The science behind superheroes’ powers

An Irish scientist has written a book that delves into the secrets behind the extraordinary abilities of superheroes

Spider-man flies across the city on his spider silk, one of a number of special powers acquired after the bite of a radioactive arachnid. Tony Stark has no superhuman powers, but when he dons his Iron Man suit, advanced technology enables him to perform like a superhero.

These and many other superheroes make for great entertainment, but could they also help students learn about DNA, engineering and graphene?

Postdoctoral researcher and superhero fan Dr Barry Fitzgerald believes these comic-book characters and the films they inspire provide a powerful method for teaching complex science.

Fitzgerald has had great success in enthusing secondary school students about science by describing the special powers and novel technology used by the likes of the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and the Invisible Woman. He uses them to discuss genetics, the functioning of the eye, refraction and metamaterials.


Silky skills

His self-published book, Secrets of Superhero Science, not only reflects his delight in superheroes and what they can do but also demonstrates the science behind their superpowers. For example, he discusses the real possibilities of producing artificial spider silk, but also highlights when the reality of science cannot keep up with the cinematic powers of CGI.

"All the science in the book is completely accurate," he says. "I cite research papers from journals such as Nature and Science. It allows students to dream, but they may also become involved in science."

Fitzgerald has an undergraduate degree and a PhD from the University of Limerick. He is now based at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, where he is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of chemical engineering and chemistry .

His interest in superheroes began much earlier. "I am a huge fan, always have been. I saw my first Superman film in 1978 and once I saw that, that was it."

Science and science-fiction merged for him after his PhD, when he started to run a science learning centre for undergraduates at UL and realised the educational potential of superheroes.

Kees Schöller, a business development officer at Eindhoven, encouraged Fitzgerald to write the book. “He said, ‘You have to go and test your market and find out what your market wants to read,’” Fitzgerald says.

He began giving talks at universities and, in January 2015, gave 25 talks for secondary school students around Limerick in one week. "I had one slide on [the character] Hawkeye and got so much enthusiasm about him I wrote a full chapter about Hawkeye in the book."

Hawkeye, a Marvel character, has no superhuman powers, but he does have exceptional eyesight, far better than normal vision and akin to what a hawk would see. This in turn allowed Fitzgerald to talk about the structure of the eye and photoreceptor cells and the science behind Hawkeye’s vision.

“It boils down to him having more photo receptor cells than we do,” says Fitzgerald. “He could have as many as a hawk, allowing him to see a rabbit during the day from 2km away.”

He also talks about a company developing bionic lenses that could bring our vision up to better than 20-20.

Another popular character he discusses is Marvel’s Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Woman. The science here revolves around refraction: if you can stop reflection from a surface, that surface becomes invisible. Storm’s power came after she was exposed to cosmic rays. She is able to cause light to bend around her, making her invisible.

A very hot suit

Iron Man wears a metal suit that includes a propulsion system. So he can fly, but this makes the suit very, very hot.

“The only way I can see him dealing with that is the introduction of materials that convert waste thermal energy into electrical energy,” Fitzgerald says. “These materials do exist and are being used in car exhaust systems to convert heat to energy at 7 to 8 per cent. This electricity would then power his on-board computer control systems. He is taking waste energy and making electricity.”

As far as Spider-Man’s powers go, scientists are now working to use spider silk – one of the toughest substances on the planet – to create bullet-proof technologies, lightweight but strong parachutes and even artificial cruciate ligaments.

There are bound to be scientists who do not agree with Fitzgerald’s approach, which takes fictional science and treats it as real, but no one has challenged him on it yet.

“The primary aim is to encourage students to take up a career in science,” he says. “It may kick-start an interest in a career choice they had not considered. If I convince one [person] to do science, I have already won.”

  • Secrets of Superhero Science is available from, from O'Mahony's and Crescent bookshops in Limerick; Dubray books in Dublin, Kilkenny, Galway and Bray; and from Hodges Figgis
  • Captain America: Civil War is on general release tomorrow

The most common way for a superhero to acquire a unique power is through exposure to dangerous radiation and cosmic rays from space. This in turn alters the character's genetic code, in the process bestowing traits such as super-strength, armour-like skin or abilities acquired from other species.

Spontaneous changes in normal DNA also occur to produce the X-Men “mutants”. Of course, the X-Men’s powers are beyond belief (such as Wolverine’s ability, if wounded, to heal in a matter of seconds, or Magneto’s ability to control magnetism). Still, they provide a good introduction to genetics and how genes work.

“I look at genetics and DNA with the X-Men and talk about modern gene-editing techniques,” says Dr Barry Fitzgerald. “The only difference between the X-Men and us is their DNA,” he adds. “If we can crack that, maybe we could have superpowers. They would have nonstandard amino acids that might give superpowers.”

Although this is obviously outlandish from the perspective of pure science, there are interesting crossovers.

For example, researchers at the University of Wyoming have developed a way to incorporate spider silk-spinning genes into goats. They were able to harvest large amounts of the silk protein from the goats’ milk.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.