Clearing the air surrounding Micro-Oxygen

Godzilla vs Destoroyah is my favorite film in the franchsie, and one of the things I enjoy about it is Micro-oxygen. Now I feel there is a bit of a misconception regarding this plot element that I wish to clear up. Unlike my other articles, I am acutally arguing Micro-oxygen’s canonical identity based on what is directly presented within the film and very concrete definitions of physics and chemistry. My usual rule is that I invite others to correct me if I get anything wrong regarding the scientific facts and movie details I mention, and this is where I invite it the most.

Before we can better understand Micro-oxygen, let us take a closer look at the Oxygen Destroyer. For those who have read my Destoroyah article, this will likely be review. Serizawa describes that he created the device after discovering a strange form of energy when studying oxygen from every angle. The final product appears to be some chemical compound which he claims can split oxygen atoms. In my Destoroyah article, I explain that splitting the atomic nucleus would require meeting the nuclear binding energy of oxygen atoms, which is maintained through a very powerful attraction between nucleons (protons and neutrons) known as strong interaction. This overcomes the electromagnetic repulsion between the positive charges of protons. The chemical compound within the Oxygen Destroyer is likely an exergonic (energy releasing) reaction that drove the energetically costly process of splitting oxygen atoms. The pairing of energetically favorable reactions with costly reactions is a common process known as energy coupling. The energy the compound provides is likely the energy Serizawa mentioned.

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Now Godzilla vs Destoroyah would go on to describe the Oxygen Destroyer as a chemical weapon. Technically, this is true, as it is pretty clear that a chemical reaction is driving the initial steps. However, there is something crucial to understand, the final step of splitting an oxygen atom is not a chemical reaction, but a nuclear reaction. This pertains more to nuclear physics rather than coventional chemistry. Understanding the differences between physics and chemistry is going to be the main topic for this part of the article.

Chemistry is defined as the study of the transformations and interactions between matter, most often dealing with the formation and breaking of chemical bonds. Chemical bonds are the overlapping of the atomic orbitals of atoms in a manner that allows the reactant atoms to redistribute their electrons. This leaves the atoms more energetically stable than they were before. Chemical reactions on their own do not change the elements themselves, only manipulate their electrons. To disassemble an atom would involve interfering with the forces and energy that stablizes it. While the study of nuclear reactions is called physical or nuclear chemistry, the field is quite different from the other forms of chemistry that handle compounds, crystals, and organic molecules as there is greater emphasis on the forces and subatomic particles within a single atom. Another big difference to understanding between nuclear reactions and chemical reactions are the energy scales. Breaking the chemical bond between two oxygen atoms requires about 5.15 eV (electron volts) of energy. By comparison, removing just one nucleon from the nucleus of oxygen-16 requires about 8 MeV (Mega-eV), which is over a million times greater! The strong interaction that is keeping the nucleus together is much stronger than the chemical bonds between separate atoms by several magnitudes. Furthermore, oxygen-16 is a relatively tricky element to split, because many elements lighter than iron tend to be more stable than heavier elements like uranium-235, which we use in nuclear reactors. This is because in the heavier elements, the sheer number of protons generate enough repulsion to undermine the strong interaction between the nucleons. Viewing the Oxygen Destroyer as a product of physics just as much as chemistry is consistent with the dialogue in the film, as Serizawa describes that his work began with studying the element oxygen from many angles before discovering an unknown form of energy. That generally sounds like a good deal of physics rather than just focusing on chemical reactions.

