This morning, I awoke to the news that a video posted by Donald Trump’s campaign team had been removed from Twitter and Facebook due to false claims about the severity of the coronavirus for children. The video wrongly claims that almost all children are immune to the disease.
Misinformation, in any field, can be detrimental to progress. Added to that, it’s unethical as it promotes conjecture, and this conjecture competes with the objective, unbiased conclusions of investigators for media coverage.
While most media sources typically avoid reporting conjecture, the ever-changing, scrollable landscape of social media provides misinformation with the ideal vehicle to carry its often pseudo-scientific conclusions.
Focusing solely on the coronavirus, many individuals and groups, who in many cases have not consulted or collaborated with reputable scientists and investigators following proper scientific practice, have taken advantage of the social media vehicle to transport their opinions and views. Donald Trump and his campaign accounts are just the tip of the iceberg, so it’s important to stress that they shouldn’t take the full brunt of criticism. Nevertheless, they have access to one of the largest audiences, meaning that they can share their opinions and statements with an expectant global audience.
If such misinformation dissemination were taking place in a film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it would be fair to assume that Donald Trump would be more of a villain than a hero. Of course, Trump is a hero to some, but the majority of people around the world view Trump as a villain.
But which MCU villain does Donald Trump most resemble? Let’s go through some candidates before settling on an answer.
It’s not Thanos, Loki, or the scientific villains
First off, although Trump used Thanos’ likeness in an online promotion campaign, he is miles away from the Mad Titan. He may secretly harbour dreams of world or universe domination, but unlike Thanos, Trump has yet to act on them (which would be a terrible, terrible idea in any case). On the other hand, Thanos is the real-deal, and fortunately for everyone on Earth, he’s not the President of the United States.
Another prominent MCU villain is Loki, the adopted brother of Thor, whose inherent need for mischief causes Thor and the Avengers all manner of problems. Like Thanos, Loki harbours rule and domination, but at a smaller scale. In Thor (2011), Loki temporarily takes rule of Asgard, while in The Avengers (2012), Loki sets his sights on Earth. In both instances, he is thwarted by Thor and the Avengers. Nevertheless, later in the MCU, Loki does stealthily take over the throne of Asgard, when he masquerades as his father Odin. Once again, Thor infers with his brother’s plans. Similar to Loki, it can argued that Trump has a mischievous streak, but unlike Loki, Trump has the throne that he desired. Despite efforts to remove him, Trump still retains it. Perhaps Joe “Thor” Biden might change that later this year.
What about the scientists and engineers who became MCU villains? Darren Cross, Adrian Toomes, Quentin Beck, Ivan Vanko, Justin Hammer, Obadiah Stane, and Aldrich Killian all created technologies to supplement their questionable activities. Is Trump close to any of these? The unequivocal answer is no. Why you may ask? Well, when one suggests that injecting oneself with bleach is a viable and safe way to treat any infection, it is clear that one does not possess any proper scientific understanding about the severity of toxic and harmful manmade chemicals. Obviously this doesn’t make for a very good science-based villain. By the way, the one here is the current President of the United States.
The HYDRA connection
So who is left then? Dormammu from Doctor Strange (2016)? I don’t think so. Or Ultron – the AI entity who tried to destroy the Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Nope, he’s not like the vibranium-coated robot either.
The answer is a character who dresses like Trump, speaks like Trump, and somewhat acts like Trump. That character is Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford, who appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Pierce was one of HYDRA’s leaders (HYDRA is a fictional evil organisation who want nothing more than world domination). He was HYDRA’s top operative as he managed to operate without suspicion as one of SHIELD’s leaders (SHIELD is a fictional US-based counter-terrorism and intelligence agency). Pierce wasn’t the only HYDRA agent operating inside SHIELD, which of course helped Pierce and HYDRA expedite their evil plans.
I won’t get into all of the details of Pierce’s plans from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it goes without saying that it ended in failure. However, let’s take a looks at some of the things Pierce carried our as leader of SHIELD.
First, he lied to his employees (well the non-HYDRA SHIELD employees anyway). When Captain America (Steve Rogers) goes rogue after his trusted ally Nick Fury was “assassinated” by HYDRA (Rogers didn’t know that then), Pierce outright lies to everyone at SHIELD by saying that Rogers lied to them. He has no qualms about misinforming SHIELD employees, particularly when he plans to jettison the non-HYDRA operatives soon after. Sound familiar?
Second, Pierce colluded with unsavoury individuals. Many of these were affiliated with HYDRA, as would be expected. In the film, he plans to launch a number of Insight Helicarriers that can eliminate enemies of HYDRA, and by association enemies of Pierce. Those on the target list include Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Stephen Strange, and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) – basically anyone who might challenge his authority. Déjà vu anyone?
Finally, Pierce sought to manipulate the course of history for his own benefit. In the film, Pierce’s tools are not the passing of new bills that give him additional powers or immunity to legal challenges, or the signing of executive orders for federal governments. Instead, Pierce and HYDRA use extremely sinister means, one of which is the brain-washed, cryopreserved assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes). At one stage Pierce tells Barnes that “Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century.” Thankfully Donald Trump does not have access to the Winter Soldier to “shape the century”. Nonetheless, he has access to resources that can help him to steer policy in a direction that best suits his agenda.
