Mumbai: If you’re a fan of sci-fi movies such as Ant-Man And The Wasp, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids or even Downsizing, you may almost end up believing that human beings can easily shrink while retaining the mass and strength of their normal human bodies, and return to their original sizes. The reality is, however, very different. Researchers have been continually pointing to the impossibility of this task.

The reason is that regardless of whether the characters in the movies use a laser gun or the so-called “Pym Particles" to shrink their subjects, if human beings really shrink, they would face serious challenges, including oxygen deprivation.

According to research by graduate student Max Mikel-Stites and his adviser, Anne Staples, an associate professor in the biomedical engineering and mechanics department at Virginia Tech, the atmospheric density—the number of molecules in a given volume of air—experienced by the bug-sized heroes (Ant Man And The Wasp) is reduced to a level nearly identical to that of Mt. Everest’s so-called “death zone" where there is not enough oxygen for a human to breathe.

The ‘death zone’ begins for a normal-sized human about 8,000 metres above sea level. The shrunken superheroes, the researchers calculated, would feel like they were at an altitude of 7,998 metres, making for a serious—if not deadly—case of altitude sickness.

It’s called ‘death zone’ because nothing lives at that altitude or above and no human can survive long there due to the lack of oxygen in the thin air.

There is another hurdle that shrinking human beings will face. The surface area of our organs and the mass of our bodies dictate the amount of oxygen we inhale, the food we digest and the heat we give off. For instance, in the 1957 sci-fi movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero is exposed to radioactive toxic waste. And when he stops shrinking, he is about an inch tall—down by a factor of about 70 in linear dimensions.

Thus, the surface area of his body, through which he loses heat, has decreased by about 5,000 times, but the mass of his body, which generates the heat, has decreased by 350,000 times, Michael LaBarbera, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, explains in his paper The Biology of B-Movie Monsters.

Further, the researchers found that, based on a relationship known as Kleiber’s law (named after Swiss chemist Max Kleiber) that correlates the metabolic rate of an animal to its size, the metabolic rates per unit mass of the superheroes at bug size would increase by approximately two orders of magnitude—as would their oxygen demands. However, if Knudsen pumps and microscale gas compressors could be embedded into the helmets of characters like Ant-Man and the Wasp to help them breathe at the microscale, science fiction could become a reality, according to new research by Virginia Tech. A Knusden pump is a gas pump that has no moving parts but is driven by rate of change in temperature.

Of course, if researchers do succeed in helping humans shrink with these contraptions, it might result in a scenario reminiscent of the sci-fi film Downsizing, where humans could become as small as five inches and consume less food, helping the cause of climate change.