Now that the relevance of subatomic physics for the Oxygen Destroyer has been made clear, we can now move on to Micro-oxygen. I have heard other fans criticize Micro-oxygen as holding little perceivable relevance towards the Oxygen Destroyer. Now I will agree it seems pretty confusing, but I will say it is only as confusing as actual scientific concepts. It is perfectly legitimate to point out if something is confusing in the movie but to make the comment that it ”makes no sense” would require scrutinizing the concept using knowledge of the science it is evoking. On that note, it seems to me that many of these critics are not particularly scientifically literate in either chemistry or physics because they often describe Micro-oxygen as a chemical compound. Even Wikizilla describes Micro-oxygen as such. That is specifically the misconception I want to dispel in this paragraph. The other portions of this article are simply my own scientific interpretation. Micro-oxygen should not be called a chemical compound as none of the dialogue in the movie describes it as such and in fact, suggest the opposite. And I am going to be frank, the distinction I am going to address is a very, very basic principle of chemistry. The definition of a chemical compound is a molecule or molecular entity that is composed of atoms belonging to at least two different chemical elements. Diatomic elements like oxygen, which naturally exist in molecules of two atoms of the same element, do not qualify as compounds. In Dr.Ijuin’s interview with Yukari Yamane, he specifically describes Micro-oxygen as ”tiny atoms” that he and his team learned to miniaturize after exploring oxygen from every angle, just like Serizawa. And when describing its destructive potential, he makes the explicit comparison to hydrogen atoms’ ability to corrode metals. This is an actual process known as hydrogen embrittlement, where hydrogen atoms diffuse into the micro-structures of metals such as iron and ruin their integrity. The properties allowing hydrogen to do this are related to its very small size. Other small elements like helium can behave similarly. Furthermore, Yukari specifically states that Ijuin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Now one of the links in my sources section below has a list of every Nobel Prize in Physics ever awarded, and no one earned that prize for synthesizing a chemical compound. Doing so would have won Ijuin the prize in chemistry. And to further confirm my point that Micro-oxygen is a pure element of oxygen rather than a compound, a later scene establishes the boiling point of Micro-oxygen. The boiling point is the temperature where a pure substance transitions between a liquid and a gas. Micro-oxygen is shown to liquefy at -183 degrees Celsius, which is not an arbitrary value. That is also the boiling point of oxygen gas at 1 atm of pressure. The accompanying line even indicates that -183 degrees Celsius was the predicted value, indicating that these people are simply working with a manipulated version of pure oxygen. Physical properties like the boiling point of a substance usually change significantly when an element forms a compound, so it can act as a good characteristic for identifying a chemical substance. Now, firmly establishing that Micro-oxygen is indeed just smaller oxygen atoms rather than a chemical compound, how does it pertain to the Oxygen Destroyer?  The next topic will help.

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It is time to discuss the actual physics involved in shrinking an atom. The first thing to make clear for those unaware is that atoms are not very dense, their volume like 99.9999…% empty space. Here is the expression I have heard since high school to visualize the size of the atomic nucleus relative to its full volume: if the nucleus were the size of a marble, the entire atom would be the size of a football stadium. The atomic radius is basically determined by the approximate positions of the outermost electrons, which occupy regions known as orbitals, not quite the fixed orbits shown in most images. Any physicist would tell you that in broad terms, an atom’s size can be compressed, but there are energy barriers that need to be overcome in order to do that ( this should sound familiar). What keeps electrons where they are is a force known as the electron degeneracy pressure. An electron’s physical position in an atomic orbital is determined by its quantum/energy state. To put it simply, it is a physical characteristic that distinguishes the electrons from each other. Similar to the names of digital files within the same folder, no two electrons in an atom can occupy the exact same energy state. Compressing an atom would result in the electrons being physically closer together, which in turn causes them to enter the same energy states. The electron degeneracy pressure is the force that acts against this. And like nuclear binding energy, the electron degeneracy pressure requires a lot of energy to overcome. Now there is no known synthetic means of shrinking an atom as far as I am aware, but there are natural examples of this. When the heavy gravity of a star causes the atoms within it to collapse, the atoms are tightly compressed. And if the electron degeneracy pressure can counteract gravity, a white dwarf is formed. If gravity overcomes the electron degeneracy pressure, a neutron star is formed from the neutrons’ own degeneracy pressure. A black hole results if the neutron degeneracy pressure also fails to act against gravity. Now, these events only occur when nearly the entire volume of the atom is being compressed. Micro-oxygen seems to behave as a mundane gas, so it’s likely that the oxygen atoms are only slightly compressed to the size of smaller atoms such as hydrogen.

So to put it simply, the Oxygen Destroyer and Micro-oxygen are related in that they are both the extreme manipulations of the very powerful forces that maintain the oxygen atom’s structure, but with different applications. Serizawa managed to overcome oxygen’s nuclear binding energy while Ijuin overcame the electron degeneracy pressure. Since Destoroyah was mutated by the Oxygen Destroyer’s energy, it breathes a Micro-oxygen beam that appears to penetrate and embrittle. Since this beam is generated from an organism rather than whatever synthetic process Ijuin used, Destoroyah’s beam is cruder and less stable, hence its greater destructive power. Serizawa and Ijuin, through independent means, discovered a powerful mechanism that can alter the oxygen atom’s structure.