Although not having any superpowers, Pierce proves to be a formidable foe. In the aftermath of Fury’s apparent assassination, Pierce and Rogers meet at SHIELD headquarters in Washington. During their conversation Pierce remarks that “to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies.” In Pierce’s case, tearing down the old world necessitates extreme physical force, and the enemies are those that most people view as heroes.
In reality, inaction, manipulation, misinformation, and collusion can disrupt and dissolve elements of society. It can promote the villains as the heroes, and vice versa. As a scientist, it perplexes me that the accuracy of the data from scientific investigations presented by so many ethical scientists is immediately questioned by some elements of the social media world.
In light of the current pandemic enveloping the world, there is an even greater need to avoid misinformation and inaction, given the urgency to deal with the severity of the pandemic.
Follow the advice of reputable media sources whose conclusions are transparently supported by science, and communicated by trusted scientists. There will be a trusted and effective treatment, but its development will take a little more time and patience on the world’s behalf.
In the mean time, avoid the musings of the Alexander Pierces of this world, because it won’t help us “Trump” this pandemic.
Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) are two Marvel superheroes with a bit in common. Although neither have yet to feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Khan is scheduled to appear in her own Disney+ series and the film Captain Marvel 2 in 2022), both carry out most of their superhero activities in New York, and both have the power of elasticity or shapeshifting.
Excessive stretching subjects their skin to large amounts of stress and strain, which would be detrimental for the integrity and healing of the skin of ordinary humans. Fortunately, both have accelerating healing factors that compensate for their elastic escapades. So how could Khan and Richards create new skin that’s functional and healthy when they stretch into unimaginable contortions? New findings from Belgian and UK-based researchers on mice have revealed that a group of stem cells in the epidermis help to initiate the growth of new skin cells once the skin is stretched. Information about this process could be hugely significant for reconstructive surgery and in the treatment of diseases that affect skin growth. Their work has been published in Nature.
As a superpower, elasticity might seem like an impractical superpower, but it has proven quite useful to Kamala Khan, Reed Richards, and DC Comics’ Ralph Dibny (Elongated Man). Of the trio, Khan is the most recent addition to the superhero stable, having first appeared in Captain Marvel #14 in 2013. Khan frequently uses her shapeshifting power to increase the size of her arms, fists, and legs when fighting her foes, while Richards’ elasticity is even more extreme, allowing him to wrap himself around huge structures, as he did with the London Eye in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Evidently, Khan and Richards subject their bodies to immense stress and strain, and this can be testing for their bodies. However, extreme stretching is partially compensated by their superhero accelerating healing factors and enhanced cellular resistance to mechanical forces or perturbations. Their skin, in particular the upper layer which is known as the epidermis, experience extraordinary forces as their skin continually expands and contracts when fighting foes.
The skin performs a number of key physiological functions such as preventing pathogens from entering the body, protecting against dehydration, and assisting in thermoregulation. The top part of the epidermis is known as the stratum corneum and is made up of dead keratinised cells. Through the process of desquamation, these cells are constantly shed, but they are replaced through the generation of new stem cells from the basal layer.
A multidisciplinary collaboration between researchers based in Belgium and the UK (with the lead author being Mariaceleste Aragona) took a closer look at how cell growth in the epidermis is affected by stretching. In experiments that were compliant with all relevant ethical regulations on animal research, the researchers placed a small amount of self-inflating hydrogel (often used in reconstructive surgeries for people) just underneath the skin of mice subjects. The hydrogels were pre-designed to expand to a certain shape and size.
Once the hydrogel had fully expanded, the researchers monitored the production of cells associated with keratin, a protein that is important for providing skin with mechanical resilience. The researchers then recorded a brief increase in stem-cell division and a thickening of the epidermal. In effect, the research reveals that more stretching leads to the growth (or proliferation) of more stem cells that can differentiate into more of the cell types needed to maintain the structure and integrity of the epidermis. In other words, more stretching leads to more skin cells in the epidermis!
The researchers also genetically modified some mice to study which genes are important for the creation of more skin cells. This involved switching off certain genes in mice, applying a minor stretch to their skin using the expanding hydrogel, and then studying the skin cell growth. For instance, the MAL gene, which provides the body with instructions to make the myelin and lymphocyte protein, was shown to influence cell response to stretching.
Importantly, the research demonstrates how the skin can maintain its protective function when expanding, which is good news for ordinary people and stretchy superheroes alike. Of course, the research poses additional questions. For example, how do other parts of the skin, such as the dermal layer below the epidermis, influence the formation of a new, larger epidermis after stretching? And does the dermal layer also expand to the same extent as the epidermis?
Although Kamala Khan and Reed Richards’ DNA differs from the DNA of an ordinary person, the cellular process through which they replace their epidermal layers is probably the same as that investigated by the Belgian-UK research team. Of course, the major difference is that the whole process is amplified for these elastic superheroes.
This fascinating piece of research might reveal how Khan and Richard’s fictional bodies could create more skin cells, but how do their bodies discard the extra skin after they relax their bodies and change back to their original, normal human form? Perhaps this is achieved via an enhanced cell shedding process that is activated by the shrinking of the skin. This means that Khan and Richards most likely leave large amounts of dead keratinised cells scattered over the area of any altercation with a devious villain. Tony Stark’s Damage Control might have to work overtime to cleanup those dead skin cells!
Full paper can be read at Nature.
You can also read a summary article about the paper here.
Recently, I was approached by the Center for Humans and Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology to write a short story about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our future society. The short story was to be written to mark the launch of a short story contest with regards to “Living with and after COVID-19”. I decided to write a story about a fictional family living in the year 2033. Ben and Wendy Adkins have two kids, and their eldest child (Rachel) who has to complete a school project on the differences in society between 2015 and 2033. The story is available to read at the TU Eindhoven website, and can be read below. Enjoy!
It had been a long day for Ben Adkins. His eyes were weary from staring at flickering volumetric images of his colleagues. Ever since the introduction of the Health Act 2027, weary eyes had become the norm for Ben. The novelty of welcoming 3D impressions of his colleagues to meetings in his home had worn off though, particularly when it involved colleagues virtually visiting his home, colleagues that Ben wanted nothing to do with outside work hours.
Ben stood up, and stretched his arms over his head. His home office afforded him a pleasant view of his pristine garden. The sun broke through the trees at the rear of the garden, casting fractal shadows over the short grass. At that moment, he thought that he should spend more time relaxing in the garden than he normally did. But that all depended on the health-weather forecast of course.
As he made his way to the door of his home office, he tiredly spoke to the room. “Immersion V zero seconds off.” Immediately, his office dematerialised to a singular point of bright light, flashed, and vanished.
He exited the office, turned right, and headed downstairs. Just as he reached the final step, his wife Wendy emerged from her office to his right. Ben and Wendy had been married for 17 years. Wendy was a senior neurosurgeon, and one of the country’s foremost experts on remote robotic surgery.
“Tough day at the office?” asked Ben.
“Yeah, we had connectivity issues with da Vinci XII today,” replied Wendy. “Required a new software patch, and then some calibrating. But fortunately da-V came back to life.”
“Patient make it?”
“Yeah she made it. C7-C8 spinal cord nerve regeneration and attachment. She’ll be on her feet again in two to four weeks. How about you?”
Ben sighed before he responded. “Oh you know the usual deadlines. The threat of yet another pandemic looms large, and stories need to be checked, and double checked. Joys of an online editor-in-chief eh”.
Just as Wendy was about to console her husband, the kitchen door burst open, and the doorway was filled with a panicking teenager.
“Mom! Dad! You’ve got to help me with my school project! It’s due in two days, and you promised that you’d help me! You’re the experts on this!” Rachel, the couple’s oldest child, was in a bit of frenzy.
Ben could see the signs of stress on his daughter’s face, and he knew from experience that it was best to step in when she was in such a state. “Sure thing Rach. Just give us a few minutes to get dinner started”
Rachel had already been through so much. She had experienced the Covid-19 pandemics of 2020 and 2021, and then when the planet thought the worst was behind them, Covid-19’s dastardly cousin SARS-CoV-3b, the pathogen spread by pollen and natural aerosols, decided to show up in 2023, causing even more havoc. When the first Covid-19 pandemic struck, Rachel was only four years old, and when SARS-CoV-3b showed up, she was almost eight years old. Despite being so young, she still remembers the early days of face masks and hand sanitisers, but not very fondly.
Then when Rachel was ten, the world went through the month-long Silence Riots of 2026 – the demonstrations that crippled the everyday workings of many countries. The riots changed the very fabric of society. Schooling, work, living, and human interactions were all redesigned. Freedom to go and do whatever you wanted to do ended. Stricter, safer monitoring and controls took its place. People were sceptical at first, but once the worldwide Health Act of 2027 came into law, society became restricted and for the better.
“Okay, about face Rach. Go sit at the kitchen island, and we’ll talk while we cook,” said Wendy in an assuring tone.
Rachel turned and jumped back over the threshold of the kitchen door, and sat at her favourite stool on the right corner of the kitchen island.
The kitchen was modern and spacious, combining the best of late-2020s designs with classical late-1990s ambiance. In the middle of the room stood the aforementioned kitchen island with four stools equally spaced at one side. The opposite side was clear of obstacles, and it was here that food was prepared before cooking it on the appliances located behind.
“So remind me again – what’s the topic of the project?” asked Ben while he was washing carrots in the island sink.
Rachel turned back two pages in her yellow-covered notebook to find the exact title of her project. “It’s for history class. I’ve to write about the differences in terms of technology, human interactions, and in society between 2015 and now. And since you and Mom were alive back then and I wasn’t, you’re my best source of information.”
Ben looked up at his daughter, and then turned to his wife. “I think our daughter is suggesting that we’re old darling.”
“We are!” laughed Wendy.
“What do you think Scott? Is she right?”
The couples’ five year old son sat at the left corner of the island sketching in his drawing notebook. He looked up from his latest doodle of his favourite superhero Spider-Man. “She’s right Dad. You and Mom are old.”
Ben smiled at his son. “Thanks for the support S.” He then turned to his wife. “You hear what our son just said hon?”
Wendy was busy preparing the 3D-Food printer, as she wanted to make some fresh fusilli for dinner. “Yeah, he’s a real charmer alright.” She turned, and winked at her son.
Scott was quiet and shy. He had just started primary school, but he was having problems adjusting to the new safety routines. While he had used bio-aerosol testing devices at home, in cinemas, and at playgrounds, Scott found it difficult to have to test every morning and every evening at school. He didn’t understand why he should have to test twice more per day, considering that he had completed similar tests at home every evening. On the other hand, it had become second nature to Rachel.
