water is poured down it. There is a lot of destructive power here, and again, like good science officers, hiyah, we can calculate exactly how much.


You cannot sneak up on me like that. I stored a happier version of myself in here a while ago. As water gains more and more energy, the molecules that make it up move further and further apart until a gas better describes it, and if we assume that that steam is an ideal gas, which isn't a bad assumption, then we can use the so-called ideal gas law here to calculate just how big it will be after it turns into steam, compared to the water it was before. For example, let's take 100 cubic centimeters of water and heat it up until it turns into steam. If we now let this steam expand so that it matches atmospheric pressure around it, it will act to fill 170 liters, or 45 gallons of space. That is a 1700 fold increase, and remember, this is just a tenth of a kilogram of water. Humans have hundreds of times more water than this in their bodies, which means things are about to get a lot worse. All of these corridors look the same.


Where am I? Sure. If you actually vaporized a person with a sci-fi weapon like a phaser, the result wouldn't be neat and tidy like we always see. It would look more like this. Hey, Kyle, get in here. Set my phaser to realistic real quick. And ready? Man, I just love living life. Fire. (screaming) Yeah, we probably should have simulated that. Oh, he loved this flute. A real vaporization would be horribly violent and incredibly messy. Turning all the person's water into steam is the equivalent of asking all of that water to instantaneously expand and fill the volume of a blue whale, literally.

Even worse, if you're the one doing the vaporizing, the pressure wave from this expansion would at least rupture your ear drums, and at most kill you on the spot. It would be like popping a balloon filled with 10 times the pressure of a scuba tank in your face. Real vaporization wouldn't just be terrible news for targets; it's inefficient and dangerous overkill for the vaporizer. Come on. (computer whirs and beeps) Well, I'm done talking now. It doesn't really. Cool. How many holo-decks do we have? Vaporizing someone is really going all in on destruction. Now in most of the situations where you see someone vaporize another person in science fiction, I would guess that a simple pistol bullet or a bolt from a trusty laser rifle would do the job just fine. The kinetic energy or something like a nine millimeter bullet is around 500 joules, and a good blaster bolt, if you're doing some estimating, might be around 3000 joules. This makes a vaporizing weapon's hundred million joule output somewhere between 43 and 260,000 times more powerful than it needs to be. Vaporizing people is then like swatting a fly with a tank instead of a fly swatter. So much walking. That is a lot of extra energy to invest into a weapon system that is potentially so dangerous.

Not only could the steam explosion from a vaporization instantly kill the person doing the vaporizing, it might destroy the very ship that both are standing on. A spaceship doesn't regularly have to move through an atmosphere, nor does it have to endure thrashing seas like boats on earth do, and so a more realistic spaceship is probably going to be pretty fragile by earth standards, meant to only hold one atmosphere of air pressure. Vaporize a person on a vessel like this, and the localized pressure is going to ballon to 1700 atmospheres, 50% more pressure than you'll find at the bottom of the Mariana trench. So if this happens on board, it could blow out a section of hull and doom the entire ship. What a fantastic day to be alive. Mirror me, die. (spaceship explodes) Well, good thing we have a couple of these ships. If everything that I've said so far isn't bad enough, there's what a real vaporization would look like.

Now up until now, we have been considering a perfect and complete vaporization of all a person's water, but in reality, if you had a weapon that could put out that much energy and you directed it at a person, that person's water wouldn't uniformly turn into steam, nor would it happen all at once. In reality, those neat and tidy Star Trek style vaporizations are gonna look more like this, like lightning blowing up a tree. Now just imagine seeing this in your science fiction, except it's bigger, louder, and with more people chunks. And all this out of such an unassuming weapon. (screams) So why is vaporization so much worse than sci-fi shows? Well even though terms are sometimes used as techno-babble, terms like vaporize have real meaning, and if you apply that to a person, it makes things real bad. At best you get a deadly mess, and at worst, this very common sci-fi trope would destroy the ships that the vaporizers themselves are often trying to save. These weapons do make light sabers look civilized, and that's not easy, because science. Computer, roll credits. (computer beeps and whirs) Thank you.

Although this kind of sci-fi vaporization is most seen in Star Trek, there's a lot of other little examples that would be just as bad. Remember in A New Hope when Leia and the rest of the team fall down into the trash compactor, and she vaporizes the grate to get into it? Imagine what would happen if you instantaneously turned many kilograms of metal that you are this close to into steam. That rescue would have ended real quick. Ahh, there's metal mist in my eyes. Thank you so much for watching, Jonathan. If you want more of me, you can go back to nerdist.com, or you can go to alpha@projectalpha.com, or if you subscribe now, you can get this show two days earlier than everyone else, and you can get discounts on our new merch, which is awesome. If you like this video on Facebook, like it.

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