The Science of Superheroes: Beyond "The Incredibles"

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 12, 2004

With the Incredibles up for an Oscar, superheroes are flying higher than ever. Most people may dismiss their fantastic feats—and their formidable foes—as mere fantasy. But to Robert Weinberg, a Chicago, Illinois-based science fiction writer, superheroes are worthy of scientific study.

Along with Lois Gresh, Weinberg wrote The Science of Superheroes and the new book, The Science of Supervillains. His mission: to separate scientifically believable comic book characters from those who are literally incredible.

So who makes the cut?

"Scientifically, Batman was always the most believable superhero," Weinberg said. "Every piece of equipment in Batman's utility belt is available for sale today, 50 years later. That's pretty accurate science for a comic book hero."

The Original Dr. Evil

Comic book characters have long been involved in science. Many villains, in particular, started out as scientists before acquiring some superhuman power that enabled them to wreak havoc on the world.

"Science gone wild has always been one of mankind's greatest fears," Weinberg said.

Take, for example, Lex Luthor, Superman's long-standing nemesis. Originally portrayed as a scientific genius at a young age, Luthor was transformed into what Weinberg calls the original Dr. Evil after he became exposed to a huge amount of radiation.

But how plausible are the scientific methods used by Luthor to battle Superman?

In "The Einstein Connection" (Superman #416, 1986), Luthor builds a teleportation machine that makes him invisible whenever Superman gets too close. A staple of science fiction, teleportation refers to the process of disintegrating an object in one place and reconstituting it somewhere else.

While real-life scientists have successfully teleported photons (particles of light), it's impossible to beam people from one location to another. The reason: a human body contains too much information to scan and build as replicas.

Instead, Gresh and Weinberg suggest, Luthor may have been using a hologram machine to project images of walls, rooms, and himself. In holography, laser light is used to record the light-wave patterns reflected from an object or person.

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