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.