Friday, 15 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article.

Here are links to all four parts, and also the "reading list" I made for attendees of the talk. 

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part One: The Whizzer






Here are the illustrations I created for the talk:







The Science of Obscure Superheroes: Reading List

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I also created a list of  some of my favourite comics featuring these characters, alongside a list of some of my favourite, vaguely science related comics.

Here are some comics where you’ll find some of the characters from these articles:


Legion of Super-Heroes The Silver Age Vol. 1
By Various 

These 1950s tales feature Superboy’s first adventures with his teenage pals in the futuristic Legion of Superheroes. These stories are endearingly daft and charming, but most importantly this collection features the first appearance of Matter Eater Lad!

Superman and the Legion of Superheroes
By Geoff Johns and Gary Frank 

While Matter Eater Lad doesn’t appear in this comic, his pals in the Legion of Superheroes do. The lesser known heroes of the Legion of Substitute Heroes also make an appearance. Superman gets transported to the 31st Century and he must reunite his childhood friends in order to fight space Nazis!!!

Animal Man Vol. 1
Animal Man Vol. 2: Origin of the Species
Animal Man Vol. 3 Deus Ex Machina
By Grant Morrison and various artists 

During Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man in the 80s, Animal Man gave up superheroing and began to focus on animal rights activism instead. As he did so he became one of the first superheroes to realize the truth of his existence - that he is actually a comic character living in a two-dimensional world. Along the way he encounters some pretty obscure superheroes, including B’wana Beast, Merryman, and our pal the Red Bee!

Avengers Epic Collection: The Final Threat
By Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, and various artists


Marvel fun from the 1970s. The Whizzer pops up to help the Avengers fight his villainous son, Nuklo! This collection also features appearances from Doctor Doom, Ultron, and Infinity War baddie Thanos! It also features some fantastic art from comics legends George Perez, Jim Starlin, and John Byrne.

Flash (1987) #9-11
By Mike Baron, Jackson Guice, Mike Collins, and Larry Mahlstedt


The first story to feature Chunk! These comics have never been collected to my knowledge but you’re likely to find them for quite cheap on ebay or in the bargain bin of a comics shop and they’re well worth hunting around for.

Flash: Rogues
By Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, and Doug Hazlewood


Chunk gets shot in the first story in this collection, and Flash must prevent all of Keystone City from getting sucked into his old friend. Then Flash battles a bunch of villains from his extensive rogue’s gallery, including Captain Cold, Fallout, and Gorilla Grodd!

Here are some science related comics you might like:

Concrete, Vol. 1: Depths
By Paul Chadwick


Ron Lithgow gets his brain transplanted into a giant, alien, concrete body and tries to make a life for himself as an explorer and a writer. The interesting thing about Concrete is that aside from Concrete himself and the aliens who give him his body (who are never seen again after the first issue) there are no other sci-fi aspects to this comic. The ramifications of life in a giant concrete body are explored by applying real world physics, and conveyed through some stunning art from creator Paul Chadwick.

Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
Action Comics Vol. 2: Bulletproof
Action Comics Vol. 3: At The End Of Days
By Grant Morrison and various artists


Grant Morrison combines the feel of the original 1930s Superman comics by Siegel and Shuster with his own mind bending cosmic concepts. Superman battles a menace from the fifth dimension and Morrison realizes this threat in a fascinating way. Just as a fork from our three dimensional world might “attack” a two dimensional piece of paper at several different points simultaneously, Superman is attacked at several different points in his life simultaneously by his fifth dimensional foe.

Ministry of Space
By Warren Ellis and Chris Weston


The murky, real life origins of the American space programme are used as an inspiration for this alternate history, where Britain got to all the Nazi rocket scientists after World War II instead of the Yanks.

Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2: World's Most Wanted Book 1
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3: World's Most Wanted Book 2
By Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca


Iron Man has always been one of the most science-y superheroes and this is one of his very best stories. The Green Goblin has taken over SHIELD and Tony Stark is on the run. Tony uploads a computer virus into his own brain to erase all his secrets and keep them out of the Goblin’s hands. He must evade capture until the virus has done its work. But how can he stay one step ahead while he’s gradually losing his greatest weapon – his mind?