Ben and Wendy knew that it was important for Scott and Rachel to attend school with kids of their own ages. Human interactions had to be preserved, particularly when it came to learning how to develop friendships and relationships. Of course, they knew all about the Plato series, the home teacher robots developed by Alphabet technologies that they frequently saw on the VL (volumetric live) advertisements. But recent studies revealed that spending so much time with a teaching robot can be detrimental to a child’s development. They certainly didn’t want that for their kids.
While Wendy and Ben mainly worked from home, they still met their colleagues or friends in highly-coordinated events. Last year, they attended Ben’s youngest brother’s wedding. 100 people attended the festivities, and it was a fantastic day. However, all guests had to submit their biometric data for a period of 6 months before the wedding. Although Covid-19 and most of its pathogenic relatives were largely under control at that point, researchers were having trouble keeping up with the rate of mutations. Vaccines were arriving, but, in many cases, they didn’t apply to the latest strains.
Rachel was slightly irritated by her parents’ exchange with her younger brother, so she decided to remind the room that her project should take centre stage. “Can we focus on me for a moment please? I’ve got a serious deadline Dad!”
“Okay okay. Start your questions. What do you need to know?” said Ben as he finished cutting carrots.
Rachel corrected her posture, sat up straight in the stool, and started her iRecord device on the counter. “Question 1. When and where did you meet?”
“We met at a salsa party via a mutual friend in 2012,” answered Wendy. “You know this, I’ve told you it a hundred times.
“I know, I know,” said Rachel. “I guess you miss salsa parties, well the way they were before Covid-19”
“Most definitely. Before all of this, we could just turn up at a venue, meet our friends, dance, and leave,” Ben said as he finished cutting some tomatoes. “I can’t remember the last time we went to a salsa party, but it was arduous. We had to provide three months of biometric data, and then prove that we hadn’t been to any unregulated events in the six months before that.”
Rachel turned the page of her yellow notebook. “Okay. Question 2. I remember when I was younger that we lived somewhere else, before Covid-19 that is. What was it like to buy a house then?”
“Compared to now, it was super-easy,” said Wendy. “Back then, you just had to provide your bank statements and employers contract. When we bought out first house in 2015, that seemed like a lot. But when we bought this house in 2028, we had to provide all of these details, as well as our biometric data from the past three years, in addition to medical reports from our doctors.”
“Why would the mortgage people need all of that data Mom?”
“Because we had to prove that we could afford the house and that we were healthy enough to pay the loan back. I work in healthcare but I’m a remote neurosurgeon, which means I don’t have to be in the same room as the patient to operate on them. However, I still need to go to the hospital every now and then when some patients are sick after an operation. This means that I’m in the hospital for some time, and there’s a chance that I could pick up something. Hospitals are really clean nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that a new strain can’t find a way to spread there. And if I am sick for longer than 14 days, my salary drops by half until I’m better. The biometric data that we gave to the mortgage lenders includes information on the strength of our immune system. The stronger our immune systems, the better chance we have of getting a mortgage. This explains why we’re eating so much fruit and vegetables, and growing them too. We need to stay healthy, so that we can work and pay the loan. Credit all comes down to health, and biometric data is the new currency”
Rachel had never asked her parents about mortgages before. She was 17 years old, far too young to think about buying a house, but she was genuinely shocked that a person’s immune system was taken in consideration when getting a mortgage. She jotted down some notes in her notebook, and then found the next question. “Question 3. What was it like to go to the cinema in 2015?”
Ben and Wendy loved the cinema, and they missed how easy it was to go.
Wendy caught Ben’s eye and gestured him to answer. “It was really easy. You could book a ticket online, collect it from a machine, get your popcorn, and take your seat. No biometric data check, no aerosol pathogen test, and no physical distancing. We miss the old cinema.”
The mention of popcorn took Scott’s attention away from his latest sketch of Spider-Man. “Can we have popcorn for dinner?”
Wendy looked up from the fusilli-making process. “Not a chance Scott. Rachel, what’s your next question?”
“When did you start having to submit your health data?”
“Well, after the first Covid-19 outbreak of 2020, the push for continuous on-body sensing started, using commercial sensors like those in the AppleWatch or FitBit. Do you remember the FitBit Rach?”
Rachel shrugged her shoulders. “Nope, what’s a FitBit?”
Her mother laughed. “It’s not important for this discussion. What is important is that sensors like those in the FitBit could record heart rate, breathing, coughing, and body temperature. All of these could act as indicators for diseases such as Covid-19. But Covid-19 affected people in different ways. Some people didn’t develop a cough, some people had headaches. So in 2022, the year before SARS-CoV-3b, implantable biosensors that could check for the presence of pathogens in the blood were developed. Me and your father were among the first wave to have them implanted in our forearms. They continually monitor our blood, and they only need to be replaced once every six years.”
“When will I be getting mine?” eagerly asked Scott.
“Like your sister, you’ll get your first biosensor when you’re 18. For now, you have to continue with the aerosol pathogen test, which is just as accurate,” said Ben. “And don’t worry we’ll have a big party when you do get it too!”
“Why don’t I have one now?” Rachel asked.
Before answering, Wendy checked on the boiling fusilli. “Well the updated Health Act from 2027 states that it’s now illegal for any state or sovereign nation to collect biometric data from anyone under the age of 18 using internal biosensors. It all comes down to privacy of data. This explains why you have to send the biometric data from your aerosol test to us every evening. We check the data as your guardians, and then we send it to the Central Biometric Database. So when we tell you to send us your biometric data in the evening, it’s because the government are the ones looking for it, not us!”
“The world was really different when you were younger Mom,” said Rachel.
Wendy paused, and reminisced for a moment. “It certainly was”
Rachel flicked through her notebook in search of one more question, which she found after a few seconds. “Okay, last question. What was it like to fly in an aeroplane?”
“Oh it was incredible Rach,” answered Ben. “You could fly anywhere in the world. You could buy a ticket online or at the airport, and get on a plane to any destination you wanted. The best part was breaking though the clouds to see the sun and blue sky. ”
“Will I ever get to fly in the future?”
“Maybe Rach,” Ben said. “But you don’t need to travel by plane to see the world. The worldwide modular Hyperloop network allows you to travel the world much faster. And in comparison to the aviation industry, it’s cleaner and safer. One of my reporters at the paper has just written a story about the Hyperloop being used to fully replace the shipping industry in the next decade. Hyperloop only transports people at the moment, but in the future all goods will be transported by Hyperloop. This means fossil fuels won’t be used on ships anymore. Anyway, it’s really difficult to keep ships fully bio-clean and bio-safe for people working there. When the vehicle is smaller it’s much easier to kill pathogens. All of the Hyperloop pods are easily cleaned in a special cleaning room using one type of ultraviolet radiation known as UV-C after every use.”
“The Hyperloop is so cool! I still remember our first Hyperloop trip when we went to Oslo,” said Rachel. “Scott you’re going to love your first trip!”
Before Scott could acknowledge that his name had been mentioned, a bing echoed around the kitchen. Ben’s sauce and Wendy’s fusilli were ready. It was dinner time.
Ben moved across the kitchen to get four plates for the meal. “Sonos On. Channel 30.”
Wendy didn’t like listening to the radio during mealtimes. “Why are we listening to the radio now, hon? We’re just about to start dinner.”
“I’ve got to hear the health-weather forecast. Remember I’ve got to be at the office tomorrow,” Ben replied.
“Yes of course. Safety first,” Wendy said.
By the time Ben and Wendy had finished their exchange, Channel 30 was on, and as they served the food, the bio-meteorologist started her report.
“Tomorrow will be warm and dry with an average temperature of 17 degrees. Average wind speeds will be 25 km/h. The warm conditions mean that general pollen levels will be high, which means that the dispersal range of SARS-CoV-3b-like pathogens via pollen and natural aerosols will increase. Be sure to take biometric measurements regularly, and check for updates on wind speeds and direction changes during the day.”
Wendy frowned, and looked at her husband. “Any chance you can postpone that office trip tomorrow?”
“I’ll have to check later.” Ben turned to his daughter. “You happy with our answers to your questions Rach?”
“Yep! Project is due day after tomorrow, but most of the work is done now,” Rachel replied.
“Don’t leave it until the last minute. Okay?” Wendy’s warning was half in jest.
After dinner, the family spent an hour engaging with some VL programs. At 21.00, Wendy got up and looked at her kids. “Okay, it’s a school night. Off to bed.”
Rachel and Scott meekly resisted their mother’s request, but they knew she was right.
As the siblings climbed the stairs, Wendy said, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, and don’t forget to send me your biometric data!”
“We know, we know”, the siblings said in unison.
After another hour of VL engagement, Wendy and Ben went to the kitchen to clean-up.
As Ben loaded the dishwasher, he turned to his wife, “Those questions from Rachel brought a lot of memories flooding back. Remember those first months of Covid-19?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “I was in the middle of my neurosurgery training at the city hospital. It was manic.”
“Is there anything we should have done back then that would have changed the way the world is today?”
“Society as a whole should have followed the rules, we should have been more cautious at times, we should have respected the severity of the disease. It was in our hands.”
“Couldn’t agree with you more,” said Ben.
After the kitchen was clean and the uneaten fusilli had been stored in the fridge for Wendy’s lunch the following day, the couple left the kitchen.
Wendy was the last to leave. She stood in the doorway, and stared for a moment at Rachel’s notebook and iRecord device. She nodded dejectedly and she said to her self “We should have done more.” She turned to leave. “Appliances ten seconds off.” She walked out the door, leaving the door swinging slowly in its hinges, and climbed the stairs. Ten seconds later, the kitchen descended into darkness, ready to serve the Adkins family on another day during the pandemic years of the 21st century.
The world is currently griped by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected almost all facets of society. Streets are empty, shops are closed, bars are shut, and many people are unable to visit their loved ones. The world at the start of 2020 was a very different place.
Many countries have put strict lockdown conditions in place. For instance, in Ireland, people are not allowed to venture more than 2 km from their home, unless in the case of an emergency, for food shopping or medicines, or if they are deemed to be essential frontline workers. In the Netherlands, there is no such 2 km limit but the majority of businesses are closed and many people are working for home. This affects a multitude of people – ranging from bankers to software developers, and from radio reporters to scientific researchers.
I’m currently based at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) where the current lockdown situation has affected the research and teaching of hundreds of TU/e staff. To gauge how researchers are dealing with the changes in their work environment and how the lockdown has affected their work, I’ve just launched a new podcast series. It is called “Researching in Times of Covid-19” and in each episode I speak to a different researcher from a different department at TU/e.
You can read more about the podcasts in this news article on the website for Eindhoven University of Technology.
Stay safe and stay healthy!