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Now the last topic I want to address is my appreciation for this movie’s approach to Micro-oxygen as a benefit to humanity derived from a related mechanism to the Oxygen Destroyer. I feel this reflects a reality in chemistry and physics where underyling processes can give us very different products. Ijuin’s Micro-oxygen and Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, as products, are about as different as fertilizer and explosives. Why did I use those examples? Because Micro-Oxygen’s duality as a technology to counteract food shortage and as a destructive weapon appears to be a direct parallel to the Haber-Bosch process.

Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was a German physical chemist who became a very controversial figure and stands as one of the most common examples in the discussion of ethical contributions of science and technology. Since near the end of the 19th century, there was a concern amongst scientists of an impending food shortage crisis, and many chemists were trying to find ways to fixate nitrogen gas from the atmosphere to form the ammonia necessary for synthetic fertilizers. No attempt at efficient nitrogen fixation was successful until Haber established his own means of nitrogen fixation with assistance from his colleague, Carl Bosch, in 1908. The Haber-Bosch process used high pressure and temperatures to fixate atmospheric nitrogen gas to bond with hydrogen gas and form ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process is considered very foundational and is believed to have prevented hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation. This won Haber the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, there is a darker side to this. During World War 1, Haber contributed greatly towards advancements in chemical warfare, which included reactions using chlorine gas to produce forms of mustard gas. Even his own Nobel Prize-winning method for nitrogen fixation was also used to provide Germany with the ammonia it needed for its nitrate-based explosives. Haber’s involvement during the war earned him the reputation as ”The father of chemical warfare”. The duality of Haber’s contributions makes him one of the most controversial and important chemists of the 20th century. As Serizawa is often compared to J.Robert Oppenheimer, Ijuin can just as easily be compared to Fritz Haber in terms of their goals and accomplishments. Both were Nobel-Prize winning scientists whose study of an abundant atmospheric gas offered a solution to solving food-shortage across the world. However, the mechanisms in both of their discoveries share an equal capacity to be used as weapons. Through Micro-oxygen, Godzilla vs Destoroyah makes an interesting connection to a chapter of military science that precedes even the legacy of the atomic bomb. Haber and his generation laid the groundwork for shaping the world in an arguably more universal way than even the advent of nuclear warfare.

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Now part of the reason I did this article is for similar reasons why I did the imprinting section of my Godzilla Junior article: I do not believe there is enough in-depth discussion of the scientific parallels in these films. To me, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II‘s parallels to Konrad Lorenz and Godzilla vs Destoroyah‘s connections to Fritz Haber come off as fairly obvious to anyone who is aware of these two major scientific figures and their contributions. Even if they were not intentional on the filmmaker’s part, I present enough details and explanations within these movies to at least support appropriate comparisons. So I was surprised that between all of the fans and scholars over several decades that I could barely find any articles, blogs, or forums that even made these comparisons. This (along with Micro-oxygen’s common misidentification as chemical compound) convinces me that there are not enough STEM-inclined members of this fanbase for an allegedly science-fiction derived franchise. I see a fair bit of this in the Star Trek and superhero franchises and I find it awesome. That is why I want to help pave the way for the Godzilla fandom to open up to this as well through my articles. Who knows, it might aid in convincing ”normies” that these movies are not as dumb as others would be led to believe.

Sources:

Nuclear Binding Energy per Nucleon and Bond Disassociation Energy of Oxygen gas

https://phys.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/University_Physics/Book%3A_University_Physics_(OpenStax)/Map%3A_University_Physics_III_-_Optics_and_Modern_Physics_(OpenStax)/10%3A__Nuclear_Physics/10.03%3A_Nuclear_Binding_Energy

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00214-013-1415-z/tables/1

https://www.reed.edu/chemistry/alan/324/units.html <- used to convert kJ/mol into eV.

Hydrogen Embrittlement

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11663-015-0325-y

List of Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/lists/all-nobel-prizes-in-physics#:~:text=The%20Nobel%20Prize%20in%20Physics,the%20Nobel%20Prize%20in%20Physics.

Boiling point for oxygen

https://webbook.nist.gov/cgi/cbook.cgi?ID=C7782447&Mask=4

Electron Degeneracy Pressure

http://minerva.union.edu/vianil/web_stuff2/Election_and_Neutron_Pressure.htm

Fritz Haber

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1918/haber/biographical/

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/184345/pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: CallmeJoe

A 23-year-old College Graduate in Biology who's primarily a fan of Godzilla and other properties.

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