Tom Strong: Book 1
By Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon


Tom Strong inhabits a fantastic world that’s more Jules Verne than Stan Lee. He isn’t a superhero, he’s “science-hero”! Raised on a remote West Indian island by his scientist father in a high gravity chamber that made him super strong, Tom Strong was educated to genius level. He now uses his mental and physical perfection to fight such science themed foes as the Modular Man, Ingrid Weiss and her flying Nazi girls, and even an invasion from a universe where the Aztec civilization survived and became Earth’s dominant culture.

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Four: The Red Bee

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about The Red Bee. 

The Red Bee first appeared in Hit Comics #1 (1940). His name is Richard Raleigh, an assistant district attorney who decides to dress up in a puffy shirt and fight crime using bees! Red Bee uses lots of trained bees to fight Nazis and gangsters, but his favourite bee is called Michael. Michael lives in Red Bee’s hollow belt buckle and will only come out for special missions. The character starred in 24 issues of Hit Comics before fading into obscurity. He was brought back in the pages of All Star Squadron in the early ‘80s, only to be killed off straight away.

Rick Hoberg
Let’s talk about Michael. Surely bees hang about together in huge swarms and inhabit hives? They don’t sit on their own in some bloke’s belt buckle. There are in fact certain types of bees that do prefer a solitary existence. For example, there is a type of bee found in the UK called Osmia bicornis, or more commonly, the red mason bee!

Steven Falk
Red mason bees are usually found in gardens and parks. They nest in existing holes or cavities, such as mortar joints, window frames, or dead wood, and prefer holes in sunny south facing locations. It’s not a massive stretch to believe that Richard Raleigh could have tempted such a bee into his belt buckle, provided he was thrusting his hips towards the sun.

Michael is probably a female, as male mason bees tend to hang around the nests where they first hatched from their cocoon, waiting to have sex, before dying soon after the deed is done. That’s very much what the kids call a “big mood” for me.

When the females have chosen a place to make their nest they harvest mud which they use to seal up their nest cells, allowing their young to safely develop, keeping them warm over winter.  Red Bee’s belt buckle would probably be full of mud.

Once Michael has been released from her mucky belt buckle, she may be more useful in distracting criminals than actually hurting them. Red mason bees don’t sting unless they’re threatened. The venom in a female red mason bee’s sting is similar to the venom of a honeybee sting, but the red mason bee sting contains fewer barbs than that of a honeybee. This could explain why the red mason bee’s sting does not penetrate human skin.

While Michael wouldn’t make much of a weapon, the Red Bee’s other bees could potentially be a tenacious foe for any criminal that crossed their path. Africanised “killer” bees from Central America have been known to chase a person into water and then patiently wait for them to resurface before stinging them. These bees can recognise the chemical scent of the breath of their target as air bubbles break the surface of the water.

The Telegraph
Honeybees in the UK are less aggressive but are still known to be pretty tenacious. In 2016 a grandmother from West Wales returned from her shopping to find a swarm of over 20,000 bees covering the back of her car. She called some local beekeepers, who were able to remove the bees and she returned home. Over 24 hours later, outside her home she found the bees had returned to the car! The beekeepers theorised that the queen bee may have become trapped somewhere in the car.

So bees could potentially be an effective weapon against anyone who provoked them, but how could the Red Bee control them? How could he make sure the bees attacked the gangsters and not him? Smoke can be used to make bees docile, but dopey bees might not be much use in the war against crime. Is there an alternative?

The answer is smells!

A queen bee secretes a combination of chemical scents in order to communicate with the worker bees. The queen’s scent can help control swarming, it can inhibit the development of ovaries in the worker bees, and it can tell the workers whether a queen has mated or not. The queen’s scent can also give workers the cue to gather around the queen and form her own little entourage, or retinue to look after her.

In 2007 researchers in the University of Otago found that a queen bee can manipulate worker bee’s behaviour by releasing a pheromone that blocks aversive learning in young bees. This means that the queen can stop her offspring from learning from bad experiences. This is necessary because being exposed to a chemical scent that stops you from growing ovaries can be pretty unpleasant for a worker bee. By preventing the young bees from developing aversive memories against her odour the queen is ensuring that they will continue to tend her. Basically, she smells bad but she makes the other bees forget how bad she smells.

If The Red Bee could harness these chemical scents, perhaps he could use them to convince a colony of bees that he was their queen! If they ever decided that they didn’t like the life of a crime fighter, he could make them forget that decision! A real life Red Bee would perhaps be, not a man in a domino mask and a puffy shirt, but a stinky, insect drag queen, armed with water pistols full of bee sweat!

