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Science sways superheroes

Maybe Batman couldn't swoop to safety using his cape as a glider, and maybe psychologists would question his sanity — but even Hollywood's superheroes have to pay some attention to scientific realities.

Striking the right balance between scientific plausibility and dramatic flair is one of the keys to a successful superhero movie, says James Kakalios, who teaches physics at the University of Minnesota and also serves as a consultant for movies such as "The Amazing Spider-Man."

"Hollywood creators appreciate our contributions, for they realize that when the audience is questioning the physics of what they are watching or the authenticity of the laboratory set, that's a moment when they are not paying attention to the story," he wrote in a commentary we published on earlier today.

Here's another angle related to science and technology: Superheroes get extra points on the fan scale if they handle high-tech gadgetry like the EMP Blaster and flying Bat vehicle featured in "The Dark Knight Rises." (We can gloss over the fact that electromagnetic pulses wouldn't be as well-behaved as they appear to be in the movie, or that the kind of propeller-driven Bat shown in the movie is pretty much aerodynamically impossible. And don't get me started on Wayne Enterprises' "clean-energy" fusion reactor.)

Over the past four years, the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange has been bringing scientists together with screenwriters, producers and other folks in the entertainment industry to make movies and TV shows more plausible on scientific grounds, if not 100 percent accurate.

Some gaffes slip through — ranging from the constellations in "Titanic" to the distance calculations in "Prometheus" — but the prime directive is to make a connection between real-life science and movie magic. The scientists probably derive more benefit than the filmmakers, because they can use those movies and TV shows as teachable moments. Even the gaffes provide grist for the mental mill.

In an email exchange, Kakalios delved into some of the issues he deals with as an adviser on superhero physics. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: Do you find that the spate of superhero movies is sparking scientific studies like the recent one about Batman's cape? Are people more questioning of superpower science because they're seeing more such movies, or have they become inured to the fantasy? Can scientific believability make the difference between a good superhero movie and a bad one? 

James Kakalios: "There certainly have been a lot of superhero movies in the past few years — a Golden Age for Geeks!

"The studios have a vested interest in making sure that the general public is very familiar with these heroes — which opens the door for scientists to leverage this interest and promote real science. David Marshall's article is a good example of using the interest in the new 'Dark Knight Rises' film as a platform to discuss classical mechanics, which typically will not make it into the mainstream press. I also liked the argument from a few years ago which suggested that Superman's powers can be accounted for by a single miracle exception from the laws of nature, involving an ability to manipulate inertia.

"Interestingly enough, Hollywood has been coming to scientists more and more, and early in the scriptwriting process.  They will sometimes use the 'real' science behind the characters as the basis for story lines. The goal is not to make the films 100 percent scientifically accurate, which is beside the point of a fantasy film, but to make it accurate enough that the audience is willing to maintain their suspension of disbelief and become engaged in the story."

Q: You describe the process of translating real science into a "Decay Rate Algorithm" for the latest Spider-Man movie. Are there other aspects of "The Amazing Spider-Man" that you had a hand in enhancing, or at least steering clear of some of the things that strain plausibility?

A: "I discussed with the filmmakers the physics of wall-crawling, at least the way a gecko lizard does it.  I also talked about the fascinating materials science of spider's silk. It's a combination of rigid nanocrystallites for strength, connected by flexible polymers which can stretch, held in a long, fluid-filled channel which uniformly distributes the forces along the length of the webbing.

"Materials scientists would love to be able to mass-produce such webbing, for then we would be able to make lightweight clothing that is stronger than Kevlar. In the past, scientists have crossed a spider's web-making genes with goats, and have raised goats that synthesize spider's silk in their milk. A real-life example of cross-species genetics!"

Q: Are there typical challenges to scientific believability that are associated with specific characters? What would be Spider-Man's scientific Kryptonite?

A: "Spider-Man would have to worry about Teflon surfaces — they would be non-stick for him as well!  Geckos cling to walls through a weak electrostatic force called the Van der Waals attraction. using millions of microscopic fibers in their toes (called setae). Fluctuating charges in these fibers induce oppositely charged fluctuations in the wall. As opposites attract, the fiber is pulled towards the wall. The closer to the wall, the better — which is why the fiber is so small, in order to enhance its surface area-to-volume ratio. The force is very weak, which is why there are millions of fibers to provide sufficient force to hold the gecko up.

"But if the molecules in the walls are such that they resist inducing such fluctuating charges, then the force is inhibited. While artificial gecko tape does stick to Teflon, the van der Waals force is weaker than for other surfaces, and may not be strong enough to hold Spidey up. Whether this is the case or not, it is a great opportunity to discuss real, cutting-edge research in the context of a superhero movie!"

Q: Could you touch on any superpower-like technologies that you've come across in the most recent round of superhero movies?

A: "The first thing I can think of is Captain America's shield, which is a unique alloy of steel and ... Vibranium!  The steel gives it rigidity and strength, and the Vibranium is a made-up mineral in Marvel comics. Found in the African nation of Wakanda, it is extraterrestial in origin, and absorbs all vibrations!

"That makes it the ultimate shock absorber, capable of deflecting even a blow from Thor's hammer, as seen in this summer's 'Avengers' film. The clang we hear when Cap bounces his shield off an opponent thus answers an age-old question in science: What would it sound like if you struck an object which absorbs all vibrations?"

For more insights into superhero science, check out Kakalios' book, "The Physics of Superheroes" — and use your powerful vision to take in the videos and Web links below:

More about superhero science:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.