An (Un)Caped Crusader for Science

UC Irvine professor uses superheroes to interest students not otherwise attracted to technical concepts. Could `Hulkification' work?

March 25, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Could an overdose of gamma rays really transform someone into the Incredible Hulk? Was Superman defying Einstein's theory of relativity when he flew faster than the speed of light?

While other UC Irvine science classes dissect sharks or explore plasma physics, Professor Michael Dennin's seminar analyzes comic book superpowers.

In recent weeks, students in his Science of Superheroes course have investigated Batman's utility belt, pondered gravity on the planet Krypton and designed their own superpower concepts that would use existing or envisioned technology.

The 10-week class is part of a University of California program that aims to expose freshmen to unfamiliar topics and majors.

Dennin debuted the course in January as an expanded version of the physics of Superman lecture he had given to several campus groups.

After one Man of Steel talk, somebody slipped him a copy of Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg's paperback, "The Science of Superheroes." It became the textbook for his new class.

In lessons that cover Aquaman to the X-Men, Dennin's 14 students learned to distinguish science fiction from science fact.

Science fantasy: Gamma rays turned 98-pound weakling Bruce Banner into a raging green giant called the Incredible Hulk.

Science reality: Intense gamma radiation would have killed Banner. However, Hulkification could be achieved with anabolic steroids and DNA from a jellyfish.

French scientists recently created a phosphorescent green rabbit by splicing genes from a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish into a bunny embryo.

Students also considered the feasibility of Superman and the Flash being able to travel faster than the speed of light.

Most scientists say such a feat would violate the laws of physics, Dennin said.

Others theorize that traveling faster than light could reverse time.

Another lesson examined the gadgets on Bruce Wayne's bat belt, such as a miniature telephone and torch and knockout gas capsules.

Many of the devices that seemed farfetched when Batman was created decades ago are now readily available.

Students also scrutinized Superman's home planet, Krypton.

According to comic book lore, gravity on Krypton was so much stronger than Earth's that Clark Kent had superhuman strength here -- much like humans who are seemingly stronger on the moon.

But in real life, gravity that strong would prevent a rocket from escaping a planet's atmosphere.

Dennin, 39, a UCI physics professor, said the goal of the seminar was to use pop culture as a hook to introduce such concepts as black holes, cloning, life on other planets, quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics.

"Many students have a fear of science," Dennin said, "but if they come at it from a different angle, they sometimes find out they're interested in the subject and take more classes."

In one of the course's final projects, students had to cook up a technologically realistic superpower.

Amy McSherley devised an elaborate PowerPoint presentation on her character Shiki, a ninja superhero who turns invisible by wearing an "optical camouflage suit" covered with LCD screens and tiny video cameras.

The cameras film whatever is behind Shiki and pipe the images to the fabric's TV screens so the suit appears transparent, she said.

The only drawback is that sunlight would reflect off the LCD screens the same way it does off a regular TV set, McSherley noted.

Another classroom super character, dubbed Average Joe, achieved superhuman strength by wearing an exoskeleton powered by hydrogen fuel.

Nathan Yee, 19, one of Average Joe's creators, said Dennin's class was lighthearted but educational. "Hearing about things that you think would be inconceivable but are technologically possible is quite remarkable," he said. "It's a very interesting class."

Dennin said he hoped students would apply the techniques they used to analyze comic book powers to evaluate the credibility of real-life medical and scientific claims.

"One of my big passions is the challenge of educating the nonscientific public about the process of science," he said.

"It's becoming more and more critical in today's world."

Dennin said the seminar taught him a few things too. "The students knew a lot more about superheroes than I did."

Dennin's class isn't the only freshman seminar with an eye-catching title.

Other courses in UCI's program include "Heavy Metal Islam" from the history department, "Murder!" from the drama department, "TV, Culture and the Real O.C." from women's studies and "Antonio Banderas and His Hispanic Masculinities" from the Spanish department.

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