The Science of Superheroes


Most of us "know" that super-heroes aren't real. We know that their amazing powers are pure fiction, and that we must willingly suspend disbelief in order to enter their world. Or do we. When we argue over the relative benefits of a spider-sense vs. adamantium claws, are we discussing powers that just might be possible in our "real" world, or are we just kidding ourselves?

Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg recognise that these are weighty matters that merit investigation, and they've written the book on Super-hero science. And here it is.

Story Details

  The Science of Superheroes
Summary: Discussion of Superhero powers, including Spider-Man
Publisher: Wiley
Writer: Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg

Cloth-covered hardback with dust jacket. 200+ pages at 6" x 9", this is a grown-up book format.

The book opens with an excellent preface, discussing the origins of modern comics - specifically their birth from amongst the "pulps" of the depression. The preface does a great job of introducing some of the key names, setting the culture of the times, and setting the scene about the reading habits of a generation far distant from our own.

Next, there's an interesting (though somewhat superfluous) introduction by Dean Koontz, and we're into the body of the book. There's eleven chapters, each addressing one topic - though often that one topic includes several aspects. For example, chapter one is "Superman". Let's take a closer look at this chapter, as it's fairly typical of those that follow.

Firstly, we get a great introduction to the history of Superman. We learn about what DC was doing at the time, how the character came to be invented, and how the reading public reacted. Specifically, there are some interesting points about the key differences between DC's early writers who had a strong Sci-Fi interest, and Stan Lee and friends at Marvel who really cared far more about the story, and who really didn't give a damn if the science stacked up or not.

Secondly, we pick a couple of Superman's key characteristics - (a) he's from an alien planet, and (b) the differences in gravity and sun color result in his greatly increased strength on Earth.

Addressing the "are we alone in the universe" question, we jump straight off the super-hero topic altogether, and start discussing the "Drake Equation", formulated in the 1950's to attempt to determine how many other intelligent species might be out there in space right now. This is interesting stuff too, and it's well covered, but it doesn't really tie back to Superman in any compelling sort of way.

As for the strength. Lois and/or Robert (it's not clear who wrote which bit) quickly conclude that given any planet with sufficiently high gravity to explain Superman's powers, the escape velocity for a space-ship is higher than any known chemical reaction could provide the energy for. The difference in sun color is clearly ludicrous. Heck, if I go stand under a blue light, I don't get super-powers.

The other chapters follow a similar pattern. There's a fascinating insight into the creators, and the events surrounding the first appearance. Hey, I never knew that "Incredible Hulk" was cancelled because Marvel's distribution deal through DC allowed them to ship only 8 comics a month, and they wanted to make way for "Amazing Spider-Man"!

But after that intro, while the science is always sound, and often interesting in its own right, the discussion always heads rapidly into one of two directions. Some topics, suddenly turn into a "Junior Encyclopedia" discussion of some interesting aspect of science - e.g. the discussion of Green Lantern's powers suddenly becomes a prolonged explanation of star collapse, red dwarfs, neutron stars, pulsars, and black holes. The other approach they use is to basically just brutally knocks down any possible validation in a merciless fashion.

To be honest, I guess I was kind of hoping that we would get some compassionate psycho-babble, giving me some kind of hope that the right kind of radio-active bite could one day give me super-powers too. But nope, these guys are just party-poopers. Boo sucks!

In conclusion, since this is a Spider-Man site, I guess I should jump ahead to chapter five and let you know what it has to say. Rather than try and defend the absolutely infeasible idea that a radioactive spider-bite could ever give you more than a bad cold and some nasty hair loss, the writers instead examine if the powers Peter gains are actually consistent with any particular class of Spider. No, they're not really. As for his "proportional speed" and strength, they point out that most Spiders are actually quite clumsy and slow, and are rather kind of wimpy - normally backing down to anything their own size. Sigh. What a disappointment!

General Comments

This is one of those "that sounds like a great idea" books. In practice, the most interesting bits of this book are the fascinating histories of DC, Marvel, and the creators themselves. The actual scientific analyses are very readable, and I learned a lot about some cool stuff. Sadly, they completely failed to fire my imagination. I was hoping to come away rather excited and inspired that our world might one day be home to such "super-heroes". Instead, I felt quite educated, but hardly inspired at all.

I guess I was warned. Seems there's no room in one book for both the "science" and the "magic" of super-heroes. Not with these lab-coated kill-joys writing!

Overall Rating

Good research, well-written explanations, but sadly doesn't really hit the mark. Let's call it three webs.