It’s been ten years since The Science of Superheroes by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg was published. Over that time, and especially in the five years or so that the book has been on my shelf, there is absolutely no doubt that comics and superheroes have gone mainstream.
2002 was also the year that the first Spiderman film was released, a huge film that can be credited with the explosion of comic-based blockbusters as well as kick-starting Marvel’s revival (they went from being nearly bankrupt in 1997 to being bought by Disney for $4 billion a couple of years ago).
Save for being obsessed with the 90's cartoon version of the X-Men, comics and comic culture (apart from the aforementioned blockbusters) have largely passed me by. The Amazing Spiderman, a so, so ‘reboot’ of the franchise after the terrible Spiderman 3, with its cringe worthy emo Spiderman, came out just this year, but it was the onslaught of all things Avengers this summer that reminded me to dig out The Science of Superheroes . Even then the book kept slipping down my reading list until I finally got round to playing Batman: Arkham Asylum this week and was reminded of it again.
Picking superheroes, largely from the Marvel and DC catalogues, The Science of Superheroes tries to unpick the powers of famous characters like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk and explain how plausible, or more commonly implausible, their powers are, according to our scientific understanding of the world. You'll note that all the superheroes are male – something the authors do mention in the appendix, when they lament the lack of heroines in comic books.
Given that Batman doesn’t have any actual powers and is just a man with a lot of time and money on his hands, you get the impression that he was shoehorned into the book because they couldn’t leave out DC’s biggest hero. All of Batman’s utility-belt gadgets are things that existed at time of his creation (or at least weren’t too far away) in miniaturised form, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading, so the authors decided instead to crowbar in a few pages discussing plate tectonics and the possibility of a major earthquake hitting New York, as once happened to Gotham.
As it turns out, there are some science lessons to be learned from Batman. A little while back, four physics students from the University of Leicester published a paper onTheTrajectory of a Falling Batman, which concluded that “... gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slowdown is used such as a parachute.”
From left to right: Batman gliding at a constant angle with respect to his direction of travel; A frame from Batman Begins showing the area of Batman's cape during flight; Velocity pro le of Batman's glide. Figures adapted from Marshall et al. (2012)*.
It’s clear Gresh and Weinberg are more comfortable with physics than biology, as the best parts of the book are those to do with astronomy and the constraints imposed by the laws of physics. Why can’t the Flash, or Superman, actually travel faster than light? What does the square cubed law have to say about the plausibility of Ant-Man? Are ‘white holes’ the source of infinite energy, which powers the Green Lantern’s ring? (But why does the Green Lantern’s ring not work on yellow things, given that yellow is just a frequency of light and not a property of the object itself?)
The book was a real let-down, however, when it came to the chapter on the X-Men, which is in the realms of biology and not physics and suffers most from the shoehorning problem. There’s a decent enough overview of evolution and natural selection, but it was disappointingly light on the capabilities of mutations and bioengineering, which is what I thought it would be about. After a quick mention of Dolly the sheep, the authors choose to discuss something no less interesting and comical, but not actually comic-related: creationism. Instead of trying to get at interesting topics, like where genetic modification might lead our species, we're given a run–through on US-centred controversies in the teaching of intelligent design and evolution that feels out of place and reads like the authors have a major axe to grind.
Whilst it’s a given that writers (not just of comics) occasionally have to take liberties with science in order to create and advance a good story, there was one writer, Carl Barks, creator of Donald Duck, who took the scientific accuracy of his drawings and storylines very seriously, with one of them not cited as a case of life imitating (comic) art. In 1949 Barks wrote a story about Uncle Scrooge and Donald raising a sunken ship from the bottom of the sea by filling it with ping pong balls to increase its buoyancy.
15 years later, Danish inventor Karl Kroeyer used a very similar technique, using expandable polystyrene foam bubbles, to raise a sunken freighter off the coast of Kuwait.
The Science of Superheroes
claims he was inspired by the idea after reading the comic as a young boy, but Kroeyer was already 35 by the time the Donald Duck story was published. Cracked.com repeated a story about
on his invention on the grounds that the Donald Duck comic was ‘prior art’, but it’s
. Makes for a cool story though.
I picked this book up more for the science than the superheroes, but really enjoyed the brief introductions and potted histories of the various comics, the ideas for the characters and their historical context. Superheroes from the 40s fought Nazis, those from the 50s were a product of the atomic age and often had their origins in radioactivity, and skip to the 90s and we have heroes like the X-Men who reflect the huge advances being made in genetics and bioengineering at the time. Using superheroes is a fantastic premise for a popular science book, and there’s enough comic history and science for lovers of both to get something out of it, but
The Science of Superheroes
is too patchy and doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunity.
*Marshall, D.; Hands, T.; Griffiths, I.; Douglas, G.. A2_9,
, Physics Special Topics, North America, 10 9 12 2011.