Barry W. Fitzgerald
It’s always good to visit home, to where it all started. In terms of my adventures in the Netherlands, home, and where it all started back in 2012, is Enschede. While I lived there the seeds for my superhero escapades were sown, and I couldn’t have imagined speaking about my new book “How to Build an Iron Man Suit” for the first time in the Netherlands anywhere else. On Friday February 21st I did just that when I spoke at the fantastic Comicasa comic book store – a must visit for fans of superheroes and more.
Those in attendance were first treated to a “Iron Man 101” course delivered splendidly by Robert van der Weide-Zeelenberg. Robert outlined the history of the character Iron Man including his inauspicious start at Marvel Comics as well as the evolution of the character and some of the suits that have featured in comic book issues over the years.
Then it was my turn to speak about the science and technology behind the development of an Iron Man suit. The audience experienced the wonder of an exoskeleton suit, EEG brainwave-reading technologies, advanced wound healing treatments, and lots more. Specific scenes from the films were very much in the spotlight, which seemed to please the comic book and film-loving audience no end. The end of the talk was marked by an open discussion on the technological tribulations behind developing a real Iron Man-like suit, and whether such a technology would be of benefit to society.
Many thanks to Robert, Peter, and everyone at Comicasa for hosting the talk. My new book “How to Build an Iron Man Suit“, as well as my other books, are available to purchase at Comicasa. And be sure to visit the store to experience the comic book ambience. It’s such a cool place to sit down and read a comic book or ten.
Stay tuned for more Iron Man banter.
Always think super!
This is an article that I wrote for RTE’s Brainstorm website. The original article can be found here.
For more information on the Secret Science of Santa Claus check out information on my book “Secret Science of Santa Claus“.
In a matter of days, Santa Claus will set out on an incredible round-the-world trip to deliver presents to millions of children. Every year, his schedule gets busier, due in part to the ever-increasing world population. To help him achieve this Christmas delivery goal, Santa uses a truly unique form of transport: a flying sleigh that is guided by a troop of flying reindeers. But how does the sleigh fly? And does it fly in a sustainable way?
Before looking at the science behind Santa’s flying sleigh and flying reindeer, why did Santa Claus pick reindeer to pull the sleigh in the first place? As you already know, Santa Claus’ base of operations is located in the Arctic Circle, which contains parts of Canada, the US, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. The Arctic Circle is home to many animals such as the Arctic fox, the Arctic hare, polar bears, snowy owls, and of course reindeer.
According to the 2018 Arctic Report Card from NOAA’s Arctic Program, there are roughly two million reindeer in 23 major herds in Arctic regions. For centuries, people living in Arctic regions such as the Sami and Nenets have used reindeer to transport people and goods across vast distances. So you could say that Santa Claus is just copying an old tradition.
Nonetheless, it is puzzling that the sleigh and reindeer don’t have wings like modern aircraft. Well, aeroplanes didn’t exist when Santa Claus and his elf-scientists were creating their reindeer-based flying system in the early 18th century. The first successful flight of any aircraft with an engine took place near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 3rd 1903. The pilot that day was Orville Wright, who along with his brother Wilbur built an aircraft known as the Wright Flyer I. This means that Santa’s designs couldn’t have been influenced by the work of the Wright Brothers or any other aviation pioneers. And the sleigh doesn’t have jet engines because jet engines were only developed in the middle of the 20th century.
Of course, Santa Claus and the elf-scientists could have invented mechanical wings that could be worn by the reindeer during flight. But these would more than likely have been very awkward to wear for the reindeer. Plus the reindeer are harnessed quite close to each other and they wouldn’t have been able to fully extend their wings. Instead of wings and jet engines, Santa and the elf-scientists turned to something more astounding and sustainable. They turned to magnetic levitation.
A magnet – just like that used to keep your summer holiday souvenirs on your fridge – has two magnetic poles, a north pole and a south pole. If you’ve ever played with magnets you’ll know that unlike poles attract like poles repel.
Magnets are being used in modern transport systems such as magnetic levitation or maglev trains. Just like a traditional train, a maglev train travels along a track but, unlike a traditional train, a maglev train does not touch the track. The train essentially floats above the track because magnets on the bottom of the train push off the magnets on the track. Importantly, the magnetic lifting force counteracts the weight of the train due to the force of gravity; otherwise the train could never levitate. Typically maglev trains float about 10cm above the track.
One maglev approach is known as electrodynamic suspension (EDS) and involves the use of superconducting electromagnets. Superconductors are super by name and by nature. When these materials are cooled to very low temperatures, they have zero electrical resistance and generate a magnetic field. In an EDS maglev train, superconducting magnets are located inside the train. As the train passes over the track, the magnetic fields in the track and train repel each other leading to a levitating or floating train.
Because of the lack of friction with the track and the aerodynamic shape of maglev trains they can reach incredibly fast speeds. The fastest speed for a maglev train is 603 km per hour, which was achieved in April 2015 in Japan by JR Central’s L0 train!
One of the big problems with superconducting materials is that they need to be cooled to very low temperatures before they can start to act like a magnet. This requires the use of expensive cryogenic cooling systems where liquid helium or liquid nitrogen is used to cool the materials to freezing temperatures.
But Santa Claus doesn’t need to worry about carrying cryogenic cooling systems on his sleigh. That’s because Santa Claus and the elf-scientists have developed the “holy grail” of superconducting materials: a room-temperature superconducting material. This is a material that behaves as a superconductor at much warmer temperatures, i.e. around 20 °C.
