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The Science of Superheroes: Beyond “The Incredibles”

Beyond "The Incredibles"

Beyond "The Incredibles"

With the Incredibles up for an Oscar, superheroes are flying higher than ever. Most people may dismiss their fantastic feats—and their formidable foes—as mere fantasy. But to Robert Weinberg, a Chicago, Illinois-based science fiction writer, superheroes are worthy of scientific study.

Along with Lois Gresh, Weinberg wrote The science of Superheroes and the new book, The science of Supervillains. His mission: to separate scientifically believable comic book characters from those who are literally incredible.

So who makes the cut?

“Scientifically, Batman was always the most believable superhero,” Weinberg said. “Every piece of equipment in Batman’s utility belt is available for sale today, 50 years later. That’s pretty accurate science for a comic book hero.”

The Original Dr. Evil

Comic book characters have long been involved in science. Many villains, in particular, started out as scientists before acquiring some superhuman power that enabled them to wreak havoc on the world.

science gone wild has always been one of mankind’s greatest fears,” Weinberg said.

Take, for example, Lex Luthor, Superman’s long-standing nemesis. Originally portrayed as a scientific genius at a young age, Luthor was transformed into what Weinberg calls the original Dr. Evil after he became exposed to a huge amount of radiation.

But how plausible are the scientific methods used by Luthor to battle Superman?

In “The Einstein Connection” (Superman #416, 1986), Luthor builds a teleportation machine that makes him invisible whenever Superman gets too close. A staple of science fiction, teleportation refers to the process of disintegrating an object in one place and reconstituting it somewhere else.

While real-life scientists have successfully teleported photons (particles of light), it’s impossible to beam people from one location to another. The reason: a human body contains too much information to scan and build as replicas.

Instead, Gresh and Weinberg suggest, Luthor may have been using a hologram machine to project images of walls, rooms, and himself. In holography, laser light is used to record the light-wave patterns reflected from an object or person.

While Hollywood filmmakers today are striving to make their movies as scientifically realistic as possible, Weinberg believes the comic books from the so-called Silver Age of comics (the late 1950s and the 1960s) were more grounded in science than most of what is being published today.

“Most of the people who wrote comics back then were originally science fiction writers who knew their science and technology,” he said. “Many of today’s comic book writers seem to have learned their science from reading comic books and not from studying modern technology.”

Some comic book writers have suggested that good science means sacrificing an entertaining story. Weinberg disagrees.

“Years ago critics said science fiction novels couldn’t feature accurate science and intelligent characters, [yet] hundreds of best-selling science fiction books since then have proven [them] wrong,” Weinberg said. “The same people claim that comic books can’t feature accurate science and intelligent characters, that you cannot have both in the same story. Sound familiar?”

Unknown universe

Weinberg and Gresh are not alone in studying superhero science. One Web site, “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics,” reviews movies based on scientific merit. Films receive anything from a GP rating (for “good physics in general”) to an XP (“obviously physics from an unknown universe“).

At the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, James Kakalios, a physics professor, uses superheroes to teach science in a class nicknamed Everything I Know of science, I Learnt From Reading Comic Books.

“It’s a very sneaky course,” Kakalios said. “I’m getting the students to eat their spinach by hiding it in a superhero ice-cream sundae.”

Kakalios first brought comic books into his classroom in 1993. On an introductory physics exam he posed a question about the death of Spider-Man’s onetime girlfriend Gwen Stacey.

Hurled from the top of a New York City bridge by the evil Green Goblin, Stacey died in Spider-Man’s web as the hero tried to save her. The writers later attributed her death to the “shock of the fall,” an explanation that left many readers mystified.

“Her fall is basically a standard problem that we would ask on an exam: If you fall 90 meters [295 feet] with an initial velocity of zero, how fast are you going at the bottom?” Kakalios said.

The answer removed any doubt about the cause of Stacey’s death. She was falling at roughly 95 miles an hour (153 kilometers) when she hit the web. The impact on her body would have been 10 to 20 times the force of gravity. That proved the cause of death to be a neck snap when Spider-Man caught Stacey in his webbing.

Electromagnetism

While comic book fans have long argued over who the most powerful superhero is, Weinberg says there’s no doubt about who is the most formidable villain.

“Without question, Magneto—the mutant who controls the power of magnetism [in the X-Men series]—is the most powerful villain in comics,” Weinberg said. “Electromagnetism is the most powerful of the four basic forces of the universe.”

But Magneto rarely uses his superpowers to cause maximum damage. Theoretically, everything on Earth that involves electricity falls under his influence. Instead, Magneto generally uses his powers to do things like manipulating the iron content of blood to establish mind control over others.

Similarly, Weinberg said, the powers of many superheroes are not put to optimum use or even used logically.

“Imagine you were driving in your car one day, and a meteor crashed in a nearby field, and inside that rocket was a child with superhuman powers,” he said.

“What would you do? Announce to the world that life existed on another planet and that space travel was possible? Or would you take the child home, keep his origin a secret, and raise him to be some sort of flying policeman with a big s on his shirt?”