The science of superheroes

Who else could calculate how many calories the Flash would need to consume to run at the speed of light?

The science of superheroes

Paramount/Everett Collection

A young Peter Parker stands at a chalkboard, scribbling out numbers while Dr. Curt Connors—whose alter ego is the Lizard, Spider-Man’s nemesis—looks on. In the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man, the equations flash by in an instant, but when the movie hits theatres in July, producers know there will be a lot of eyes on the board, so they needed something that looked relevant and real. That’s where Jim Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor who served as scientific consultant, came in.

“The subject being considered involved cellular regeneration and human mortality,” said Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, who was also a consultant on Watchmen. “Over a weekend, I looked up some papers. I knew there was something called the Gompertz equation, which describes human mortality rates. I took the equation and changed it around, and they used it.”

Kakalios is a firm believer that comic books can teach us a lot about science, even those who say they don’t like math and physics. Wearing a colourful Spider-Man tie, he was in Vancouver last week to present to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a gathering of about 8,000 of North America’s brightest scientific minds. His seminar was organized by the University of Victoria’s E. Paul Zehr, and drew on examples from Batman, Superman, and Star Trek. “You can get people to eat their spinach by hiding it in a superhero ice cream sundae,” said Kakalios.

Kakalios teaches a freshman course on the science of superheroes. Sample questions include: how many calories would the Flash have to consume to run at the speed of light, or 300,000 km per second? Even to run at one-hundredth of that speed, Flash would need to eat 150 million cheeseburgers, according to Kakalios. One of his students looked at whether the Flash would “use all the Earth’s oxygen,” and concluded that he’d be able to run at the speed of light for over two million years before using it all up. (The faster we run, the more oxygen we need to breathe in to convert sugars and carbs into energy.) Earth’s atmosphere, Kakalios explained, has 10-to-the-43rd oxygen molecules, or ten million trillion trillion trillion of them. “It’s impossible to imagine a number that big. But if you put it in the context of the Flash, it gives a sense of the scale.” Framing science through comic books can make it more understandable. In this instance, “it shows how difficult it is to change the atmosphere,” Kakalios said, “but also how difficult it is to change it back.”

Debating comic book science can teach us about science in real life, as Zehr has found. The author of two books—Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine—he has spent a lot of time thinking about whether it’s possible to be a superhero like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, two “regular guys” who beefed up their abilities through training and equipment. “One of the reasons people like Batman is that they think they can be him,” said Zehr, whose background is in neuroscience, kinesiology and martial arts. It turns out that becoming Batman or Iron Man is next to impossible, at least for now.

Unlike Bruce Wayne, “you can’t be the best at everything,” Zehr said. “Physiologically, the adaptations you undergo to become the fastest runner are different than to become a long-distance runner. To be the strongest is different than becoming the most [graceful].” Like a decathlete, it’s possible to be very good at many things, he said—but maybe not the best at every one of them.

As for Iron Man’s suit, “the big problem is time delays,” said Zehr, director of the Centre for Biomedical Research at UVic. The commands from our nervous system are measured in milliseconds—and the contraction of our muscles, based on those commands, are in the tens of milliseconds. To move a machine on top of that would be “halting and clunky, like a bad Skype call,” Zehr said. The only solution would be to have the suit wired directly into the brain. A cybernetic helmet could be used to control such a suit, Kakalios pointed out: his colleague Bin He, a professor of biomedical engineering, has created a helmet that lets the wearer move a cursor around a computer screen with his or her thoughts, with the goal of helping paralyzed people to communicate. But controlling a robotic suit in three dimensions would be another matter.

Of course, pop culture often bends the rules of science in the name of a good story. “At the end of the day, visual storytelling is going to trump the science,” Kakalios said. But even though Peter Parker’s math equation is mostly gibberish, “there’s some real science behind it,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll give people the chance to talk about it.”

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