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Comic-tanium: Material Science and Superheroes

on Fri, 11/07/2014 - 00:00

When not embracing their superhero alter-egos and saving the world, many of the main characters within the pages of comic books are scientists. Tony Stark, for instance, is an industrial engineer, while Bruce Banner is a physicist. Donald Blake, meanwhile, was a medical student in the original Thor comic book series, and high school student Peter Parker already had a penchant for science before being bitten by a radioactive spider.

While these facts may not be news to the avid comic book reader, what might be a surprise is how often these fictional creations got the science right within the pages of DC and Marvel. Believe it or not, the physics, engineering and general principles that transformed these scientists into superheroes are actually grounded in the realm of real world science.

Being a comic book fan himself, University of California Riverside assistant professor Suveen Mathaudhu recognized this connection between real science and the science of superheroes early in his career, and even incorporated comic book examples into his professional lectures. Mathaudhu has also been a member of The Mineral, Metals and Materials Society (TMS) since college and regular attends Materials Science and Technology conventions, including an annual gathering in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“In late 2012 during the MS&T meeting, I wandered into the ToonSeum and struck up a conversation with Joe Wos about how I used comic book stories to illustrate scientific principles in my technical talks, and how the idea had just been featured in JOM, the member journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society,” Mathaudhu remembers. “He asked if I had ever thought about curating a museum exhibit, and the idea for Comic-tanium was born. A proposal was put in from the ToonSeum to TMS, and both organizations co-sponsored development of the exhibit.”

For the uninitiated, the ToonSeum is one of only three museums in the country that caters to the cartoon and comic arts. Founded by Pittsburgh cartoonist Joe Wos in 2007, the museum has not only featured original artwork from many of the great illustrators and animators of the medium but also embraces the mission of utilizing the cartoon and comic arts as an educational tool. Comic-tanium is a prime example of that effort.

“The goal of Comic-tanium is to introduce the public audience to the discipline of Materials Science and Engineering, which underpins advancements in all other areas of technology,” Mathaudhu explains. “The exhibit does this by depicting how superheroes have used materials to plus-up their own powers. We also highlight real-life scientists doing cutting-edge science related to each of the modules.”

Although the seeds of Comic-tanium were planted during Suveen Mathaudhu’s visit to the ToonSeum in late 2012, it took an entire team of specialists to turn that idea into reality. Individual modules were developed by TMS technical writer Lynne Robinson, for instance, while TMS media manager David Rasel served as project director. Joe Wos coordinated the purchase of the various props and replicas that are part of the exhibit, and likewise secured the talents of Pittsburgh-based artist Marcel Walker for the creation of the graphic depictions of real-life scientists and engineers.

Comic-tanium made its debut at the February 2014 TMS Annual Meeting and Exhibition in San Diego, followed two month later by an appearance at the Third USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. “They love it,” Mathaudhu replies when asked about the public’s initial reaction to Comic-tanium. “Most have not read any of the comics but are very familiar with the movies. Many have indicated that they would consider pursuing a career in Materials Science and Engineering based on what they saw in the exhibit.”

According to Suveen Mathaudhu, the connections between Material Science and Engineering first appeared during the earliest days of the comic book medium. “We were in the middle of WWII with many advancements in warfighting being related to advances in metals processing, such as the development of high strength metal alloys,” he says, citing Captain America’s Shield and Duralumin suit as fictional examples.

“Similarly comics frequently depicted characters based on materials, such as DC’s Metal Men, Doom Patrol’s Mr. 103, the Elements of Doom, Iron Man vs. Titanium Man, and many others,” Mathaudhu further elaborates. “Perhaps the earliest example was the ‘Man of Steel,’ who was frequently shown crushing coal in his hands to form diamonds. Modern comics and movies still continue to demonstrate usage of Materials Science and Engineering, such as Spider-Man designing his web materials, and very interestingly, Ultron using vibranium to make himself near indestructible for the Avengers film.”

Despite such examples, not every scientific depiction in a comic book or superhero film directly relates to real science. “The depictions are rarely accurate, however even if they’re fifty percent accurate, they still draw the public’s attention to the fact that using a certain material can give a superhero or super villain a strategic advantage,” Mathaudhu continues. “A recent example in Avengers vs. X-Men focuses on a battle between Magneto and Iron Man where Magneto finds himself not being able to magnetically manipulate Iron Man. The comic depicts Iron Man having made his suit out of carbon nanotubes, which inherently are not magnetic, and are extraordinarily strong. This is a semi-realistic depiction even though nothing close to an Iron Man suit made completely out of carbon based 1D and 2D materials is within the near future realm of possibilities.”

Numerous superheroes are represented in Comic-tanium—including Captain America, The X-Men, Iron Man, Thor and Batman—and each was chosen for a specific reason. “Captain America’s Shield, in the comic book history, was created by an Army scientist named Dr. Myron McClain through a mandate from President Roosevelt to create an iron alloy to build tanks to fight the war,” Suveen Mathaudhu explains of the First Avenger’s most striking weapon. “He cast iron and vibranium into a tank hatch mold, but a mystery element fell in and created the strongest material in the Marvel Universe. Dr. McClain was never able to repeat the composition of the alloy with the closest effort being adamantium, which is most popularly known as the material coating Wolverine’s bones and claws.”

For Mathaudhu, the story of Dr. McClain has more than mere entertainment value. “I find this example important because one, modern scientists are still on the quest to produce materials with unprecedented and unsurpassable properties,” he adds. “And two, there is no reason, given the modern characterization tools and computational modeling methods, that we should not be able to duplicate the synthesis and processing of any material we like.”

In regards to Iron Man’s appearance in Comic-tanium, Suveen Mathaudhu cites Tony Stark’s scientific and engineering abilities, especially in regards to his alter ego’s outfit. “In the comics, he had different suits for traveling underwater, into space, and also the ‘Hulk-Buster’ suit,” Mathaudhu says. “Tony Stark is also frequently shown using advanced computational tools and models, such as the one he used to ‘discover’ a replacement element for his arc reactor in Iron Man 2. The key aspect of both of these is that he can rapidly implement new suits and new materials to address new problems.”

This last point directly relates to contemporary science as well. “In real life, with new materials synthesis technologies like 3D printing and advanced computational models, we now have the ability to do something very similar,” Mathaudhu continues. “We can quickly take scientific concepts to end products, and this process will only become faster as the technologies improve. Incidentally, all of the Iron Man suits used for the films were actually made via 3D printing.”

Another of the props exhibited at Comic-tanium, meanwhile, has an actual connection to Pittsburgh—Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. “The hammer, according to the comics, was forged by three dwarf blacksmiths out of the mythical Asgardian element ‘uru’ in the core of a dying planet,” Mathaudhu explains of the item. “Mjolnir is nearly indestructible, but in a 1965 comic, Thor is shown traveling to a Pittsburgh steel mill to reforge the hammer and repair damage done to the hammer from a battle with the Destroyer.”

In October 2014, Comic-tanium itself made the journey to the Steel City for its public debut at the ToonSeum. The event coincided with the annual MS&T convention in Pittsburgh, the same event which led Suveen Mathaudhu to wander into the ToonSeum, meet founder Joe Wos and begin the discussion that led to Comic-tanium—in effect, bringing the exhibition full circle.

While the actual scientists spotlighted in Comic-tanium may not be as well-known as their comic book counterparts, their contributions to their respected fields have made them real-life superheroes nonetheless, as well as an inspiration for a new generation of scientists and engineers who grew up idolizing the superheroes of the comic book variety.

Anthony Letizia

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