The Science of Supervillains

The Science of Supervillains

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by Lois H. Gresh, Robert Weinberg

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What sort of damage could an insane supergenius like Lex Luthor do with chemical and biological weapons? Just how close are we to creating robotic appendages for our bodies? Can a human being actually soar through the air just like Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Vulture, by using a giant set of wings? And if not, why not?

In the tradition of its successful

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What sort of damage could an insane supergenius like Lex Luthor do with chemical and biological weapons? Just how close are we to creating robotic appendages for our bodies? Can a human being actually soar through the air just like Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Vulture, by using a giant set of wings? And if not, why not?

In the tradition of its successful predecessor The Science of Superheroes, The Science of Supervillains takes a lighthearted yet penetrating look at the true science that underlies some of the greatest comic book supervillains of all time. From Doctor Octopus and Grodd the Super-Gorilla to Magneto, Brainiac, the Silver Surfer, and many more, renowned science fiction authors Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg explore the background of these fascinating foes, asking intriguing questions that lead to illuminating discussions about the limits of science, the laws of nature, and the future of technology.

Could a suit of body armor like Dr. Doom’s increase a soldier’s strength and speed–– or even help a disabled person to walk? Could an implanted alien computer take control of the human brain? Is it possible to create killer lipstick? From teleportation to time travel, from artificial intelligence to alternate dimensions, each chapter examines the supervillains’ devilish deeds, separating those that retain an aura of scientific believability from the barely plausible and the simply impossible.

You’ll discover the puzzling link between magnetism and the brain; how Venom’s self-aware costume anticipated the development of intelligent textiles; and whether it’s possible that humans, like certain comic book characters, could someday live for hundreds, even thousands of years (the answer may surprise you). Plus, you’ll hear from comic book writers, editors, and artists on how believable science fits–– or doesn’t fit–– into the creative process.

Filled with entertaining tidbits of comic book lore, The Science of Supervillains honors the remarkable talents of the writers and artists who brought these complex criminals to life, seeking out new rationales for what makes the Bad Guys tick (and keeps us reading cover to cover).

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The Science of Supervillains

By Lois H. Gresh

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-48205-6

Chapter One

The Original Dr. Evil Lex Luthor

In "How Luthor Met Superboy" (Adventure Comics #271, 1960), Superboy flies to a farm in Smallville to introduce himself to a new kid in town. The kid, who has curly hair, is riding a tractor. A giant meteor of kryptonite falls from the sky and crashes to the ground next to Superboy. The farm kid whisks the meteor away with his tractor, depositing the kryptonite in quicksand. Superboy shakes the farm kid's hand, and the kid proclaims, "Meeting you, Superboy, is about the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me!" The curly-haired farm kid is Lex Luthor.

Luthor takes Superboy into his barn, where there is a shrine to Superboy: photos on the walls, rocks Superboy has punched, metal Superboy has bent. Luthor confesses, "I have hero-worshipped you for years. To me, you are the greatest boy in the world!"

The barn holds more surprises. It also contains an advanced scientific laboratory. As Luthor tells Superboy, his secret goal in life is to become a great scientist as famous as Superboy. To thank Luthor for saving him from the kryptonite meteor, Superboy builds an even more highly sophisticated experimental laboratory out of junk. He also gives Luthor rare chemicals, dug from far beneath the ground at superspeed. For weeks, Luthor works to uncover the secret of life in his new laboratory. Finally, he creates a secretchemical formula that spawns a live protoplasmic monster.

Luthor's next goal is to create an antidote to kryptonite. He builds a giant claw arm and attaches it to his tractor, then lifts the giant kryptonite meteor from the quicksand. After chipping off some pieces, he drops the meteor back into the quicksand, then grinds the kryponite chunks into dust. He mixes the dust with the protoplasmic life-form that's still writhing-enormous hands flailing, head wobbling like jelly-in a big beaker on his laboratory table.

Unfortunately, as often happens in comics, Luthor stumbles and drops his beaker of protoplasmic monster plus kryptonite dust. The lab blazes with fire. Luthor chokes from the dust, fumes, and radiation.

Superboy arrives almost instantly and uses his superbreath to quell the flames. He rescues his friend, but this is a different Lex Luthor. He's been transformed by the radiation. He's bald, and he's insane. But he's still a scientific genius.

Luthor decides to destroy Superboy. He smashes everything in his shrine. He tricks Superboy into exposing himself to kryptonite in outer space, where Luthor maniacally chortles over the fact that Superboy's dog is choking half to death from the exposure.

In later comics, Superboy often puts Luthor in prison. And Luthor always breaks out, using some weird scientific gizmo or technique. In one particular comic, Luthor is in prison and creates a salve that enables him to stretch his arm clear across Smalltown, where he creates havoc. There is an incredible image of Luthor with his elongated arm stretching across town from the jail cell. Luthor is indeed the villain of all comic book supervillains; he is the ultimate mad scientist.

Let's take a look at some of the scientific methods used by Lex Luthor and determine if they're at all plausible. In addition, let's ponder some techniques that Luthor never used and some he should have used, given his vast scientific expertise.

In the "farm lab" issue (#271) described above, Luthor creates a weather tower that transforms the sun's rays into solar energy in the depths of winter. Smallville installs the weather tower, and the town is blessed with summer flowers, crops, trees with leaves and buds, and gentle warm breezes. But then something goes wrong and the tower starts frying the town. Superboy saves the day, however, with his frosty breath.

Is it possible for solar energy to give Smallville summer weather in the depths of winter? Let's consider some facts. Of the solar energy reaching the Earth, approximately 30 percent is reflected and not used to heat the planet. The atmosphere absorbs an additional 20 percent of solar energy. The ground and oceans absorb the remaining half. When it absorbs energy, the atmosphere grows warmer. The same thing happens with the ground and the oceans.

So how might Lex Luthor's weather control tower work? Our guess is that he uses sun charts and solar collectors. The position of the sun in the sky changes every day, and it differs depending on latitude (that is, where you are on the planet). However, for any time of any day, Luthor can predict the position of the sun in the sky. We figure that he then uses his mathematical predictions to design solar collectors that absorb the most sun and create the most heat.

Running on a computer, Luthor's mathematical predictions can take into account how Smallville's houses, schools, shops, trees, chunks of kryptonite, and other obstacles block the solar energy reaching his weather control tower. The math must also include calculations that compensate for fog, rain, dry spells, and pollution, as well as any blizzard, hurricane, or tornado that might hit the town.

Solar collectors are used today, of course. Even ten years ago, renewable energy supplied 18 percent of the world's energy. Renewable energy either regenerates or cannot be depleted, and it includes solar energy.

Photovoltaic solar energy is used in calculators and wristwatches. It converts the sun's energy directly into electricity. Silicon combined with other materials in the photovoltaic cells enables electrons from the sun to move through the silicon, hence producing current. It does not appear that Lex Luthor uses photovoltaic power in his weather tower. Otherwise, he'd electrocute Smallville!

The weather tower is shown with a huge parabolic dish, which we assume collects and concentrates solar energy on a series of receivers. Once collected, this energy must be harnessed, but how?

Solar thermal systems transfer the sun's heat into fluids such as water. It most definitely does not appear that Luthor's weather tower converts the heat into fluid form. There is no evidence that Smallville is flooded by water or any other fluid.

While it's possible to collect and use solar energy, we do not believe it makes sense in the way that Luthor does it. One parabolic dish at the edge of town just doesn't suffice to radiate heat all over Smallville and its outlying farms, causing flowers to blossom in winter, crops to grow, trees to bud, and people to wear bikinis. That's just way too much heat being radiated from one dish. And we cannot conceive how that solar energy is being converted and distributed to such a wide area simply through the sky, with no liquid, no electrical equipment, and no conductors of any kind. Here we have a grounding in good science but an unfeasible application. At least according to current technology.

Most of Luthor's comic science leans heavily toward superfuturistic wonders. One example is teleportation. In "The Einstein Connection" (Superman #416, 1986), Lex Luthor perfects a teleportation machine and is able to make himself temporarily invisible whenever Superman gets too close. Superman follows Luthor to Princeton University. "You muscle-bound simpleton!" exclaims Luthor, as he zaps Superman with his "concussion blast" watch. Luthor steals a perpetual motion machine and creates illusions, such as multiple Luthors who don't really exist, rooms and walls that aren't really there, and waterfalls in the middle of nowhere.

