“I’m the best at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.”
Logan has gone by many names over the years, but unless you are really into your comics, you probably know him best as Wolverine. Logan is a hero from the dark and brooding school. Some are inclined to describe him as an antihero, one of a gaggle of such who were born, as comics at least, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when people couldn’t quite face the all-round goodness of heroes such as (the traditional) Superman. But whilst Logan is rude, crude and violent, prone to drunken binges and excessive smoking, he also has a surprising moral core and a wish to help and protect others. He isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but he does his best to keep the bestiality within and to stop it from taking over, unlike Sabretooth, who is something of a dark mirror, who actively gives in to his bestial nature.
There are two things that most (for a given value of most, that is) people can tell you about Wolverine. One is that he has retractable ‘claws’ of adamantium and the other that he has a remarkable propensity for self-healing. The latter has been compared to the self-healing observed in axolotls, but ramped up several notches – perhaps all the way to eleven, to borrow from a different source. With regards to the claws, you would probably need to be a very keen fan to know that i) these are not true claws in the sense that there is no sheath for these, but rather they cut Logan from the inside-out whenever he deploys them and they heal over as soon as they are withdrawn and ii) that the claws are actually bone, and that the adamantium was bonded to his skeletal structure when he was captured by the Weapon X programme (not to be confused with X-Men or Professor X etc).
The obvious thing to do would be to explore the properties of adamantium, which is known to be an alloy and rather complex to manufacture: the individual elements of the alloy can also be assumed to be rather exotic, because they are kept individually in blocks of resin and only combined when required. Adamantium is rather like Edna Krabapple, in that you only get one chance. Once it has cooled and hardened, that’s it, it can’t be reshaped. (All in all it sounds rather ridiculous, from a production point of view).
But who wants to be obvious, eh? Instead, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about biocompatibility. Afterall, Logan (and for that matter several others) have had adamantium bonded to their skeletal structure…
Biocompatibility is what it says on the tin. Some materials are inimical to tissues – nickel for example is a common irritant leading to contact dermatitis. Nobody is sure about why nickel causes contact dermatitis, but as with most allergens it causes the body’s own immune system to come out fighting against something that is really relatively benign. There is some dispute over the conventional thought that repeated contact increases sensitivity and hence smaller doses lead to significant reaction. One possible counterargument to this, for example, is that it is the same critical dose, it’s just much smaller than we think and of course we’re much more careful once we know we’ve had a reaction, so that one avoids concentrations of the allergen but get caught out by low level contamination. On the other hand, there are plenty of people, chemists in particular, who end up becoming sensitised to certain chemicals. I’m no clinician, so don’t take medical advice from me, but I suspect that it probably depends on the allergen or irritant. There is probably a range of mechanisms that lead to the same result and they all get treated the same way. But you should probably listen to your loved one and just agree with him/her when they say they have to wear 18 ct gold…
In terms of implants, which can range from the passive, e.g. stents, plates, replacement joints etc, to the active, including pacemakers and experimental brain-computer interfaces, there are a number of materials in use. The range is a lot more limited than most people would like, because of issues with biocompatibility. As with nickel, the body just rejects some materials. Some of this can be overcome with surface coatings, but some materials such as titanium and apatite are naturally biocompatible. A distinction may also be drawn between medical use, short term implant and long term implant, with the requirements for biocompatibility being successively more stringent.
So what about adamantium? Let’s try not to think about exactly how this would be bonded to a human skeleton – there is a reason that the people who undergo this procedure (usually involuntarily) have deep seated psychological problems/and or have to be ‘brainwashed’/have memories removed. The fact that people seem to survive suggests a reasonably good level of biocompatibility. Of course most of the people involved seem to have certain powers of regeneration/self-healing, but I think that even these would be taxed if they had to deal with a whole skeleton on a permanent basis. We also have two interesting little nuggets of information i) Wolverine’s healing ability got switched-off and he started to age, although he died from other causes later on and ii) Magneto forcibly removed the adamantium at some stage, suggesting that it has at least some magnetic properties. (Whilst the film ‘Logan’ hints that adamantium is slowly killing Logan as his regenerative powers wear out, we’re going to ignore that and focus on the comic book canonicity).
Some research conducted by material scientists (at Brown University, in the US), working on theoretical alloys has suggested that an alloy of hafnium, carbon and nitrogen could be a possible contender for adamantium. Computer simulations suggest that it would melt at around 2/3 of the temperature of the surface of the Sun, and might have the hardness and strength required. It would be dense (pure hafnium has a density nearly twice that of iron; it has been stated that it is only the superstrength of the people that it has been applied to that allows them to move about as normal), and pure hafnium is relatively benign to human health (although some alloys can be very toxic). It is also paramagnetic, which is to say that whilst it cannot be permanently magnetised, it is certainly susceptible to strong magnetic fields.
I’m a still a little dubious about this. But it does point to a potential (horrific) way of creating an enhanced skeletal structure.