Marvel’s Deadpool may currently be basking in bad-comedy box-office glory, but his often-overlooked best frenemy Cable has been enjoying a healthy stream of attention from the scientific community on the low. The son of Cyclops is best known for his techno-organic left eye, which allows him to see past the usual visible spectrum into the realm of the infrared, a power that is kind of lame but not that implausible. Biohackers and scientists alike have spent the last several years making this power feasible.
It’s not every day that Marvel super powers become IRL possibilities, but Cable’s ability to see in infrared is not, in theory, all that different from regular human sight. Biologically speaking, all it requires is hacking cones — the cells in our eyes that pick up on color — to pick up on a wider range of wavelengths than it normally would. In 2014, scientists at Washington University’s School of Medicine accidentally discovered how to make it happen.
Normally, we’re confined to seeing colors — different wavelengths of light — within the “visible spectrum,” boring old ROYGBIV. Cable’s infrared-seeing ability means his cones can see past the “BIV” wavelengths, already the longest and most sluggish of the bunch, and pick up on infrared waves, which are so low-energy they can’t trigger the “seeing” process in our brains.
To see colors, wavelengths have to have at least enough energy to knock into a protein called an opsin, which, in turn, is tethered to a blob of vitamin A. Dislodging this blob is necessary for seeing to take place, but infrared wavelengths, slow and low-energy at about 1,000 nanometers in length, don’t pack enough of a punch to do so. And yet, Washington University researchers working with a powerful infrared laser were able to “see” the laser in the form of flashing green light.
The team realized that their eyes were occasionally getting a double hit of infrared photons, which managed to register as “visual” light because the combined energy of two photons was enough to knock the vitamin A blob out of its normal position and induce color vision. And it turns out that a double-whammy of two 1,000-nanometer infrared photons has an equivalent amount of energy to a single 500-nanometer photon, which normally registers in our brains as green. The trick was simply using an infrared laser strong enough to shoot multiple photons into a retina rather than only one at a time.
So, yeah, scientists could probably make infrared vision happen, if it were something even remotely worth pursuing. Cable’s widened visual spectrum would most likely allow him to see moderately exciting things, like the signals ejected from our TV remotes, heat, and a whole lot of wavering background radiation from the sun, but his altered perspective on the world probably wouldn’t be life-changing. Even biohackers who attempted to induce infrared vision through an utterly ridiculous vitamin A-deficient diet reported that the only notable effects were the ability to see “strange reddish colors” and slightly enhanced night vision.
Real talk: if seeing in infrared were really that revolutionary, we’d be wearing night-vision goggles all the time. And if Cable were a superhero with powers remotely worth attempting to simulate IRL, he’d probably have his own movie instead of languishing in the bowels of the Marvel canon.
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