Thinking Tech

Batman, Iron Man: science brings the comics to real life

Posting in Science

What does it take to be a superhero, from a scientific point of view? We talk to professor E. Paul Zehr about "super" qualities and the science behind them.

Batman and Iron Man are really just two regular down to earth men: Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Well, ordinary men with billion-dollar fortunes, smarts and let's face it, good physiques. But what really propels them to superhero status are the fancy suits and gadgetry. So it begs the question: could we become Batman or Iron Man? Could such a superhero exist already on Earth?

Luckily we have a man who can answer this very question. E. Paul Zehr is a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Back in 2008 Zehr wrote Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and his next book, Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine is due out next month.

To become Batman, Zehr stresses extreme athleticism, on the order of Olympic strength. And for this, of course, we need years of intense physical training. Zehr, who is a veteran himself of Chito-Ryu karate-do, estimates it takes about three to five years to gain the required strength, which almost matches the comic book timelines of anywhere from three to eight years. But ultimately it would take 10 to 12 years to gain the skills and experience to fight multiple opponents at once. Zehr says it might require up to 18 years for the supreme skill of Batman, since Batman severely injures but never kills his opponents. "Because that's part of his credo," Zehr is quoted as saying in an interview with Scientific American from 2008. "It would be much easier to fight somebody if you could incapacitate them with extreme force. Punching somebody in the throat could be a lethal blow. That's pretty easy to do. But if you're thinking about something that doesn't result in lethal force, that's more tricky." According to Zehr's calculations, the intense training brought Bruce Wayne's body fat down to about 10 percent, gave him about 40 pounds in muscle, and rewarded him with very dense bones.

In anticipation of his latest book, Inventing Iron Man, Zehr spoke at Comic-Con, the comic book convention in San Diego last week. Apparently some of the essential equipment needed to build the Iron Man suit already exists. Smart Planet wrote about Yves Rossy, a man who straps a jet pack onto his back, attaches wings and sails through thin air, arms held at sides, head down, just like Iron Man! Well sort of. (See video here.)  Ultimately, however, an Iron Man suit must be more than just something worn over the body, it must be integrated into the muscle and nerves. In the last decade brain-computer interfaces has made some fantastic leaps in this direction. Especially with mind-controlled prosthetics. For instance a paper published this week in the Journal of Neurophysiology shows evidence that we are capable of controlling computer cursors, wheelchairs and avatars with our thoughts alone, using non-invasive EEG caps worn on our heads. Already wireless versions of embedded electrodes in the brain are used to control a prosthetic arm. It eerily resembles a Terminator reality.

But Zehr cautions that the signal of brain to prosthetic is too slow—even if it is on the order of milliseconds. He is reported as saying the signal transfer should be instantaneous.

In his new book Zehr deconstructs Iron Man's armor, revealing how we could cobble our own version of Stark's suit using already-existing technology and a knowledge of neuroscience. Although a potential suit might require the power of a battery the size of a room. Stay tuned to Smart Planet for a highlight reel of brain-computer interfaces and the possibility of becoming Iron Man, when Zehr's book hits shelves next month.

As for becoming Batman, Zehr provides a deceptively simple formula to determine just how many of us could become the real Dark Knight, "If you found the percentage of billionaires and multiply that by the percentage of people who become Olympic decathletes, you could probably get a close estimate. The really important thing is just how much a human being really can do. There's such a huge range of performance and ability you can tap into."

[via Physics Central]

Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure