October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How did comic books heroes get their superpowers and could we ever join their ranks? ...


Spider-Man swinging through the Manhattan skyline. Batman cruising round Gotham in his Batmobile. Tony Stark climbing into the Iron Man suit. Being a superhero looks very cool. Certainly, that’s what David Lizewski, the alter ego of the hero Kick-Ass, thinks. Armed with just a wetsuit and some batons wrapped in electrical tape, Kick-Ass takes to the street to become a real-life superhero, receiving some horrific injuries in the process. Like other comics, Kick-Ass is fiction, but what if I wanted to become a superhero? Could science help me?

In comics, there tends to be three groups of superheroes. Some are born with their powers, such as the X-Men who have genetic mutations or Superman who came from another planet. Other superheroes receive their powers through experimentation, such as Captain America, or by accident, like Spider-Man. Finally, there are characters like Batman, who don’t have any powers but become superheroes thanks to technology. My lack of super-powered mutations means I’ll be looking to emulate the latter group.

Accidental superpowers

After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker developed spider-like powers, such as agility, strength and a ‘spider-sense’, alerting him to oncoming danger. It seems that science is already advancing on some of Spider-Man’s super traits, and it may only be a matter of time before everyone can shoot and swing just like him.

Victor Mateevitsi at the University of Illinois, has developed a suit covered in sensors, meaning wearers can ‘feel’ objects around them even when they cannot see them. As a science geek himself, Spider-Man also invented web-shooters, which are mounted on his wrists and shoot a strong, sticky, web-like substance.

Spider silk is incredibly strong, with a tensile strength greater than a steel wire of the same thickness, meaning it has been suggested for many applications.

Researchers at Utah State University have genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk in large quantities, ready-spun into useable threads, and a Japanese company Spiber has developed over 250 different types of artificial spider silks, with uses including bulletproof vests and artificial blood vessels.

Another of Spider-Man’s powers is the ability to climb up walls and stick to ceilings, just like a spider. The gecko is a creature in nature that can also do this thanks to toe-pads covered in millions of tiny hair-like protrusions known as setae. There are around 14,000 of these per square millimetre, resulting in a very high surface area. It is this large surface area that allows van der Waal’s forces to attract the gecko’s foot to the wall. Van der Waal’s forces are weak interactions caused by positive and negative charges on the adjacent molecules attracting one another. Although these charges are very small and only temporary, the large cumulative surface area of the hair-like protrusions on the gecko’s toe allows for so many Van der Waal interactions to occur that the overall effect is strongly attractive. In fact, the toe-pads of a typical 70 g gecko could actually support a weight of up to 133 kg.

The strength of this adhesion, coupled with the fact it can work on a wide variety of surfaces, means it could be exploited for adhesives and could also be used in space, where conventional adhesives collect dust or lose stickiness over time. In fact, such biological technology has been the inspiration for The European Space Agency, which is developing Abigaille, a wall-crawling robot designed to scuttle around the outside of satellites and space stations to mend machinery. Abigaille’s six legs use gecko technology to cling to the spacecraft.

A more worthwhile application of this technology would be gloves and shoes allowing us to climb walls just like Spider-Man, although how well you’d be able to climb would still depend on how strong you are. Also, the heavier you are, the larger the surface area you’d need to have in contact with the wall.

Could invisibility soon be a reality too? Susan Storm, also known as the Invisible Woman, is a member of the Fantastic Four, who received their superpowers after being bombarded with mysterious ‘cosmic rays’ during an ill-fated trip to space, so they fall into the second superhero category. Susan can create invisible force fields and turn herself and others invisible by bending light waves.

In 2006, John Pendry proposed that a material could be made invisible in this way and later that year, researchers in the US produced a ‘meta-material’ that steered microwaves around it, meaning it appeared invisible at microwave wavelengths. In 2007, this was extended to visible light. Unfortunately, these meta-material cloaks only work for very small objects, so I’ll have to look elsewhere for my Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak for now.

Super through technology

However, some superheroes didn’t have to rely on cosmic beams or radioactive bites to gain their powers. Instead, they developed them themselves. Unlike Spider-Man and the Invisible Woman, Iron Man doesn’t have any inherent superpowers. Instead Tony Stark, a multibillionaire technology genius, graduated from MIT aged just 17 and used his expertise and wealth to build himself a robotic suit of armour.

The Iron Man suit is equipped with repulsor beams in the palms and feet, which he uses both as weapons and to enable him to fly. Such a suit of armour would be incredibly useful in combat situations, so it should come as no surprise to hear that the US Army has been developing an exoskeleton called TALOS (Tactical Assault Light-Operator Suit).

