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Superhero Science

Article

Ben Radford

Volume 31.4, July / August 2007

Spasibo. It means thank you. I really know only a few words of the Russian language, but what little I do know I learned about twenty years ago. I was taught by a man named Piotr Rasputin. I didn’t know him very well, and never asked if he was related to the czar’s infamous “Mad Monk,” but I do remember that he had the curious ability to turn his flesh into a sort of impervious living steel. Very cool, really.

One of my earliest geology lessons came when I was about ten years old. Like my smattering of Russian, it wasn’t a full, formal lesson. But I did learn some interesting and scientifically sound facts, including that because limestone in the earth is partially water-soluble it often creates caves and sinkholes. I overheard a young duck without pants discussing this.

I don’t recall if it was Huey, Dewey, or Louie, but, in any event, they were searching a cave for hidden treasure on behalf of their avaricious great uncle, Scrooge McDuck. (In the same comic I also learned that Scots are tight with a penny, but perhaps that was a stereotype I shouldn’t have picked up.)

I learned scads of (mostly accurate) factoids from my youthful reading, following the adventures and exploits of Encyclopedia Brown, Tintin, Tom Swift, Doc Savage (and his band of scientists including a chemist and an electrical engineer), and, of course, comic-book superheroes.

The world of comics is not just for kids anymore, with complex storylines and very adult graphic novels. Comic- book heroes have jumped from colored splash panels to the big screen in blockbuster films such as Batman, Superman, X-Men, and, of course, the Spider-Man franchise (Spider-Man 3 was recently released in theaters on May 4).

Visitors to the Spider-Man swing can hang by a super-strong thread.

Visitors to the Spider-Man swing can hang by a super-strong thread.

It’s easy to forget that many of the superheroes who have repeatedly (albeit fictionally) saved the world are scientists: Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is an accomplished science student; the Incredible Hulk (in his human form, Bruce Banner) is a nuclear physicist; Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) holds doctorates in physics and electrical engineering; and so on. Most Marvel Comics superheroes have some strong link with science or technology (for example, Peter Parker invented his own web-slinging mechanism, and engineer Tony Stark created his own Iron Man exoskeleton). (For an in-depth look at science and superheroes, see The Science of Superheroes, by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg.)

Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee had created dozens of superheroes to populate his comic books, each with amazing and wondrous powers. He had heroes who could do amazing things rarely if ever seen in the real world. They could fly, walk through walls, teleport, turn invisible, and so on. But Lee had a problem: coming up with the powers was the easy part; coming up with a reason why they had those powers was tricky. So Lee—whose grasp of science is admittedly shaky—used science to ground and lend a sense of validity to the characters. Thus, many heroes gained their powers through scientific, naturalistic (if not wholly realistic) processes. The Fantastic Four were exposed to cosmic rays; Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider; and so on.

A couple watch themselves through a thermal imaging camera.

A couple watch themselves through a thermal imaging camera.

This worked for a while, but, finally, Lee just got lazy. Once he read about the process of genetic mutation, that opened up a whole new world where mutations could be used as a blanket cause of myriad abilities ranging from psychic powers to teleportation to weather control. Thus, the X-Men were born.

Of course, the veneer of science only goes so deep; children wishing to climb walls and have superhuman Spider-Man strength can stop taunting their radioactive spiders. (And where do you get radioactive spiders, anyway?)

Part of the reason the comics had an educational element was that Stan Lee did not believe in talking down to his audience. He wrote his scripts and dialogue at a college level, unafraid of making his readers reach for a dictionary now and then.

Recently, Marvel Comics launched an educational science exhibit using many of its most popular comic-book superhero characters. The goal was to educate children and the public about scientific principles in a fun and interesting way. The exhibit introduces the public to many scientific topics and principles, including magnetism, engineering and hydraulics, acoustics and the physics of sound waves, chemistry, genetics and evolution, visual perception, and arachnology. Instead of dry display panels, the thirty action stations are geared toward hands-on demonstrations and learning. Among them:

The X-Men exhibit discusses the science behind evolution and mutation.

The X-Men exhibit discusses the science behind evolution and mutation.

Other superheroes who took time off from ridding the world of evildoers in order to educate kids for the exhibit include the Hulk, Iceman, Wolverine, the Human Torch, Storm, Banshee, and Iron Man. While some of the exhibits and displays are a bit silly (does matching the Hulk’s angry facial expressions help us understand the physiology of anger?), overall, the exhibit is very well-designed, fun, and informative. Any exhibit that educates as it entertains is well worth a visit, and this is one of the best. Excelsior!

The Marvel Superheroes Science Exhibition premiered at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada, and will be at the St. Louis (Missouri) Science Center from April 28, 2007, until September 4, 2007. For more information on the exhibit and tour schedule, see marvelscienceexhibition.com.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.