Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders

6 Jun

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strength a bit passé? Maybe it’s time for some new, cutting-edge superheroes…

Introducing… Corner Woman, Neutrino-man and Camo-Kid (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science.

Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fully-fledged scientists before freak accidents gave them their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples.

The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection, in which a random mutation, if beneficial, can eventually become a new characteristic of a species.

Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, Dr Chris Stanley at London’s Natural History Museum discovered a mineral with the chemical formula ‘sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide’. He soon realised that this composition was remarkably similar to the description of a rock containing Kryptonite in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material that blights Superman throughout his adventures.

Superman plays with himself (credit: JC Hancock)

Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wondered, could be born from today’s cutting-edge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

Neutrino-man

Behold! Neutrino-man – the only human on Earth who can communicate by firing neutrinos out of his belly button. A superpower granted to him by the Gods of Particle Physics on Mount Hadron, these incredible, invisible particles travel through every material in the universe, allowing Neutrino-man to stay in constant contact with his base during his life-saving, death-defying, underwear-scorching missions.

Behold! Neutrino-man! (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Nowhere is too remote for Neutrino-man. A submarine deep underwater? Neutrino-man uses his superpower to communicate with his support team on dry land. A space station on the far side of a distant planet? Neutrino-man sends a message to say that he’s just made friends with an alien. Hiking through the deepest, darkest rainforest? Neutrino-man phones home to say he’ll be back in time for tea.

Long live Neutrino-man and his neutrino-powered navel!

N.B. Contrary to popular belief, neither Neutrino-man nor his particles travel faster than the speed of light.

The science:Physicists recently sent the first ever message using a beam of neutrinos.

Researchers at the Fermilab facility near Chicago performed this feat by converting their message – a rather uninspired ‘neutrino’ – into binary code (the 1s and 0s used by computers). This code was then sent using a kind of neutrino Morse code, with the 1s corresponding to a pulse of neutrinos and the 0s corresponding to no neutrinos. Finally, the neutrino beam was detected at the underground MINERvA detector about 1 km away, where the message was deciphered.

This is evidently quite a complicated procedure, so why go to the trouble of sending a message using neutrinos? Well, because neutrinos are chargeless, virtually massless particles, they’re able to penetrate huge distances through matter. This gives them an advantage over the electromagnetic waves that we currently use to communicate, which lose their intensity as they penetrate obstacles such as mountains and oceans.

But there’s one big problem with this technology. Because neutrinos rarely interact with matter, they’re also extremely difficult to detect:  the detector used in this experiment registered only one in every ten billion neutrinos sent. This means that the household neutrinophone is likely to remain within the realms of fiction for the time being, unless you have the space and money to build an enormous neutrino detector underneath your back garden.

Corner Woman

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Corner Woman! OK, so she may not have the most impressive moniker, but what Corner Woman lacks in name she makes up for with her unique ability of looking around corners. Prowling the gloomy alleyways of London, Corner Woman is always one step ahead of her adversaries, catching sight of them long before they’ve spotted her.

Corner Woman in action (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Look out – here comes evil Jack the Kipper, Corner Woman’s sworn nemesis! Corner Woman presses herself against the nearest wall and uses her finely-tuned superpower to spy on her arch-enemy. The man-fish hybrid is rapidly approaching, his protruding lips contorted into a twisted grin, his bulbous eyes glowing under the fluorescent streetlights.

Suddenly, in one graceful move, Corner Woman swivels to face her unsuspecting foe. BANG! KAPOW! SHAZAM! Jack the Kipper is floored, face down in a puddle of his own slimy blood – a fishy corpse on Camden’s grimy streets. He didn’t see that one coming.

The science:A team of scientists in the US recently showed that even regular humans can look around corners.

The researchers first placed a mannequin behind a wall, hiding it from the view of a camera. Then, they fired a laser pulse at a screen angled towards the mannequin. The light particles (‘photons’) from the laser hit this screen, scattering them in all directions. Some of these scattered photons flew towards the hidden mannequin, bounced off it, and finally travelled back the way they came towards the camera.

