Going Down: a smaller article by: GF Willmetts.

Over the years, there has been various stories and films about shrinking people in size. Whether it’s ‘Dr. Cyclops’ (1940) and ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ (1957). Both films centred on reduction with little thought of enlargement or how it was done.

It was also very popular in comicbooks. At DC Comics, Ray Palmer aka the Atom relies on a piece of a white dwarf star for his size-changes and at Marvel Comics, Henry Pym is the discoverer of the later named Pym Particle – both giving seemingly possible maybe plausible explanations even if they aren’t explained in detail. Both essentially using a means to compress the space in atoms to lose size but still retain their full weight and strength. The Pym Particle also allows for enlargement although the Square-Cube Law means that greater mass and weight reduces mobility and even Pym preferred 12 feet to 25 feet tall, simply because of the strain to his heart, although you would have thought everything would have been in proportion, unless the space within atoms was also proportionately enlarged. Even in modern day, having a giant walking towards you can be pretty intimidating without doing much. Ask any ogre.

Then we have the 1966 film ‘Fantastic Voyage’. Although based off a Jerome Bixby/Otto Klement co-written story, adapted by David Duncan and screenplay Harry Kleiner just to spread the blame around before Isaac Asimov wrote the novelisation before the film came out. Asimov admitted that he thought some of the film science implausible and sorted out problems like leaving the remains of the Proteus submarine in the patient Jan Benes’ body by having the crew pushing it out of the tear duct. He later wrote ‘Fantastic Voyage II’ to rectify the science, playing around with Planck’s Constant and how much energy shrinking would take. Oddly, I doubt if many have read them both but I do suspect most of you have either seen the film in the cinema or TV or even own a copy.

What makes the film of ‘Fantastic Voyage’ significant is that the use of miniaturisation was used not to bully or attack humans but as a means to save a man from a brain haemorrhage. We have better ways of dealing with such things today. The traitor within the crew was almost supplemental considering the problems they encountered along the way.

As described in the novelisation, the atomic particles are not reduced, just the distance between them which sounds like the comicbook version although none of them had normal size strength like their super-hero counter-parts. If you removed molecules, you wouldn’t have much left of anything functionable.

Back in the 1960s, they only knew of the main particles, the proton, neutron and electron and it wasn’t until much later that it was discovered that there were many more smaller particles, many of whom are in a constant state of decay. Compressing the space could have even more problems when you consider these particles can switch between wave and particle depending on what you use to observe them. If you’ve ever felt the magnetic attraction or repulsion of holding two magnets together, think in those terms when compressing the space in an atom. They wouldn’t want to stay compressed for long. You might not be able to compress the protons and neutrons in an atom, but moving the electron shells closer to the nucleus is going to cause them to be unstable and ultimate collapse to the core and explode than move back to their original positions.

When you consider that they couldn’t reduce nuclear fuel in ‘Fantastic Voyage’, hence UN9035 or Proteus submarine is powered by a minute particle which it matches in size which gives some of the secrets of mass shrinkage, then it would surely apply to all atoms. It takes two uses of the miniaturiser to get them to the right size. One would have to presume that the syringe vial was actually an enlargement or else the amount of water injected into Benes would be surely enough to kill Benes after it grew to its original size. That was one option that Asimov hadn’t considered in his novelisations as he assumed very little water was injected. For once, the film was actually right. To slowly pump the water out of the syringe to get the Proteus into the right position would take too long and it could easily have fallen out.

When refilling air in the lung, a snorkel was used to get the air as it was used to fill the Proteus’ tanks air before they could continue. For the film, no thought was given to the fact that normal-sized oxygen couldn’t be breathed and would quickly fill the tank, assuming it would get through the minute snorkel. For the novelisation, Asimov had a miniaturiser carried in the Proteus. Although a workable solution for the book, you would have to wonder at how much energy is needed to power it to shrink the amount of air needed. Then again, there was never any consideration to air pressure inside the body for the Proteus and whether or not the crew could potentially suffer the bends at such a small size. Likewise, why couldn’t it be used to re-minaturise to extend their time in the body if it was that powerful. Although not stated, I suspect there would have to be some delay between re-minaturising each time. Thinking about this, why use a laser on the blood clot? Miniaturising and taking it with them would have been easier to accomplish if they had one onboard and they wouldn’t have had to repair the laser. In some respects, Asimov’s own solutions created their own problems.


There are many flaws in ‘Fantastic Voyage’, but I doubt it was written to be nitpicked by the likes of me and fifty years later with what we know now, after-thought is far stronger. Some problems are easier to remedy than others. The aforementioned water injected with the Proteus is easy. Others less, so. Anything left by the crew and that includes the usual things like skin fibre and hair would surely be potentially hazardous when enlarged. In the novelisation, the Proteus isn’t left inside Benes but pulled out through the tear-duct with the crew. Without that, the operation would have been an immediate failure although the post-mortem would have been interesting: death by submarine expansion.

The air taken from the lungs would also re-enlarge after its own hour and would also create a fatal embolism. The cure is obviously far more dangerous than the operation. It seems a bit crazy to tell the surgeons to remove the Proteus when its enlargement would be faster than they could operate although easier to find. Whether they could carry it as it enlarged and the mass grew is equally debatable.