But being a queen bee is not all it’s cracked up to be. When a queen bee gets too old to give off the right smells they are replaced by the workers in a procedure known as "supersedure". The workers rear a replacement queen and when the new one is ready the workers will kill the old one in a gruesome fashion. The workers cluster tightly around her, “balling” her until she becomes so hot she dies. 

If the Red Bee is a man who would be queen he must ensure he never runs out of scent, lest he is balled to death by his insect minions!


Click here to read part one!
Click here to read part two!
Click here to read part three!
Click here for the Reading List!

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee#Supersedure

Many thanks to insect experts Jade Hailes and Antonia Forster.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Three: Matter Eater Lad

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The Whizzer, Chunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about Matter Eater Lad. 



Matter Eater Lad first appeared in Adventure Comics #303 (1962). In the 30th Century, Tenzil Kem was sent from the planet Bismoll to represent his home world in the Legion of Superheroes. On Bismoll microbes had made all food inedible, and so the Bismollians evolved the ability to eat all matter. Matter Eater Lad can eat any amount of any substance at super-speed. Writers have struggled to find anything for Matter Eater Lad to do over the years – there’s only so many times you can have a character escape a cage by eating the bars. As a result he is often written out of the stories by being drafted into his home planet’s political system. It’s a literal case of  “I have to go now, my planet needs me!”


When I first started to consider how Tenzil’s powers might work in real life I thought I might find the answers with goats! Like a lot of people I was under the impression that goats could eat the shirt off your back if they wanted to. Could Matter Eater Lad be a kind of human goat?

In actual fact, no he couldn’t be. The idea that goats can eat anything is a myth. Goats are in fact incredibly picky eaters. The idea that they’ll eat anything comes from the fact they are browsers. They will root through their potential meals to find whatever they think will give them the most nutrition, even if it means digging around in rubbish. A goat may well rip the shirt off your back and have a chew on it but they would probably spit it out after a while once they’d decided there was no goodness to be had from it.


Matter Eater Lad may not be a goat-man, but there is another member of the animal kingdom who echoes his abilities.

Crocodilians, a group which includes alligators and crocodile, are far from picky eaters. Crocodiles eat fish, amphibians, crustaceans, molluscs, birds, reptiles, and mammals, and even smaller crocodiles. Certain types of crocodile have been known to eat, sharks, wild boar, big cats, elephants, and hippos. Young alligators and crocodiles have been observed eating up to 23% of their bodyweight in the lab in just one sitting. That’s like a 70 kilogram (or 11 stone) person eating a 17 kilogram (or 3 stone) turkey in one meal. There have even been seeds found in their poo, suggesting that they also eat fruit! They can and will eat anything and they don’t leave leftovers. If you're feeling particularly brave type "Crocodile eating" into Youtube for some examples.


Crocodiles have evolved sharp teeth for piercing and holding onto flesh, and powerful muscles to close the jaws and hold them shut. They have the strongest bite of any animal. But it’s their hearts and their stomachs that really make them such successful eaters.

Crocodiles have the most acidic stomach of any vertebrate. It can close off a part of its heart on the right side and use a part of its heart on the left side to flush blood loaded with carbon dioxide from its muscles directly to its stomach. This makes its blood supply extra acidic, which in turn makes it much easier for the stomach lining to secrete more stomach acid to quickly dissolve a lot of flesh and bone.

Crocodiles’ stomachs are also divided up into two sections. The first section is a muscular pocket where the crocodiles keep any rocks that they might eat. All the hard bits of their prey tend to remain in this area of the stomach for a few days at a time. Once the bones are thoroughly crushed, they transfer over to the next section of the stomach to finish up the digestion process. This process, combined with the acidity of the stomach, means that every single part of the crocodiles’ prey gets digested, including bones, horns, scales and hooves.

Matter Eater Lad could well be a sort of grotesque crocodile-man, if he actually existed. It’s worth remembering though, since crocodiles get so much from their prey, they don’t need to eat as often as other animals. Crocodiles usually eat about once a week, although they have been known, in extreme situations, to live off their own tissue for up to three years. If Matter Eater Lad was a human crocodile, you’d have to hope that he hadn’t eaten recently if you expected him to free you from a cage by eating the bars. Or on second thoughts maybe it would be better if he had eaten recently, just in case you started to look particularly tasty to him.