So far, so unremarkable, you may be thinking. But the key to this experiment was the camera, which had an incredible time resolution of just 2 picoseconds. That’s two millionths of a millionth of a second – the time it takes light to travel 0.6 mm. This meant that the total distance travelled by each photon (from the laser to the mannequin to the camera) could be measured with sub-millimetre accuracy.

By angling the laser through 60 different positions, and feeding all this information into a computer algorithm, the scientists were able to reconstruct a precise 3D image of the mannequin – even though it was completely out of sight of the camera. Here’s a video showing the full process:

This corner-cutting technology could have a number of useful applications. Surgeons, for example, could use it to help them see around awkwardly-shaped organs when performing an endoscopy (looking inside the body using a tiny camera), whilst search and rescue teams could use it to locate trapped survivors in an emergency situation.

Camo-Kid

Camo-Kid is a master of disguise. Dressed in a bodysuit of black rubber, he often attracts suspicious glances around his hometown. But, as soon as there’s an emergency, Camo-Kid’s suit instantly changes to match his surroundings, and our superhero becomes invisible.

Camo-Kid in all his glory (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Today, Camo-Kid is a tree. He’s been called to some woods in the north of Scotland, and has expertly blended himself in with the pale bark of the birch trees that surround him. Standing stock-still, Camo-Kid waits for a drugs gang who are said to use these woods as a storage place for their special hash-haggis.

However, five hours in the pouring rain reveals only a handful of squirrels, a sad-looking deer, and a bedraggled badger. Dejected, Camo-Kid trundles home and does what he always does when he’s had a bad day. He sits on the sofa, replicates the furniture’s floral pattern, and mischievously waits for his girlfriend to arrive back after work. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but it makes her jump every time.

The science:A material that changes its texture at the flick of a switch is now a bona fide reality.

This material, created by engineers at Duke University in the US, is made up of several different layers. First, a layer of rubber is bonded onto a more rigid material known as the substrate. The bottom surface of this substrate is then coated with a thin layer of metal, whilst the top surface of the rubber is coated with a salt solution.

When a voltage is applied between the top and bottom surfaces of this material combination, an electric field develops in the rubber layer. This causes a compressive force that creates surface patterns – first creases, and then craters as the voltage is increased. Once the voltage is turned off, the rubber returns to its original, flat state.

Aside from camouflage, this technology could be used to make shoe soles with a tunable grip. On a more fanciful note, it may one day be possible to create gloves whose fingerprints can be changed on demand – a very useful accessory for any aspiring spy.

However, the material developed by these engineers doesn’t change its colour, so it’ll still be a while before Camo-Kid’s bodysuit hits the shops.

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.orgStancil DD, Adamson P, Alania M, et al. (2012). Demonstration of communication using neutrinos Mod. Phys. Lett. A 27 (2012) 1250077 arXiv: 1203.2847v2

ResearchBlogging.orgVelten A, Willwacher T, Gupta O, Veeraraghavan A, Bawendi MG, & Raskar R (2012). Recovering three-dimensional shape around a corner using ultrafast time-of-flight imaging. Nature Communications, 3 PMID: 22434188

ResearchBlogging.orgWang Q, Tahir M, Zang J, & Zhao X (2012). Dynamic electrostatic lithography: multiscale on-demand patterning on large-area curved surfaces. Advanced Materials, 24 (15), 1947-51 PMID: 22419389

This post is based on an article published in the June 2012 edition of Guru magazine… download the magazine for free here. The superhero illustrations were all drawn by the highly talented Dave Gray (http://www.iamdavegray.com/).
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One Response to “Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders”

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  1. Interesting reads: June 2nd – June 8th, 2012 « Mr Epidemiology - June 8, 2012

    […] Tomorrow’s Caped Crusaders! […]

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