Is teleportation possible? And is it possible to create illusions, such as multiple Luthors who don't really exist, rooms and walls that aren't really there, and so forth? A staple of science fiction, teleportation refers to the process of disintegrating a person or object in one place, then reconstituting the person or object in another place. It's generally done within seconds and usually never explained except in terms that are equally mystifying, such as Star Trek's "pattern buffers."

Scientists have made some progress in the study of teleportation. Ten years ago, for example, a group of six scientists provided evidence that teleportation could happen, but only if the original person or object was destroyed in the process. In 1998, using coaxial cable, scientists at the California Institute of Technology teleported a beam of photons from one end of a table to another. And in 2002, Australian physicist Ping Koy Lam teleported a laser beam approximately one meter from its origin by embedding a radio signal into the laser beam, destroying the original beam, then recreating it elsewhere. Although the original beam had to be destroyed during the teleportation process, the radio signal did survive.

The destruction is a result of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that the more definite you are about a particle's location, the less definite you are about its velocity, and vice versa-that is, you can't duplicate the exact spin and polarization of a particle at any given fragment of time. Instead, scientists use a process called quantum entanglement, whereby two photons are created simultaneously, and the changes made to one photon also occur in the other regardless of how far apart they are-for example, at opposite ends of the table.

Obviously, we are far away from teleporting humans. When you consider that a person-say, Lex Luthor-has approximately 1027 atoms in his body, it would be a great effort to teleport him a meter away, much less to another room, city, or planet. And once you teleport him, what happens to the original Lex Luthor? Is he destroyed due to quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? Are his exact thoughts and physical conditions (upset stomach, rapid heartbeat, infusion of narcotics into his blood, use of lifesaving heart medicines, and so forth) also transmitted? Probably not. The teleported Luthor would not be a perfect copy of the original Luthor.

Is it possible to create illusions, such as multiple Luthors who don't really exist, and rooms and walls that aren't really there? Two possibilities are that Luthor is using virtual reality or holographs.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated world in which we move and interact with objects, other real people, and virtual reality people. It's a place that doesn't exist but that offers the powerful illusion of tangibility.

Virtual reality today comes in two flavors. One surrounds you with three-dimensional objects and scenes so that you feel you are walking through a real place. This effect requires equipment: virtual reality goggles, for instance, or specially equipped rooms. Unless Superman is wearing goggles or other virtual reality equipment, Luthor is not using this form of virtual reality to produce his illusions.

The second type appears before you on a two-dimensional screen such as your computer monitor. The computer graphics and programming are so well done that a full three-dimensional world feels real on your two-dimensional screen. Many computer games are forms of virtual reality. Clearly, Luthor isn't using this type of virtual reality. Superman is not looking at Luthor on a computer screen.

So what is Luthor doing? Our best guess is that he's projecting holographs of walls, rooms, and himself. In holography, laser light is used to record the light-wave patterns reflected from an object or person. The light-wave patterns are placed into an emulsion of light-sensitive film. After the film is developed, it is again exposed to laser light. All points of light originally reflected from the object or person are captured, and the final image-whether you're standing in front of the holograph, behind it, or to its side-looks just like the object or person.

If Superman tried to touch one of the Luthor holographs, his hand would find only light. In a similar fashion, if Superman tried to punch his way through a wall, he'd be banging through empty space.

Luthor's holograph machine can work in various ways. For example, if Luthor is using a reflection holograph technique, then he's lighting his illusions from the front. If he is using a transmission holograph technique, then he's lighting his illusions from the back.

Most likely, he's employing pulsed holography or integral holography. Pulsed holography uses bursts of laser light to record a subject's movements. If Luthor's illusions move a good deal, then it's more likely that he's using integral holography, which converts individual frames of two-dimensional film footage, computer graphs, or digital video into holographs.

In another deadly scene, "The Luthor Nobody Knows" (Superman #292, 1975), Luthor escapes from prison and takes over a helicopter on an army base where they're detonating nuclear bombs. He steals a nuclear bomb and flies very close to a town. As Superman rescues Luthor from the helicopter, it explodes, and the nuclear bomb goes sky high. Somehow, the people in the nearby town are not hurt.

Now if a nuclear bomb explodes about a mile outside town, would the people be hurt? And what other methods might Luthor use to kill people from his helicopter?

Although it's true that bombs existed in 1975, their use in the Lex Luthor comics was more than fantastic. It seems that the Luthor bombs were not based on scientific fact.