If I wanted to get the film producers out of a hole here, I could easily have suggested that perhaps the metals and plastics of the Proteus might not re-enlarge, but it does leave the problem of the deceased Dr. Michaels who was left behind. Just because he was eaten by anti-bodies wouldn’t have dispersed his molecules. Maybe the post-mortem ought to also include death by dead human enlargement. At least the film could be viewed as a visual interpretation of the book, even if it was written concurrently with the production. Asimov finished the novelisation before the film’s release and I doubt if the production team looked at it before completing the film. Even so, having an enlarged broken Proteus at the end might not have been seen as a justifiable expense for just a few seconds. In our digital days of today, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ could easily be re-filmed and cover all the problems that they couldn’t in 1966. Then again, surgery of this nature no longer needs a miniaturised submarine. We have a lot safer ways to deal with such things like anti-clotting agents.

Moving away from surgery, some of the other applications as suggested by General Carter to Charles Grant at the beginning of the film for his organisation, the Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces (C.M.D.F.) is less practical. Would you really want to be part of a military battalion carried in a matchbox into enemy territory? The buffeting from being shook around wouldn’t leave anyone ready to fight. Even if people could be locked down with seat belts, there would still be no control of other shaking and you certainly wouldn’t be in a fit state to fight when enlarged in enemy territory.

Although I’m giving a of emphasis on ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the problems there are the same kind that have appeared in any film since that has involved shrinking and enlarging humans, whether it’s the likes of ‘Innerspace’ (1987) or ‘Ant-Man’ (2015).

So what good is there from shrinking people or objects? Well, other than the likes of and demonstrated in the ‘Ant-Man’ film. Travelling any distance is always problematic. Without any flying ants, you’re at a disadvantage in getting anywhere fast. Not only because the distance is magnified, making a city block extremely long, but all the obstacles as well. A spec of grit will be the size of a small boulder. A puddle a large pond. A small incline possibly as tough as a mountain to climb. It would be too much effort to do much for too long without thinking that there must be better ways to get around. All that effort would tire you before even completing a mission.


When you consider that the Atom shrunk even smaller so he could travel down telephone lines, enlarging at the destination call to hit the bad guy, you have to wonder how much buffering he took along the way, not to mention he was moving at the speed of light. He wouldn’t just thump the bad guy but at that accelerated rate, would have gone right through him and out into space and would take even longer to slow down. Clearly, creators in any medium never looked at all the problems that these things would cause.


To give either of these characters a fighting chance, although small, they retained their full size strength and speed which seems at odds with everything else reduced. Some of the comicbook creators did suggest that the only way you could get mobility with normal weight, strength and speed was having most of the body mass stashed in another dimension but that doesn’t sound plausible because if you go to giant-size, where does the extra matter come from? It would also imply that everyone would have large chunks of their body mass elsewhere and only the tips would be in our reality. Fine if this is a digital universe but less so in real life. On the other hand, you can’t simply shed molecules in that kind of quantity and expect to regain full function when they were restored. If you did that with the brain then you would probably be brain dead in the first instance.

In many respects, a lot of things have been overlooked by any of the media. Even if you don’t shed molecules when being reduced in size, there are a lot of complications. Everything around you will look larger. Much, much larger and a lot out of reach, simply because things aren’t built for such a scale. From a senses point of view and with normal 20/20 vision, it is doubtful if you could see in any detail more than a couple relative feet or metres. At a couple yards, everything would be a blur. You might feel the thumping noises of something coming but you might not know from which direction, after all, it wouldn’t be the only noise you’d be hearing. Thankfully, your sense of smell would probably be deadened by whatever pong you first smell. Your voice as heard by normal-sized people would likely to be high-pitched, assuming they could hear you. Eating would be a nightmare. You certainly wouldn’t get enough nutrients from a few crumbs and you would certainly be burning up a lot of energy running around.

Proportionate strength and speed is less so because it would only favour the size you are reduced to. You might not be as light as a feather but you’d be pretty indestructible. The good news if you do have compressed molecules is you might actually survive if someone stepped on you. Apart from the fact that the likes of a rubber shoe sole would be proportionately bouncy, your normal molecules would be extremely strong by compression. Whether or not you could even move under such compression has never been tested.

At molecular level, one would also have to wonder what would have happened. After all, you can’t exactly compress molecules (we might be made of atoms but they only function as molecules), at least not without the energy fields that the ‘particles’ have not wanting to push back to normal. That is largely why I gave the ‘Fantastic Voyage’ film so much detail. An hour before enlargement sounds convincing but, in truth, it would probably be more like a couple minutes if not seconds, depending on how much energy is pushed in. Certainly, the sudden enlargement is just as likely to kill any human subjected to the change from all types of reasons from heart to brain haemorrhage. It wouldn’t be pleasant and I think any volunteers would have to be considered suicidal.

In many respects, miniaturisation and re-enlargement looks like it’s going to be confined to the realms of Science Fiction or even Science Fantasy because of the complications stated above. It would need a whole development and understanding of atomic theory to make anything like that feasible. Certainly, there is nothing in nature that can do such a thing to copy. There are too many science laws that would have to be broken, especially the Conservation of Matter/Energy and basic enthalpy – the balance of potential and kinetic energy. When you consider scientists are still pondering on whether atoms are particle or wave-like in nature, then we really have a long way to go and certainly not shrinking down in size to find out the secrets of the universe. For our reality, we have a lot safer ways to find out what happens in the smaller world.

GF Willmetts

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(c) GF Willmetts 2016

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