Santa and the elves installed this material on the runners of the sleigh and in the shoes worn by the reindeer. When Santa Claus passes electricity through the superconductors they generate a magnetic field. To levitate, this magnetic field needs to push off a second magnetic field, which is the Earth’s magnetic field. Although the Earth’s magnetic field is quite weak (the magnetic field from a fridge magnet is 100 times stronger), Santa’s technology compensates for this. When the sleigh’s magnetic field is high, Santa and the sleigh can fly higher and faster. And when the strength of the sleigh’s magnetic field is decreased, the sleigh flies lower and slows down.
Just like a car needs a battery to help kick start the engine, Santa’s sleigh also carries a battery to switch on the sleigh’s magnetic field. Rather than using a lithium-based battery (which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019), Santa and his elves have opted for an advanced recyclable sodium-based battery. Added to that, the levitating sleigh emits no greenhouse gases or toxic substances into the atmosphere, which can only be a good thing for the environment. So in effect the sleigh is carbon neutral.
The only minor issue with the whole flying process is that Santa’s reindeer emit methane in the form of reindeer flatulence (basically reindeer farts) during their round-the-world trip. But don’t worry: Santa Claus and the elf-scientists have that covered too!
In February 2019, I set out on a writing adventure. I had a plan and I hoped that I would be able to stick to it. In my apartment I scribbled some notes, random musings, and a rough timetable on my whiteboard. It was a serious undertaking – to write a book in approximately 6 months from scratch. But I was motivated, intrigued, and suitably placed to write it. The aim was to write a book “How to Build an Iron Man Suit” with the content inspired by the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and real scientific research from around the world.
The process proved to be an incredible adventure. The research part involved reading scientific papers from multiple disciplines and watching the films of the MCU on repeat. I refer to the paper reading process as “academic mining” where I searched through many thousands of papers that could link to the narrative of the book. Some papers were easy to find, some were hard to find. I must admit though that it was a joy to rematch the films once again. Given that the book is based on Tony Stark and his exoskeleton suits, I focused on the films where he had a starring role. For instance, I definitely watched Iron Man (2008) more than 20 times while writing the book. Multiple watches that certainly paid off.
I should emphasise that the book is not about building the Iron Man suit. It is really about building an Iron Person suit – a suit for everyone. I strive to highlight that the technologies within the suit are to be used for good and not for evil. And these technologies need to be developed in an ethical manner, and not in a secretive and secluded manner that mirrors the approach of Tony Stark.The books also acts as my testament to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thus far. I use scenes from multiple films to motivate the introduction of concepts and technologies – from Iron Man (2008) to The Avengers (2012) and from Captain America: Civil War (2016) to Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).
There were plenty of occasions where I didn’t think I’d make the deadline – a deadline that I had set for myself. You see I decided to venture into the self-publishing world one more time with this new book – just like my previous books Secrets of Superhero Science and Secret Science of Santa Claus. Self-publishing can be a challenging task as you need to both write the book and arrange the appropriate support structures for the rest of the book such as an editor, illustrator, proof-readers, and layout designers.
In the end it all worked out and the book arrived from the printers on October 29th 2019, the day before my 40th birthday. The official publication date for the book is October 30th 2019 – a present to myself to mark the end of my 4th decade on the 3rd rock from the Sun. You can get further details on the book here.
Over the coming weeks I’ll write a little more about the writing process and the joys and tribulations of self-publishing.
Until then – always think super!
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans following the release of Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film in MCU superhero expanse. Jubilant highs have been intermixed with shocking lows as the remaining Avengers attempted to undo the actions from Avengers: Infinity War of the Mad Titan Thanos. There have been goodbyes for iconic characters, the appointment of new leaders, and the establishment of new teams.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen the film a few times (six to be precise and maybe more soon), and every time that I’ve watched Avengers: Endgame, I’ve spotted something new. So here’s the first of five quirky lessons or observations (without giving too many spoilers) from Avengers: Endgame:
1. Hawkeye Speaks Japanese
One character absent from Avengers: Infinity War was Clint Barton (Hawkeye). After his actions in violation of the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War, Barton finds himself under house arrest, just like Scott Lang in Ant-Man and the Wasp. In the opening scenes of Avengers: Endgame we see Barton with his family on his farm. We catch a glimpse of the house arrest ankle bracelet as he teaches archery to his daughter Lila. Barton seems at peace as he enjoys spending time with his family. This serenity is destroyed in a matter of moments when Barton’s family are turned to dust by the Decimation (Thanos’ finger snap from Avengers: Infinity War). Barton doesn’t take the loss of his family well and assumes a new persona – Ronin. He goes on a worldwide rampage against organised crime as he takes on criminals in countries such as Mexico and Japan. We see Ronin in action in the latter as it takes out the Yakuza in Tokyo. During a fight with one of the Yakuza leaders, Barton speaks Japanese. Should we be surprised that a spy can speak multiple languages? Probably not.
2. The Creator of Thanos is in the Film
After the Avengers fail to stop Thanos from destroying the Infinity Stones there is a time-jump of five years. It’s the year 2023 and the Avengers are trying to move on. Steve Rogers runs a support group for people who lost friends and family in the snap. One member of the group is Joe Russo, one of the directors of Avengers: Endgame. Another member of the group is Jim Starlin, the comic book artist who created Thanos in the early 1970s. Nice cameo.