Although battlefield nukes have existed since the mid-1950s, this is not the type of nuclear weapon that Lex Luthor uses near the town. An example of a battlefield nuke is an M573 or M422 8-inch nuclear projectile. Providing on-ground attack capability, these nukes tend to hit their targets with great accuracy. During the 1990s, however, the army and marines replaced most on-ground nuclear artillery weapons with more conventional weapons.

But Luthor's bomb was the type dropped on Japan during World War II-a free-fall bomb. He dropped it from an airplane. He did not load it into a rocket launcher outside of town or from a submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific.

Clearly, if such a nuclear bomb were to explode about a mile outside town, most of the townspeople would die. World War II's Fat Man Model 1561, for example, destroyed 1.5 square miles of Nagasaki and killed 35,000 people. The Little Boy bomb destroyed 4 square miles of Hiroshima and killed 70,000 people. When accidentally dropped in 1957, a Mark-17 bomb created a 25-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep crater and threw debris to locations over a mile away. During this accident, only the bomb's conventional explosives detonated-imagine the destruction had the nuclear arsenal detonated.

In general terms, a nuclear bomb releases the forces that hold the nucleus of an unstable atom together. This can be accomplished in two ways. With nuclear fission, the nucleus is split into two fragments; isotopes of uranium or plutonium are typically used. With nuclear fusion, two atoms are brought together; hydrogen or hydrogen isotopes are typically used.

There are many ways of devising and detonating bombs. Some of the most common nuclear bomb designs are

Fission bombs (the earliest type of bomb)

Gun-triggered fission bombs

Implosion-triggered fission bombs

Fusion bombs

To understand how a fission bomb works, you need some basic knowledge about nuclear radiation. Each atom consists of subatomic particles: protons and neutrons form the atom's nucleus and electrons orbit the nucleus. Protons have positive charges, electrons negative charges, and neutrons no charge at all. Usually, the numbers of protons and electrons in an atom are the same. The role of the neutrons is basically to keep the protons together in the nucleus. Because the protons all have the same charge-positive-they repel one another.

Some elements have more than one stable form. By stable, we mean that you could leave the element alone for five hundred years, then return to find that it hasn't changed at all. For example, the copper, gold, and silver in objects found during the excavation of an ancient Roman city are exactly the same as they were two thousand years ago.

In fact, speaking of copper, 70 percent of all natural copper is called copper-63, and the other 30 percent is called copper-65. Each type of copper has 29 protons, but a copper-63 atom has 34 neutrons and a copper-65 has 36 neutrons: similar, but slightly different. Both copper-63 and copper-65 are stable forms of the element. Both are called isotopes of copper.


Excerpted from The Science of Supervillains by Lois H. Gresh Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Roy Thomas
The science behind the scoundrels we love to hate

From Spider-Man's bionic archenemy, Dr. Octopus, to Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor, to the X-Men's eternal rival, Magneto, comic book villains have kept us captivated for years---- not just by their diabolical talent for confounding our heroes, but also by their unrivaled techno-proficiency at creating global mayhem. But is any of the science behind their superweaponry based in truth?

The Science of Supervillains separates science fact from science fiction. Renowned authors Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg present a highly entertaining and informative look at the mind-boggling wizardry behind such legendary baddies as Dr. Doom, Poison Ivy, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and more. Whether it's artificial intelligence, weapons systems, antimatter, robotics, or magnetic flux theory, this fun, fact-filled book is a fascinating excursion into the real-world science animating the comic book world's pantheon of evil geniuses.

Praise for The Science of Superheroes

"We comics fans have known it for years, of course: somewhere, in some nether dimension or on some alternate world, there is an Earth on which superheroes are real, living, breathing beings . . . and now Lois Gresh and Bob Weinberg have shown us how that's possible. Mutants . . . aliens . . . scientific geniuses with a penchant for wearing costumes and masks . . . or just plain Joes who've trained their bodies within an inch of their lives . . . all are probed, dissected, examined in loving details. To paraphrase an old DC Comics feature: Science says you're wrong if you believe that The Science of Superheroes isn't more fun than a barrel of genetically altered winged monkeys."
—(Roy Thomas, writer and editor of X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Superman, Justice League of America, Legion of Superheroes, Star Wars, and many other comic book classics)

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