References:

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Two: Chunk

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The Whizzer, Chunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about Chunk. 
First appearing in Flash #9 (1988), Chester Runk was a scientist who created a matter transmitting machine. The first time Runk activated the machine it imploded and he became merged with it. Runk was now Chunk, the human black hole! Chunk has the ability to teleport objects and people into another universe – a dead universe! He needs to continue feeding himself 47 times his own mass in dense materials to avoid permanently imploding into that dead universe.

When the Flash first encountered him, Chunk was a villain, stealing diamonds to prevent himself from imploding, and trapping anyone who offended him in the dead universe. These included his therapist, a woman who turned him down for a date, a man who had cut him off in his car, and even a man whose shirt Chunk had taken a dislike to.

Mike Collins & Larry Mahlstedt
Eventually Chunk released his captives and became good friends with the Flash. Chunk started a waste disposal business and became a millionaire. He was a regular member of the Flash’s supporting cast for a while until the writers lost interest in him and just stopped mentioning him.

But what would a human black hole actually be like?

A black hole is a great amount of matter packed into a very small area. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Scientists can’t see black holes but they can see how the strong gravity affects the stars and gas around the black hole. Also, when a black hole and a star are close together, high-energy light is made. This kind of light cannot be seen with human eyes. Scientists use satellites and space telescopes to see this light.

Black holes can be big or small. Scientists think the smallest black holes are as small as just one atom but have the mass of a large mountain. So theoretically Chunk could carry a black hole around inside him, but he’d have to be pretty damn strong to move about.

Another kind of black hole is called "stellar." Its mass can be up to 20 times more than the mass of the sun. Stellar black holes are made when the centre of a very big star collapses. When this happens, it causes a supernova - an exploding star that blasts part of the star into space.

Brian Bolland
Chunk is depicted as a kind of big, walking Hoover, sucking people and objects into himself, but in actual fact objects have to get fairly close to a black hole to get sucked in. For example, if our sun was suddenly replaced by a black hole of similar mass, the planets would still continue to orbit as normal, they’d just be really cold and dark.

In order to get sucked into a black hole you would have to pass the event horizon – the point at which escape becomes impossible, even for light! So if Chunk was a particularly powerful human black hole he would look more like a huge sphere of darkness, waddling around the place. This sphere would be surrounded by a flattened band of spinning matter called an accretion disc. An accretion disc is material, such as gas, dust and other stellar debris that has come close to a black hole but not quite fallen into it.

Due to the extreme gravity around a black hole, an object in its gravitational field experiences a slowing down of time, relative to observers outside the field. This is known as gravitational time dilation. A distant observer would see an object falling into a black hole appear to slow down and fade, approaching but never quite reaching the event horizon. Finally, at a point just before it reaches the event horizon, it becomes so dim that it can no longer be seen. Perhaps Chunk would be surrounded by fading statues?

Once you were past the event horizon it’s really brown trousers time. The Flash could probably escape the event horizon as he can move faster than light, but you wouldn’t be so fortunate. You’d get torn apart as you were sucked towards the singularity, your body getting stretched and squeezed at the same time. This process is known as spaghettification. A singularity is the centre of a black hole, where the gravitational field becomes infinite! Chunk has been described as a living singularity. When you reached the singularity, you’d be crushed to infinite density and your mass would be added to the total of the black hole.

But that’s only true of certain kinds of black holes. There are other kinds of black holes, charged, or rotating black holes, where it would be theoretically possible to avoid the singularity and pass through a wormhole into a different part of spacetime! We’re now talking about Einstein-Rosen bridges, and these might seem familiar if you’ve seen Thor Ragnarok!


Yes, Chunk could be a walking Devil’s Anus!

According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity a massive object like a star, creates a distortion in the surface of spacetime that we experience as gravity. Imagine putting a bowling ball in the centre of a trampoline. The ball would press down into the fabric, causing it to dimple. A marble rolled around the edge would spiral inward toward the body, pulled in much the same way that the gravity of a planet pulls at rocks in space. According to Einstein and Nathan Rosen, if an object has an even greater mass, like a black hole for example, it could great a distortion so great that it creates a pathway to another part of space time! A shortcut or wormhole across time and space!



If Chunk’s mass created an Einstein Rosen bridge, maybe it would be possible for him to transport people and objects somewhere else, although it would be to another time and place in our universe rather than to a dead universe. Of course, anything that entered his event horizon would still be spaghettified, so Flash would be left with the gruesome task of retrieving the noodle shaped remains of Chunk's victims from another part of spacetime!


Click here to read part four!
References: