The Secret Science of Superheroes — the origin story
Remember that League of Extraordinary Scientist? You know, the ones that wrote a book about superheroes in a weekend. Well their Herculean efforts have come to fruition. The Secret Science of Superheroes (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) is out now and this is what it is where it came from …
If you are going to enjoy a superhero movie (or more pretty much any action film for that matter) you’ve got to be able to suspend disbelief. Especially, for those of us that have a scientific bent. There’s just too much that is just plain impossible and if we whinged about every little detail that wasn’t quite correct we’d sure as hell annoy anyone else trying to enjoy the escapism of a fantasy flick with us. I learnt that particular lesson from my little brother after he hit me because of my incessant complaining about the physical inaccuracies of Road Runner cartoons. I grew out to it, eventually. Or at least learnt to kept my over thinking of animations to myself.
So this book is not about picking holes in movies. Although that is fun … OK, let’s do that a little and get it out of the the way now.
First off spaceships don’t need wings. Without an atmosphere the protrusions are merely decorative. And without any atmosphere there’s no need for them to bank as they turn in the vacuum of space. Plus there is precious little resistance to movement, which means that spacecraft need just as much power to slow down as they did to accelerate (which get’s handly overlooked in the movies). And why do starships always have the same orientation when they meet in space?
Lasers beams — You can’t see them from the side, unless there is something around to scatter the light — see if you can spot the beam next time you use a laser pointer. And whilst we are on the subject, laser beams don’t make ‘puchu puchu’ noises (and even if they did you won’t hear them, at least Alien got that right. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream).
Armour is no good in a crash — It doesn’t matter how much super hard material a superhero encases himself in (we’re looking at you Iron Man), you’re still going to turn to mush when spectacularly crashing into a building. What you really want is something that slows you down gently. That’s why, in the event of a collision, we like cars with airbags and crumple zones, instead of ones constructed from inflexible titanium body work.
Being hit by a bullet (let alone a weightless laser beam) won’t throw you backwards. A 9mm slug, fired from a handgun, has about the same momentum as a water balloon thrown by a child, whilst a football kicked by a professional can easily have 4–5 times the momentum of a bullet.. And from my experience water fights rarely result in people getting knocked off their feet by a balloon impact, and footballers loosing their footing is more often the result of their special ability to trip over blades of grass.
All great examples of reality being suspended for the sake of drama. And we’re cool with that, because in a good movie the impossible is allowed, but the improbable isn’t (to paraphrase Aristotle with modern parlance). So we are fine with faster than light travel, fiery explosions in space (no oxygen = no fire), and laser sound effects. However indestructible metals, webslinging humans and invisibility leave us pondering how science might explain them.
So this book is about trying to suspend the improbable. It is about the ‘missing’ scenes (and science) that could be in movies and comics if what actually gets shown to use on the silver (of flat) screen had any basis in reality. Basically if we accept what we see in the movies what else must be true?
Now I could have taken a typical solitary, leisurely approach to penning this book, holed up in an office writing over months and year. But if I’ve learnt anything from superhero flicks it’s that all the best stories have teams: Give me X-men, The Justice League and the Fantastic Four over the lonely Spiderman or Batman any day. Secondly, faster is better. You never hear of a hero travelling slower than a plodding tortoise or proclaiming to be the most ponderous man alive.
No, a book about heroes needs a more rapid fire, heroic approach. Which is why I assembled a league of extraordinary scientists and set them the Herculean task of writing this book in just 36 hours. Plonked in the middle of the Manchester Science Festival and Salford University’s Science Jam, in a blur of flying fingers worthy of the Flash we cranked out over 200 pages delving into all the nitty gritty science that fascinates us but seems to have been overlooked by movie makers.
Onwards then to some of the most important questions in science. How do heroes handle big data, why did mutant super powers evolve, how might super soldiers be engineered, and just what do superheroes have for breakfast?
But before we get to that, one more thing. Scientist love to categorise things; elements go into periods and groups on a table, life get kingdoms, families and species, matter comes in phases and it goes on. We have a need to take an object or concept and give it a nice neat point on a diagram. And so inevitably, during our frenetic weekend of typing (punctuated with regular trips down rabbit holes — comics strips out of context caused much mirth, google it) a means of charting superpowers emerged. The super hero, intrinsic, extrinsic, location diagram (otherwise known as The SHEILD) also turned out to be a rather neat alternative to the conventional contents page.
 Momentum (p) is a function of mass (m) and velocity (v) so p = m.v. A 9mm bullet has a mass of 7.5g and exits the barrel at about 400 m/s. Therefore its momentum is 7.5 x 400 = 3000 g/m/s. Meanwhile a water balloon holds about 500g of water. A child with a good arm can easily throw a balloon at 6m/s, 500 x 6 = 3000 g/m/s. A soccer ball has a mass of 450g and a pro can easily kick it at 30m/s (the world record 131mph kick works about at 58 m/s) so its momentum is 13,500 g/m/s, much more than the bullet and totally manageable by a competent goalie.
 “The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.”- Aristotle, The Poetics