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Why You Don't Want X-Ray Vision

You don't actually want x-ray vision. What would the world be like if you could see through everything? That's the promise of the power, known as x-ray vision. Wanted to peep what's behind that wall, no problem. Also got you. Wanna see what goodies are inside of a safe? Easy. It seems like a simple super power with a lot of potential applications, but just like other classic powers, I think that if you evaluate x-ray vision scientifically, you wouldn't even want it.

What?X-ray vision has been a super power for longer than x-ray specs have been a creepy scam, and I think it's so popular because it's both powerful and easy to understand. Most of us have seen medical imaging using x-rays and so we know that x-rays can go through stuff, and so extending that ability to our eyesight is a lateral move. It's the kind of simplistic x-ray vision that you see characters like Clark Kent use in movies like Man of Steel. But like how x-ray specs were a let-down, real x-ray vision wouldn't be nearly as astounding or as useful as you think.

First, let's define what x-ray vision is. Well, I think the common conception of this power is more or less medical x-ray imaging, which peers into your tissues to peep your bones. And to do that, a medical technician places you in between a source of x-rays in front and a detector of those x-rays in back, something that is sensitive to the x-ray light. When those x-rays are emitted, heavier elements in your bones and tissues, like calcium, absorb some of those x-rays, so that not all of them make it back to the detector. So when you get an x-ray, you're not actually getting a picture of your insides, rather, you're getting a shadow of your insides, which is why I call all x-ray imaging technology bone shadowers. It is both accurate and it sounds totally metal.

But if x-ray vision works like a medical x-ray, there would be some not-so-cool consequences to shooting x-rays out of your eyeballs. X-ray radiation is ionizing radiation, meaning that radiation has enough energy to rip electrons from atoms, which can cause generalized havoc in biological systems. Havoc like cancer and cells die and mutate. And so if you were shooting x-rays out of your eyes, like it's always shown in pop culture, you are very likely to significantly increase the risk of cancer of everyone standing nearby. If you have to use the energies you'd need to see through walls and through people, and I think this is just something that heroes can't condone. This problem is the same reason why medical technicians leave the room when you're getting an x-ray.

Alright, can't-- Can't escape. The other problem with x-ray vision as it's depicted in popular culture, is more fundamental. If you wanted to use x-rays to see through or into a target, you would have to function as your own detector. You would first have to emit the x-rays and then travel faster than they do to be on the other side to detect the bone shadow.(electric guitar plays) X-rays are just light, and so they move at the speed of light. Moving faster than the speed of light is its own separate super power with its own impossibilities, so for our purposes here, this doesn't really work. You could, instead, bounce weaker x-rays off of some object to image inside it like back-scatter x-ray machines at maybe your airport do. But this is very surface-level x-ray vision.

You're seeing through clothes maybe, but not walls. And again, we are trying to be heroic with this power, not just creepos, 'cause I know what you do. Because of the problems with shooting x-rays out of your eyes, I think that if you had real x-ray vision, you would be a detector rather than an emitter. Looking for x-rays that are already out in the world passing through objects. But if you could see x-rays like you could see visible light, would you see anything at all? If some super power let us see outside of the 390 to 700 nanometers that defines our entire visual range, the world would look very different. If you can see in ultraviolet, flowers would get even prettier as reflections meant to entice pollinators revealed themselves to us.

If you could see in infrared, life's heat would make your sight into a predator movie, and the changes would be this drastic, because the sources for these other kinds of radiation are everywhere, and they're very large. Ultraviolet from the sun, and infrared from everything with a temperature, but if you switched over to x-ray vision, the world would go dark. There are very few large naturally occurring sources of x-ray radiation on Earth. Decaying radioactive elements, like the potassium 40 in this sweet 'nan would be one source. The x-rays generated during lightning strikes would be another source. The largest source of x-rays on Earth would be space, but our atmosphere blocks almost all of them. And so, that's about all we got.

