We've got the power

We've got the power

A medicine lecturer tells Joyee Chan about comic book heroes' super abilities, which have a basis in fact.

Superheroes: they've got it all.

Wolverine's regenerative healing makes him literally indestructible. Spider-Man glides effortlessly around New York City using arachnid silk. And Superman sees through walls, thanks to his X-ray vision.

Dr Christopher See, a comic-book fan and lecturer in medicine at the University of Hong Kong, says that although those legendary crime-fighters are fictional, some of their supernatural abilities are within the reach of us muggles.

On March 19, he will take a scientific look into superpowers to sort fact from fantasy as part of the British Council's annual Science Alive programme. Lucky audience members will even have a chance to go on stage and experience the special strengths themselves.

"Science is looking at the world and trying to understand what makes it tick. Even though it's about superheroes, it's also about good, basic science," says See. Some of the content of his one-hour show will relate to the biology syllabus for the Diploma of Secondary Education exam, he adds.

Of the costumed crusaders, See says technological heroes such as Iron Man (Tony Stark) have the most basis in fact.

"Tony Stark is my favourite superhero," he says. "His 'superpower' really is that he has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's good at inventing and spends a lot of time in the lab."

Stark, an entrepreneur/inventor, builds hi-tech robotic suits of armour that not only keep his damaged heart beating, but also allow him to fly at supersonic speeds, create force fields for defence and more.

Although Iron Man suits aren't on the street yet, See said scientists have already invented bionic limbs for amputees, exoskeletons that allow soldiers to carry 90kg, and jet packs that let stuntmen do aerial loops and fly vertically.

And believe it or not, scientists have also found ways to make us invisible. But it's not like Harry Potter's magical cloak, though. "It plays with the human perception of light," says See.

He explains that we see an object because the light reflecting off its surface hits our eyes. If something blocks the light or technology such as fibre optics reroutes the light rays, the item would be invisible to the naked eye.

But it's impossible to make something disappear completely. And if you're thinking about teleporting from one place to another like Marvel characters Blink and Nightcrawler, See says science is not quite there yet.

Scientists can teleport a photon, a particle of energy that carries light, by sending information of its physical make-up to the new location and reconstructing it.

"That's on a molecular basis," See says. "But if you want to switch positions with me instantaneously, that's on a much bigger scale in terms of energy."

Science Alive runs from tomorrow until March 21. 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
We've got the power


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