The Science of Superheroes

The Science of Superheroes

by Lois H. Gresh

ISBN: 9780471468820

Publisher Wiley

Published in Science/History & Philosophy, Arts & Photography/History & Criticism

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Book Description

If the planet Krypton had a gravitational field strong enough to account for Superman's amazing strength, would it be possible to launch a rocket ship from the planet's surface? Assuming that the Flash could actually travel at the speed of light, would any villain ever stand a chance against him? Could evolution actually produce X-Men?

The Science of Superheroes takes a lighthearted but clearheaded look at the real science behind some of the greatest superhero comic books of all time, including Spider-Man, Batman, the Fantastic Four, and many more. Each chapter presents the origin of one or more superheroes and asks intriguing questions that lead to fascinating discussions about the limits of science, the laws of nature, and the future of technology.

If gamma rays can't turn a 128-pound weakling into the Incredible Hulk, what could? Are Spider-Man's powers really those of a spider? Could a person ever breathe water like a fish? From telepathy to teleportation, from cloning to cosmic rays, this vastly entertaining romp through the nexus of science and fantasy separates the possible from the plausible and the barely plausible from the utterly ridiculous.

You'll discover the connection between black holes and green lanterns; what Galileo could have told Professor Pym about the stresses caused by shrinking and growing; and how many of Batman's "inventions" anticipated actual technological developments. You'll learn how comic book writers use "technobabble" to create seemingly credible explanations of improbable superpowers and bizarre events.

The Science of Superheroes celebrates the ingenuity and imagination of the writers and artists behind the greatest superheroes, and offers helpful suggestions on how some characters' origin stories could be made more believable. It offers immensely enjoyable and informative listening for anyone who loves science, superheroes, or both.

The Science of Superheroes is also available in print from Wiley.


Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Dark Knight


A NonSuper Superhero

One of the true icons of comic book culture is Batman, a superhero without super powers. The scourge of the underworld, Batman is a spectacular crime fighter with a dazzling array of weapons and gadgets. Unlike most comic book heroes who are gifted with extraordinary powers, Batman is an ordinary man who develops his skills through training and hard work. A master detective, Batman is one of the few superheroes who outthinks as well as outfights his opponents.

The creation of artist Bob Kane, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics, #27 May 1939. Like Superman from a year before, the costumed crime fighter caught on quickly with the reading public, and within a few years, was starring in his own comic as well as continuing to appear in Detective Comics.

Unlike Superman, however, Batman wasn't unique in comics. Before he debuted, a number of noncostumed heroes appeared in the pages of Detective and Action Comics. Soon after Batman's appearance, a number of very similar costumed heroes with secret identities joined the ranks of comic book characters, yet none ever achieved the same level of success as Batman. None ever became an American legend recognized throughout the world. What made Batman so special?

For one, his look was unique. Batman's name came from his appearance. He looked like a bat in human form. With his cloak and hood, he looked like no other character in comics. With his bright red and blue outfit, Superman was an all-American hero. Clad in dark colors and wearing a mask while fighting crooks, Batman was a creature of the night. To use a catchphrase invented many years later, the early Batman truly was a "Dark Knight."

Then there were Batman's roots. Unlike Superman, who was defined by his parents' noble sacrifice, Batman was the product of murder. Batman's tragic history gave him a depth of character unequalled by most superheroes. As pointed out by comic book historian Les Daniels, Bob Kane created Batman months before ever considering the character's origin. Kane was more concerned with his hero's look than with his history. The story of how young Bruce Wayne's parents were killed before his eyes by a petty criminal, inspiring the boy to devote his life to fighting crime, didn't appear until December 1939. Kane invented Batman, but it was Kane working with writer Bill Finger, who together devised Batman's background. The right look and the right history combined to make Batman a compelling character.

Equally important in shaping Batman was the decision in late 1939 by newly appointed DC editorial director, Whit Ellsworth, to keep actual violence in Batman stories to a minimum. Early adventures in Detective Stories had Batman using a gun to dispatch villains. Ellsworth wanted DC comics to be kid-friendly and reasoned that too much violence would alienate readers. Within a year, guns were gone and Batman was capturing, not killing, criminals.

The next major step in Batman's evolution came with the addition of a kid sidekick, Robin, in Detective Comics #38, April 1940. Bill Finger, who was writing the scripts for the series, complained that Batman had no one to talk to. Bob Kane obligingly created Robin. The Boy Wonder added dialogue to the comics and also gave readers a character their own age. Robin proved to be a wise move. The circulation of Detective Comics nearly doubled after the addition of the teen hero, leading to a proliferation of teenage superhero assistants over the next two decades.