The strongest x-rays on Earth are entirely man-made, like those generated in particle accelerators, which you're probably never near, or those generated during x-ray medical imaging, which shadow your bo-- It's not plugged in. It's not. If you had real x-ray vision, the world would turn into a faint, flickering abyss. The x-ray absorbing sky would glow slightly, as would the ocean. Sea water is slightly radioactive. You might even be able to see faint radioactive deposits underground, but that's it. If you wanted to actually see through stuff, you'd have to be standing right next to a particle accelerator or medical equipment, and even this wouldn't be a constant source of high energy light, got you.

The newest problems with x-ray vision and the lack of x-ray sources would make this super power a super bummer. You would hardly be able to see anything, if you could see at all. Childhood ruined. But, don't worry, there is a version of this power that you would actually want. We're not just ruining childhoods here. I saved you a comet. There is a kind of radiation that is all around us right now and has the added benefit of being non-ionizing radio waves, or more specifically, wi-fi. If you are watching this video right now, you are likely near a source of wireless fidelity, which occupies the range on the electromagnetic spectrum between microwaves, which are shorter, and longer radio waves. The most common bands of wi-fi have the wavelengths, which are the distances between the peaks or the troughs of the waves of five centimeters and 12 centimeters.

These distances are critically important, because in the right application, they can approximate the power-- It's plugged in. Of bone shadowing.(electric guitar plays) You will be able to see through something like a wall if the radiation you are looking for goes through it. Now many factors determine what radiation goes through what stuff, but very generally speaking, if the wavelength you are detecting is on a different scale, then the object it is interacting with, it is likely to go through. For example, gamma ray radiation can have wavelengths of less than a trillionth of a meter. This is less than a diameter of atoms. And so gamma rays can literally pass through the spaces in between atoms and be very penetrating.

On the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum, radio waves can have wavelengths of centimeters to kilometers, which are both wider than the depth of this wall, and so they can pass through as if it's not even there. Because wi-fi's wave lengths are on a scale of a few centimeters or less, the waves are very likely to both bounce off and go through objects on our human scale. Which is why, right now, researchers all around the world are using ambient wi-fi signals to image people and objects behind walls, to detect cellphones in pockets, and laptops in backpacks. Now because of those very same wavelengths and how long they are, the images that you get from wi-fi vision, are going to be blurry, and not like classic x-ray vision.

But just because of how ubiquitous wi-fi is, wi-fi vision would be tremendously powerful. Imagine you were a hero entering a building full of bad guys and you had wi-fi vision. Not only would you be able to see all of the bad guys on all of the floors, and whether or not they were holding something metallic, like a weapon, which is very good at reflecting wi-fi waves, you would be able, with the right image processing, to see things inside of this building that you weren't even looking at. Now that is a power that I would want. I swallowed a nickel as a kid. I don't know where that is. So if you think about it scientifically, I don't think you'd actually want x-ray vision. It is simply too dangerous to shoot x-rays out of your eyeballs.

Even if you could, you wouldn't be fast enough to be your own detector. And even if you were fast enough, there wouldn't be enough in the world to detect. It would be darkness. There is though something that you would want, wi-fi vision. Wi-fi radiation is everywhere. It's non-ionizing and it would give you some sense that is like the old super power. It is close enough that right now researchers and Google are already using it to detect your location. So, it is time to change the classic x-ray specs to wi-fi glasses, because science. Guitar me. Thank you. I chose wi-fi vision because wi-fi is everywhere, and then you can be your own detector and you can see through stuff, but you can still get even closer to x-ray vision, and closer to x-rays without being dangerous, if you get into the millimeter wavelength range.

You can image stuff with even better resolution, better than wi-fi, and that's some international airports now use millimeter wave scanners to image underneath your clothes to see if you have any weapons or prohibited materials or whatever, and that resolution is so good, that they have to alter the image that they show you on the other side to see, you know, if you're clean, because if they didn't, they'd see all of it. All of it. Thank you so much for watching, Adam, and a big thanks to Severist on the tough FS Discord for their help on this episode. If you're watching on Facebook, like this video if you liked it. If you are on YouTube, like it and subscribe, and hit that notification bell because we do a lot of nerdy stuff on this channel, not just these main episodes, but also vlogs and live streams, which are a lot of fun.

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