On February 29th 2016 I self-published my popular science book “Secrets of Superhero Science”. This is the story behind my journey to writing the “Secrets of Superhero Science”.
With just over two months to spare, I was born in the 1970s and almost a year after the release of the 1978 film Superman. It wasn’t until I was five or six years old that I first caught a glimpse of the Man of Steel. As I watched Christopher Reeve glide above the Metropolis skyline my priorities in life changed drastically. I wanted superpowers and I wanted them as soon as possible.
I first turned to Santa Claus but the demand for superpowers must have been insurmountable every Christmas and he never delivered them. Next, I tried to create them at home. However as a six year old I lacked some important technical know-how and the equipment to really advance my superpower dreams. Finally, I asked my parents for superpowers. Their response surprisingly was “Maybe when you’re older.” At least they didn’t say no.
In 2000 the Bryan Singer directed film X-Men reached the cinema. I remember going to see the film in Limerick, Ireland with my friends. As I left the cinema afterwards I had the feeling that this film might be a game changer. With a budget of $75 million there was a degree of expectation placed on the film by both 20th Century Fox and the public at large. In my opinion the film certainly did not disappoint. Iconic characters such as Wolverine and Magneto were brought to life in spectacular fashion and the story incorporated to some degree the impact of superpowers on modern society.
Prior to this I had of course seen the Batman films from the 1980s and 1990s (and the Adam West Batman TV series from the 1960s) in addition to the Superman films. But X-Men was different. Here was a film with a plethora of superheroes and supervillains battling each other in a CGI-rich cinematic experience. This film really was a game changer.
As I left the cinema I reflected back on my childhood superpower dreams. In 2000 I was a 3rd year undergraduate student in Applied Physics at the University of Limerick so I couldn’t help thinking about the technical aspects of the X-Men. Could we actually genetically modify a person’s DNA to give them the powers of the X-Men? At the time my focus was firmly on physics and I didn’t have a satisfactory biological answer to the question then. Unfortunately the answers to my superhero questions would have to wait.
In February 2012 I moved to the University of Twente in the Netherlands to work in polymer physics, which marked a big step in my scientific career as it was my first position outside of Ireland. At the University of Limerick in Ireland I had sampled many research areas ranging from granular physics to computational modelling, and from biomedical physics to galactic dynamics. My work at Twente would open a door to yet another research world. Such diversity in my scientific research was to prove crucial towards answering my superpower questions.
By 2012 numerous superhero films had been released, and to much fanfare and publicity, such as The Avengers, the 6th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), X-Men: First Class and the Christopher Nolan directed Batman trilogy. I first saw the 2012 film The Avengers in Copenhagen, Denmark. I say the first time because I’ve actually seen the film more than 40 times! Besides The Avengers, a host of other superhero characters have starred in their own films such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil. As of June 2016, four of the 12 top grossing films of all time are superhero-based films – Captain America: Civil War, Iron Man 3, The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Superheroes are in it for the long haul given that at least 30 new superhero films are planned for release before 2020. Maybe in the future a superhero film will win a Best Picture award at the Oscars?
As an avid runner I find that time on the road provides a great release, both physically and mentally. Back in 2013, on one of my many runs around Enschede, I started to realise something about my childhood superhero questions – I could actually answer some of them. I quickly cut my run short and dashed home before I lost my train of thought. Still in my running gear I spent an hour jotting down some rough notes about superheroes and the relevant science. When finished, I had my scientific answers to the powers of five superhero characters.
Of course in that one hour I didn’t answer every single question. One noticeable unanswered question was the lack of a cheap and reliable genetic editing tool for DNA, something that I figured would be necessary to create the X-Men. Little did I know but that tool had just been developed – the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing tool (You are going to hear a lot about this in future years).
Between 2013 and 2015, I worked on the “Secrets of Superhero Science” whenever my busy schedule would permit it. Writing the book consisted of two main parts – watching the films and researching the science. I felt I was more than prepared for each of these tasks. I had already seen many of the films multiple times and my scientific training prepared me for the research part. Evenings and weekends were spent reading about the latest advances in genetic editing, advanced materials or optics, while watching superhero films. I was living the dream. I was answering the superpower questions of my youth. I think the younger version of me would have been very impressed!
I also spoke to secondary school students at schools in both the Netherlands and Ireland about superhero science. Their positive reaction to the superhero workshops was evidence that people wanted to hear more about superhero science.
While writing the book the superhero films continued to stream out of the Hollywood studios. I adapted the content to include the latest superhero films, and even those films set for release in the future. The central plot of Captain America: Civil War, which was released after the publication of the book, is discussed in detail in the final chapter of the book where I talk about how those with superpowers should be held accountable. In addition I address best ethical practice with new technologies, particularly for nanotechnologies, and how to predict when is the right time to introduce superpowers to modern society.
The scientific answers in the book are my answers, and not necessarily the only answers, towards creating superpowers. The important fundamental science behind the superpowers is presented before I talk about current scientific research. The X-Men, Colossus, Wolverine, the Invisible Woman, Hawkeye, Spider-Man and Iron Man are all discussed. If you’re not familiar with the characters and all of their films don’t worry. At the start of each chapter there is a brief comic book history for the character and their appearances in some of the highest grossing films of all time.
Every superhero film provides a gateway into a world of superhero adventures as well as real and advanced science. The “Secrets of Superhero Science” aims to capture both of these worlds. You can read about transformation optics and how it is related to invisibility and the power of the Invisible Woman. There is discussion about the Iron Man suit, particularly how he might manage temperature issues in the suit. And of course the X-Men and their genetic origins are explored.
Imagine a future where everyone had access to superpowers in a safe and beneficial way for modern society. You could be the person who uses an invisibility cloak or flies an Iron Man suit for the first time. You could be the scientific researcher who figures out how to create the X-Men. Or you could be the person who becomes the world’s first superhero. If that’s the case you better design your superhero costume and logo and pick a cool superhero name.
Are you ready for the next revolution in modern scientific research?
Are you prepared for a world of superpowers and superheroes?
But most importantly – Are you ready to unlock the “Secrets of Superhero Science”?
You can order the book online from BW Science at the following web links: www.bwscience.com, www.bwscience.nl or www.secretsofsuperheroscience.com. You can go straight to the online shop by clicking here.
For more information about BW Science, the book or superhero workshops you can visit my website or contact me by mail.
The book is also available from selected book stores in Ireland and in the Netherlands.
Barry W. Fitzgerald, BW Science.
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