The final key to Batman's success was the bizarre crew of villains he battled each month. Finding worthy opponents for Superman required enemies with incredible powers or super science. Batman, a crime fighter who used his intelligence to battle crime, merely needed criminals with a good gimmick to make them worthy opponents. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and writer/artist Jerry Robinson created a wild rogues' gallery for Batman that was spectacular even by comic book standards. Top-notch villains included the Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler, and many more.

Appearance, history, a teen sidekick, and intriguing villains make Batman one of the most popular superheroes in history. During Batman's more than sixty years of comic book stardom, the formula has changed on occasion. For example, the original Robin grew up and needless to say became a crime fighter. A second Robin died. However, his replacement fights by Batman's side today.

Other writers and artists following the team of Bob Kane and Bill Finger reshaped Batman to fit the times. Most notably, Frank Miller turned Batman into a darker, grimmer, more realistic character in his retelling of Batman's origin in the 1980s with "The Dark Knight Returns." Miller's stark imagery served as a major influence for Tim Burton's film, Batman. Today, Batman continues to shine as one of DC Comics's greatest stars, with his adventures highlighted in a half-dozen comic books every month.

A non-super superhero, fighting non-super criminals. Where's the science? Just keep reading.

The Science of Batman

Unlike Superman, Batman wasn't born with super powers, nor did a friendly alien like the Green Lantern give Batman super powers. An explosion didn't douse him with chemicals as in the case of the Flash. Batman didn't fly a homemade rocket to outer space like The Fantastic Four, nor did he witness a gamma ray explosion up close like The Incredible Hulk.

Batman is a self-made hero. As explained in numerous stories, including "How to Be the Batman," Detective Comics #190, Batman spent years training in a gym to become a perfect acrobat. He directed his entire education toward scientific crime fighting. Bruce Wayne trained his mind much in the same manner as he trained his body. As he stated in Detective Comics #190, "I've got to know science thoroughly to become a scientific detective." There's little question that Wayne succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Consider "The Amazing Inventions of Batman," as discussed in Batman #109, August 1957. In this story, Batman and Robin use portable jet packs to fly between buildings; use a heat ray to detonate dangerous boxes of explosives floating in Gotham City harbor; and use a flying camera to spy on crooks planning a robbery. Was Batman using real-life science or merely 1950s pseudo-scientific nonsense?

The first accurate prediction of a portable flying pack was made in 1928 in the novel The Skylark of Space by E. E. Smith, also serialized in Amazing Stories, August through October 1928. The first issue of the magazine featured a cover with a man flying while wearing a rocket backpack. The same issue of Amazing Stories also featured the first Buck Rogers story. Although the cover had nothing to do with Buck Rogers, the flying backpack illustration and Buck Rogers were forever linked by inaccurate research as that "crazy Buck Rogers stuff."

The writer of "The Many Inventions of Batman" was Edmond Hamilton, a friend of DC editor Julius Schwartz and longtime comic book scriptwriter. Hamilton had been writing science fiction stories since 1926, and there's little question that he read the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. Most likely, it served in part as Hamilton's inspiration. But, quite possibly, so did real science.

In the 1950s and 1960s, magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics ran several articles about portable jetpacks being developed by scientists trying to come up with new methods of transportation. The man most often mentioned regarding such devices was Wendell F. Moore, a scientist who worked for Bell Aerosystems during those years. Moore dealt with small rockets fueled by hydrogen peroxide. According to several news accounts, he came up with the idea of a man flying by the use of small rockets on his back one evening while doodling.

Moore's doodles turned real in 1960 when the Army Transportation Command awarded Bell Aerosystems a contract for $150,000 to develop a Small Rocket Lifting Device. The Army wanted a practical machine for improving troop mobility. Moore built his rocket belt and on April 20, 1961, an associate of his at Bell Aerosystems, Harold Graham, flew 112 feet outdoors using the rocket belt.

Unfortunately, the Bell jetpack was highly impractical. The invention was little more than a high-powered rocket strapped to a man's back. The jetpack used pressure from liquid nitrogen to force hydrogen peroxide into a catalyst chamber where it reacted with silver screens coated with samarium nitrate. The mix created a jet of very hot, very high-pressured steam that provided the thrust that lifted the user into the air. One wrong move and the pilot was badly burned by the steam. Equally dangerous, the flier had to use his own legs as landing gear. In addition, the jetpack made an incredibly loud noise when in operation.

Despite all of its flaws, the Bell jetpack fascinated the public. The device was demonstrated numerous times around the world. It was shown in television shows, air shows, and was even featured in the James Bond film, Thunderball.