3. Steve Rogers is a Terrible Cook
While Steve Rogers runs a support group for people, Natasha Romanoff has seemingly taken charge of the Avengers and their allies. We see Natasha in a conference call with Okoye, Captain Marvel, Rocket, Nebula, and War Machine. She reminds her friends that everything that happens anywhere in the universe goes through her. War Machine is the last to terminate communication, but informs her that an incident in Mexico is more than likely the doing of Clint Barton. After War Machine hangs up, Natasha starts to cry at the thought of her dear friend Barton on a rampage around the world. At that moment, Steve Rogers enters the room and says, “I would offer to cook you dinner, but you seem pretty miserable already.” Despite coming out of the ice more than 10 years before it seems that Rogers has still to learn how to cook a decent meal. Still he must be better than the Vision in Captain America: Civil War!
4. Thor, Korg and Miek play Fortnite
Thanks to the quantum technology and Pym’s particles of Scott Lang and the genius of Tony Stark, the Avengers set in motion a plan to undo the Decimation. But they need a team, so the Hulk and Rocket head to New Asgard, which is located in Tønsberg in Norway, to convince Thor to join the cause. However, Thor has not dealt well with the events of Avengers: Infinity War as he has turned to alcohol and bad eating habits to get over his failure to stop Thanos in Wakanda. In addition to enjoying a few too many beers, Thor also enjoys playing Fortnite, the online video game, with his good buddies Korg and Miek. Interesting way to process his perceived failure to stop the Mad Titan. If he’s been playing Fortnite for five years, we’ve got to assume that he’s probably not bad at it.
5. No mention of X-Men: Days of Future Past
As the Avengers prepare to test their quantum-based time travel technology, a number of characters discuss the implications and rules of time travel. James Rhodes and Scott Lang list a whole bunch of time travel films such as Hot Tub Time Machine, Terminator, Wrinkle in Time, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. However, there’s no mention of the 2014 film X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which time travel plays a key role. Of course X-Men: Days of Future Past was produced 20th Century Fox and is not associated with the MCU. But it would have been cool if they had mentioned the X-Men film in the list. On the other hand, it’s likely that the X-Men will become part of the MCU in the near future following the acquisition of 20th Century Fox by Disney.
Within the MCU there must surely be superhero films. Perhaps the adventures of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nastasha Romanoff, and Thor have been made into films within the MCU. This was almost revealed in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. In Marvel Comics, Simon Williams (better known as Wonder Man) is a retired superhero-turned actor. The actor Nathan Fillion (of Castle fame) had been cast as Simon Williams and was supposed to appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 on a number of film posters, one of which was for a film entitled “Tony Stark”. Perhaps in the future we will see Wonder Man make an appearance in the MCU, either as a famous actor or as a superhero.
And that’s it, the first five quirky lessons or observations from Avengers: Endgame. Stay tuned for more!
Always think super!
It’s just over two weeks since the release of Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the impact of the film has been extraordinary. To date I’ve seen the film FIVE (5) times, and I plan to see the film a couple of more times before it leaves cinemas. Four too many times for some, but for someone like me it’s only the beginning.
I’m more than aware that some people have yet to see the film, which is now the 2nd highest grossing film of all time, so there won’t be any spoilers here from me. I just couldn’t ruin the film for anyone who is waiting for the hype to die down and the theatres to be half empty before they decide to go watch the 182 minute superhero extravaganza.
All I’ll say right now is that the film is fun, exciting, emotional, and there are scenes that will leave you speechless. Of course, like most films these days, there are some things that could have been better, but for me they are minor. To others, these issues are major. In one or two weeks I’ll write a more extensive blog on the film.
In the build-up to the release of the film, my work on superheroes was featured in a number of publications in the Netherlands. First up my work was featured in an article in New Scientist, in part promoting a talk that I gave as part of the Imagine Film Festival on April 14th. Next, my work was featured in an article written by Nick Kivits for Dutch Men’s Health magazine. I’ve got to say that was very very cool! Finally, Coen van Zwol featured my work in an article with the NRC newspaper.
It’s always great to see articles about my work reach the national press. It’s another thing to see my superhero research make an impact. Of course I cannot take credit for all of the work as I’ve had the opportunity to work with some inspiring students and researchers at TU Delft and further afield.
I promise an in-depth blog about Avengers: Endgame in the near future. But unlike other publications online, this article is spoiler free.
March 14th 2019 was a great day in the world of superheroes.
First, BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science Episode I took place at TU Delft with the theme for the first episode being impenetrable materials. Jalila Essaïdi of BioArt Laboratories, and Max Wouters, Leyi Hsu, and Jeannet Liang of TU Delft spoke about their exploration of spider silk for impenetrable materials and for healthcare. Over the last two days I have recorded some great podcast interviews with the speakers. You’ll be able to listen to this podcast very soon!
The second great thing about March 14th 2019 was that the second trailer for Avengers: Endgame was released online. Avengers: Endgame is out in April 2019 and I for one cannot wait to see the film. As with all superhero trailers, I like to analyse the films and try to anticipate what we might see in the film. As a special bonus podcast episode of BingeWatch Academy: Superhero Science, I’ve put together my ideas on what the trailer might reveal for the upcoming film.
You can listen to the trailer on BW Science right now.
I hope you enjoy the podcast!