The first three prototype suits will be in use later this year, and will hopefully be completed and available by 2018. TALOS will enhance the user’s strength and endurance, as well as monitoring their health and performance and offering a layer of armour. Currently, it doesn’t look to include any weaponry, and Iron Man-style repulsor beams seem to be some way off.

As an alternative, directed-energy weaponry could be the answer. These work by shooting lasers, microwaves or particle beams at a target. Depending on the type of energy used, these beams are capable of passing through walls and being invisible. The Active Denial System (ADS) is based on microwaves and works similarly to the microwave in your kitchen, by heating up water. Unlike your counter-top microwave, however, it is designed to be used on human targets, firing a 3.2 GHz beam to excite water and fat molecules, heating up skin to unbearable levels.

The idea is that the pain becomes too much to handle before it causes permanent damage, although in 0.01% of cases it has led to second-degree burns. ADS was previously deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 but was never used. This system probably couldn’t be used in an Iron Man suit as it requires a lot of power, making it very bulky. The original ADS had to be carried in a dedicated Humvee, meaning it probably won’t be at hand-held size for some time.

So technology is certainly well on its way to making me into a superhero, but are there people out there who have got lucky in the genetic lottery or picked up superpowers during their lifetime?

Super mutations

Many superheroes, such as the super-fast Flash, show superhuman endurance. Eero Mäntyranta won three Olympic gold medals for Finland in cross-country skiing. This is one of the most physically demanding endurance sports and uses every muscle group, requires massive oxygen consumption and burns more calories than other sports.

Mäntyranta had a mutation in the EPOR gene, which produces a protein that responds to erythropoietin (EPO) and causes more red blood cells to be produced, increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Because of this, EPO is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but has been widely used in sports, particularly cycling. People with a mutation similar to Mäntyranta’s can carry up to 50% more oxygen in their blood, giving them a massive advantage over competitors without needing to dope.

Susan Storm’s husband and teammate Reed Richards, also known as Mr Fantastic, has a rubber-like body, capable of being stretched and formed into all kinds of shapes. Similar to this, Garry ‘Stretch’ Turner suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, caused by a mutation to the collagen synthesis pathway.

Collagen is responsible for the structure of connective tissue and skin, so defective collagen production can lead to weaker connective tissue. In Turner’s case, this has led to him being crowned Guinness World Record holder for the world’s stretchiest skin. People with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can also have very flexible joints thanks to the weaker connective tissue, but it can lead to complications such as arthritis and joint pain, neither of which Mr Fantastic seems to have problems with.

As a child, Matt Murdock was blinded by radioactive waste. Having taken away one of his senses, the accident heightened his others, meaning he is able to use his excellent sense of hearing like sonar, exploiting echolocation in the same way that bats and dolphins can.

Numerous blind people outside the pages of comic books are similarly able to get around using echolocation. Intriguingly, brain scans have shown that these people use the part of their brain normally reserved for visual processing to interpret the echoes they hear, with no response in the auditory processing regions, suggesting their brains have been retrained to interpret the echoes as visual input rather than sound.

As an alternative to technology, could I gain superpowers in some other way? The Incredible Hulk came into being when Dr Bruce Banner was blasted with microwave radiation. As we’ve seen with the ASD weapon earlier, microwave radiation is unlikely to cause mutations, instead heating up the body and possibly causing burns.

After being cured of his original Hulk affliction, Banner chose to restore his powers by using a gamma ray machine. Gamma radiation is at the highest frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning its photons have extremely high energy. When the photon hits a molecule, it can remove an electron, ionising the molecule and making it highly reactive. Gamma radiation is the most damaging form of ionising radiation, penetrating into the human body and damaging DNA. Depending on the dosage, gamma radiation can cause radiation sickness, cancer, or simply immediate incineration. It’s unlikely to turn you into the Hulk.

As far as I can tell, I haven’t got any superpowers, so the genetic route isn’t going to help me in my superhero quest. Exposure to radiation is also much more likely to leave me dead or deformed than turn me into the next Hulk, so I’m left with technology as my only route to comic book immortality. Thankfully, it looks like science is catching up with fiction. Powered exoskeletons are starting to be used by the US military, gecko-based technology could help me climb walls, and arrays of sensors can alert users to incoming threats. The invisibility cloak seems a little further off, but I’m well on my way to becoming an Avengers. Does anyone have Nick Fury’s phone number?


IMAGE: ricky brigante, insidethemagic