The Science of Superheroes

So, the world is presently a bin fire and if there was ever a time for the Avengers to come blasting into Washington DC and raise hell outside the White House, it would be now. Steven Grant Rogers, also known as Captain America, has been pasted across all sorts of social media timelines in all his Hitler-punching glory. There couldn’t be a better time for superheroes to finally show up. But we all know that superheroes are just a manifestation of our own hopes and ideals. There’s never going to be a time when somebody becomes faster than a bullet or is able to lift a tank over their head, in real life. But in fact, the superheroes we know and love from comics and movies may not be as wildly unrealistic as you might imagine. So, what is the true potential of superhero science?

To start with, there’s been an injection invented by researchers at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, that could feasibly cause extraordinary muscle regeneration and growth.  It works by targeting myostatin, a gene that halts muscle growth. But bad luck to all you wannabe Captain Americas out there, it won’t cause you to develop super-strength as well, and it’s only meant to be for helping those with degenerative muscle diseases. Best stick to the gym for now.

Of course, part of the appeal of superheroes is their indestructability and regenerative healing powers. George Daley, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School, managed to accidentally discover the healing properties of a gene known as Lin28a after experiments on mice injected with the gene for a cancer research project showed signs of rapidly healing minor injuries. Unfortunately, so far there’s no evidence that this gene can be effectively switched on in humans, so don’t make your Deadpool costume just yet.

No matter how you might feel about Tony Stark’s personality, most people will admit that the Iron Man suit is pretty damn cool. And robotics seem to be a slightly more accessible form of extraordinary science in comparison to switching on super-genes and altering human DNA, right? There might not be fancy suits available with arc-reactor powered repulsor blasts at the moment, but there have been extraordinary strides made in the creation of robotic exoskeletons for those with physical disabilities. For the moment it appears they can’t fly as well, but still, pretty amazing.

Invisibility might not be the most badass power, but it’s undeniably still pretty amazing. There have been a number of efforts by scientists to create “invisibility cloaks” with a variety of substances known as “metamaterials” which bend electromagnetic radiation around an object, making it appear invisible. Whilst there have been no serious breakthroughs in terms of a perfect piece of invisibility tech, it’s certainly not impossible that we could be seeing metamaterials used in the near future.

I don’t think even science can explain why Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is so pretty, but can there possibly be an explanation for the entertaining nonsense that is his hammer, Mjolnir? Apparently, one can only lift it if one is “worthy”, which doesn’t seem like science at all. And yet, scientists have suggested that the presence of particles not yet confirmed to exist on Earth, known as gravitons, could feasibly explain how an object could sometimes be immovable heavy and sometimes not. Gravitons “transmit the gravitational force, and if an object emits additional gravitons, it is equivalent to increasing its mass.” Thus, when an unworthy person attempts to lift the hammer, the mass increases to counter the force applied. Magical.

So whilst there’s no real Captain America serum, or Iron Man suit yet, there have still been great improvements in technology that helps those with illness or disability, as well as stuff invented purely for the cool factor. So while the current political climate might look more and more like a comic-book dystopia, bear in mind that there are still good and exciting things happening in the world of science all over the world. If you want to chill out with some sweet TED Talks on this very subject, a series of six episodes is available here.

[Morgaine Das Varma]


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