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The Science of Superheroes: The super materials behind great comic book characters

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Sam Wilson, the new Captain America.

There's science in comic books. A new exhibit looks at Captain America's shield, Spider-Man's web, Thor's hammer and Batman's cape and more, scientifically.

How can anyone listen to the "Superman" theme and not want super powers?

Superman's not alone. There's Captain America with his shield, Spider-Man's web, Thor's hammer and Batman with his cape and really cool car.

But there's more to comic books than superheroes running around saving us from impending doom.

There's science.

Suveen Mathaudhu is a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Riverside and curator of the Comic-tanium: The Super Materials of the Superheroes exhibit at the ToonSeum in Pittsburgh.


Who is your favorite superhero?

Wolverine by far. I like his attitude, the science behind him.

So you're more of a Marvel person?

Totally. Marvel depicts a lot of interesting science, and they always have, whereas DC characters to me are somewhat mythological and hard to be defeated. Other than Batman, [they're] very omnipotent creatures. In Marvel we have a lot of superheroes who are actually scientists that use science to super-power their superpowers.

What got you thinking about the link between superheroes and science?

It started when I was a kid reading these comic books, and I would see these depictions of science and cue off how interesting some of these things were, however unrealistic they may be. Going back to something like "G.I. Joe," you see people shooting red and blue lasers all over the place and we're still talking about lasers as tactical weapons.

When it comes to superheroes, what kind of science got you interested in that?

Definitely the X-Men. I used to watch the X-Men cartoons and read the comic books, and I identified with that you had a very diverse group of people with superpowers that had different scientific backgrounds. It was only later I found out Stan Lee gave the X-Men their mutation powers because he was tired of making scientific and technical backstories for characters.

When you're talking to kids and having a presentation, what do you bring up? How do you make the connection to get kids interested?

Two things. I talk about the materials used in the comics that they know about, they know the properties of, but they don't necessarily understand that there's a science behind making those things. Like Captain America's shield having to be made; adamantium in Wolverine's skeleton; Spider-Man making his own web; Iron Man making his own suits and designing them for whatever applications he needs.

Then I take that as a jumping point to telling kids that all of these characters are actually scientists. A lot of these kids don't connect to the fact that a lot of these superheroes and super villains are actually scientists that in their line of work have discovered many of these things that gave them their powers.

What about Captain America's shield? It must be made of something stronger than steel.

There's a lot of people that would argue but I know I'm right. The shield is made of steel, vibranium and a mystery element that fell in. It started out as a development project from FDR to develop tank materials to fight Red Skull and the Panzer divisions, and the scientist who was making it, Myron MacLain, was casting a tank hatch, and it formed into this shape and a mystery element fell in, and he was never ale to duplicate it. And it became one of the strongest elements in the Marvel universe perhaps, other than, Hulk's purple pants.

What about Batman who has a utility belt and even Iron Man?

The way I like to think about Batman is he's a detective, first and foremost. He's not some guy that just goes slugging into any sort of battle like Wolverine does. So he does his research beforehand. And if you look at the schematics they have for the Batcave, they have scientific equipment: a scanning electron microscope, X-ray machines, tools where he can use these scientific principles the same way somebody would do it in a lab to figure out how to get the best in whatever situation he's going into. So he's a tinkerer: He uses all these tools and uses the same sort of scientific logic and reasoning principles to solve what it is he needs to solve.

Are films getting science more right or at least close to being right?

They're making an effort to get it closer to right. One filmmaker who has played a large role in this is James Cameron, who, when you look at "Avatar," Titanic," "Terminator," he was very concerned with the science and physics of what was going on. National Academy has a free consultation service based in L.A. where scientists and engineers can consult on films on a volunteer basis. And more and more people are using those kind of things to depict science in a realistic way.

Are you hoping that maybe some late night you're working on a project at UC Riverside, maybe using chemicals or a laser and something goes awry, it falls on you and a few hours later you wake up with superhuman powers?

Everyone wants superpowers. Every kid, every adult dreams of doing something beyond what's humanly possibly. It could be a lab accident, maybe it's the work being done in the U.K. on engineering three different genetic donors into DNAs. We may get to a point in time where we can engineer superpowers. I don't know.

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