Superhero science: from fiction to fact
Michael Follows reviews The Secret Science of Superheroes edited by Mark Lorch and Andy Miah
Much like superheroes, scientists tend to assemble…at conferences or science festivals. At one such event, the 2016 Manchester Science Festival to be precise, a team of like-minded scientists came together to try to suss out the real-world science behind everything from Wonder Woman’s lasso to the Hulk’s gigantic transformation. The result is The Secret Science of Superheroes – an eclectic collection of essays by 15 scientists and science communicators, edited by Mark Lorch and Andy Miah. While not explicitly a sequel to James Kakalios’s The Physics of Superheroes, this book is greater than the sum of its parts and fills many of the gaps when it comes to other sciences including biology and chemistry. It is clear from the preface that the book does not aim to debunk the science (which is easy) – instead, it considers how science might make the superheroes plausible.
Each section is concise and faster-paced than similar books, as the authors each had to fit their contributions into 15 or so pages. Laced with gentle humour, every chapter ends with a list of references for the interested reader. In biology, the book covers key issues such as evolution, epidemiology and cancer. Louise Gentle, from Nottingham Trent University, writes about the evolution of superpowers but starts with an excellent explanation of natural selection, before suggesting that X-Men mutants could originate from a founder population. Embryos develop structures reminiscent of gills, a testament to life evolving in the oceans. It is conceivable that an environmental trigger might lead to the expression of this ancestral characteristic and the appearance of Aquaman.
Gentle shows that many living creatures possess the superpowers claimed by our superheroes and this refrain echoes throughout the book. For example, shape-shifting comes as naturally to the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) as X-Men’s Mystique. By using muscular hydrostatics to squeeze through an aperture the size of a pound coin, a 273 kg octopus outdoes Elastigirl. Although she can stretch any part of her body by 30 m, Elastigirl gets undone by the effect of turning forces – the further she stretches, the smaller the force she can apply – one of the few places in the book where we are confronted with the limits of superheroes.
To a greater or lesser extent, all of the writers strayed from their superhero brief. For example, Isabel Pires, a life scientist at the University of Hull, uses the Hulk as a metaphor for how cancers develop. Paul Coxon, a materials scientist at the University of Cambridge, talks about lithium, though he cleverly weaves it into the superhero world by suggesting that we should not overlook the super elements we already have at our disposal. Felicity Heathcote-Márcz, at the University of Manchester, tells us that Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth was most likely a comic-book manifestation of the lie-detector test. After all, William Moulton Marston, who dreamt up and wrote the first Wonder Woman comics, also developed the systolic blood pressure test, an integral part of the polygraph.
Rob Miles, from the University of Hull’s school of engineering and computer science, writes about big data, computers and artificial intelligence, but he starts by talking about Tony Stark’s (aka Iron Man) home computing system “Jarvis” (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System). Miles then turns his back on superheroes, veering to “homicidal HAL” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, before going into the Turing test, personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri, and even Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Miles closes by talking about recent, possibly state-sponsored, cyber-attacks and the dangers of big data.
While Spider-Man is arguably the best superhero vehicle for explaining physics, the University of Surrey’s Suze Kundu makes a persuasive case for using Batman and his costume to showcase composite materials. Kevlar would be a good choice for his suit, as it is bulletproof. This is because it spreads the force of an impact over a wide area, and this effect could be enhanced by incorporating a non-Newtonian material such as D3O. Already used in beanie hats worn by snowboarders, it stiffens on impact, turning the hat into a crash helmet and deforms slightly to absorb kinetic energy. Weaving in carbon nanotubes would enhance its tensile strength and provide a figure-hugging Faraday cage. Carbon is a conductor so Batman would be insulated from electric shocks, while heat would be channelled along the tubes. His cape could be made from “memory cloth” and the desired shape could be activated by an electrical current. If it were made of something like Nitinol, it could pop back into shape. Shape-memory materials are already in use as arterial stents and underwiring for bras. Of course, all these superheroes really need crumple zones or an airbag to avoid injury but this would compromise the visual spectacle and we are prepared to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Meanwhile, scientists are developing supersuits for soldiers and people with disabilities, inspired by science fiction.
Brian Mackenwells, of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, tries to trip up the Flash, who can run at a maximum speed of 140,000 mph (or just shy of 63 km/s) – an ideal pretext to talk about the physics of re-entry from space. Mackenwells uses the “isentropic gas equation” to work out that the temperature of someone running at Mach 182 would rise by 3.4 million °C. Three strategies are used for space re-entry vehicles to minimize heating: ablation, where some material absorbs thermal energy and changes state; emission, where thermal energy is absorbed and then emitted as electromagnetic radiation; or using heat sink material with a high specific heat capacity, which is the only option open to the Flash. Mackenwells works out the Flash’s specific heat capacity to be around 7 billion J kg–1 K–1, making him an amazing human heat-sink. Very few typographical errors sneaked in, though the book could have benefited from a few tables of data rather than some of the infographics used. Despite these small niggles, The Secret Science of Superheroes is quite possibly the best book I have read that uses science fiction as a vehicle for science fact.