The Army never used the Bell jetpack for the simple reason that it could only carry enough fuel for a twenty second flight. When Moore died in 1969, the jetpack was retired from use. However, the idea of a personal flying device refused to die. An August 2000 news release described the Solo Trek XFV, made by Millennium Jet Inc., a vertical one-man jet that could fly up to 80 miles per hour and for 150 miles before refueling. Chalk one up for Batman.

Flying police weren't anything unusual in Gotham (a.k.a. New York City). The first police helicopter patrols in the world began in Manhattan in 1948. Batman merely took a proven idea and pushed it one step farther. In "The Many Inventions of Batman," the Dark Knight used a flying camera to spy on a criminal scientist and his gang. While aerial surveillance was in its most primitive stages in the 1950s, it was an idea that was evolving. In the comic book adventure, the criminals steal Batman's invention and use the flying camera to locate an armored car traveling on the highway. Any resemblance to a certain car chase involving an ex-football player was purely coincidental. Just remember, Batman predicted it first!

What about the heat ray used to detonate explosives in the water? Lasers can be traced back to Albert Einstein's 1917 theories. The first microwave laser was built in 1954, three years before the Batman story took place. The first optical laser was invented three years after the story was published. Batman was merely taking existing science and projecting it forward a few years.

In our time, small, high-powered diode lasers are often used in delicate surgical procedures, but could be wielded as a weapon if necessary. Still, whatever damage they could cause, lasers aren't nearly as effective as low-tech weapons like guns or knives. The Armed Forces have conducted tests with much more powerful lasers, but the results of these tests aren't available to the general public. The most common use of a laser in warfare is as a powerful light gun, causing major eye damage to distant enemy forces. Use of lasers to blind people in warfare has already been banned in an international treaty.

The most powerful tool used by Batman in his war against crime was his Utility Belt. On it, he kept a number of tools and devices to help him battle criminals and solve mysteries. The multi-faceted Utility Belt has become a part of American pop culture. Some computer hackers hang all sorts of electrical equipment like pagers, personal organizers, pocketknives, flashlights, tool kits, and even miniature computers from their belts. Needless to say, the hacker nickname for such a belt is a "bat belt."

According to the first Giant Batman Annual published in 1961, the following items are contained in Batman's Utility Belt:


Infrared flashlight Smoke capsule

Fingerprint equipment

Miniature camera

Pass keys

Tiny oxyacetylene torch

Gas capsule

Batman's silken rope is described as being drawn out of the belt lining like a fisherman's line is drawn from a reel.

It was a fascinating list for the time. Miniaturized items weren't readily available in a world before microcircuits and computer chips, but still, were the items outrageous or merely projections of what science promised for the future?

Do we even need to mention miniature cameras? Every appliance, electronics, and camera store in the United States has a full stock of miniature cameras.

There's also the Fraser-Volpe Co. M.I.C.E.-miniature integrated camera eye-which is a wireless high-resolution camera system. It can be used as a standalone camera, and it can also be attached to all sorts of optical devices such as binoculars and rifle scopes. The system lets the optical device function normally while it transmits realtime videos back to a command center. It's a device many people thought only appeared in Mission Impossible, but it's real. There's no question that it would be part of Batman's arsenal.

Next, we have pass keys. These keys are part of any respectable burglar's equipment and something that every crime fighter needs in his war against the underworld. Pass keys or picklocks are legal in most states, but it is a crime to be caught carrying such tools if there is clear indication of criminal intent. Most professional thieves know better than to carry picklocks with them since almost any thin piece of metal (or sometimes plastic) is all that is necessary to open most locks.

What's true for criminals we must assume is true for Batman, as well. In his Utility Belt, he probably carries a small set of "jiggler" keys, very thin keys that can be inserted into most locks and jiggle the tumblers, and a few Master keys, general all-purpose keys that slide easily into many locks. Along with keys, Batman carries several lock picks and tension wrenches. These are easily made from pieces of spring steel, including piano wire and hacksaw blades. Using these few tools, the Dark Knight can enter nearly any apartment or building with ease.

Electronic locks are more of a challenge, but a little ingenuity and an electronic coding device will work wonders. Automobile security isn't any more challenging for criminals or crime-fighters; most door locks can be opened with a thin piece of wire. Despite advertisements to the contrary, the famous "club" can be picked by most car-jackers in seconds. Besides which, most steering wheels are vulnerable to attack with or without an attached club.


Excerpted from "The Science of Superheroes" by Lois H. Gresh. Copyright © 2003 by Lois H. Gresh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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