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Superhero talk gets scientific

Chemist Yann Brouillette explains super powers with science

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Apr 05, 2014 06:00 am

SCIENCE HEROES – Chemist Yann Brouillette (dressed as Marvel Comics character Bruce Banner) talks about the science of superheroes at the Telus World of Science on Thursday. Here he discusses how Captain America could survive freezing solid.
SCIENCE HEROES – Chemist Yann Brouillette (dressed as Marvel Comics character Bruce Banner) talks about the science of superheroes at the Telus World of Science on Thursday. Here he discusses how Captain America could survive freezing solid.
CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

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Why is the Incredible Hulk green? Can you really freeze solid like Captain America and live? And who’s stronger: Iron Man or the Man of Steel?

These were just some of the super-science questions that chemist Yann Brouillette addressed Thursday during a free talk at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton.

The talk was meant to take a scientific look at a pop-culture topic, says Jennifer Bawden, the centre’s science director.

“Science fiction has always provided a source of inspiration for scientists,” she notes.

This inspiration has prompted people to pursue inventions such as invisibility cloaks and Iron Man’s robotic armour.

Brouillette, a teacher at Quebec’s Dawson College and lead writer for the Heroes of the North comic book series, spoke before about 100 Edmonton-area residents about the chemistry of superheroes.

“I’ve read comic books since I was a kid and the science in them has always intrigued me,” Brouillette says.

That interest eventually led him to become a chemist himself.

Chemistry and superheroes are everywhere nowadays, he told the audience, and the two often inspire one another.

For example, Marvel Comics’ first superhero team, the Fantastic Four, is based on the first chemical elements as conceived by Plato – fire, air, earth and water. Many other heroes and villains take their names directly from elements, such as the Silver Surfer, Doctor Phosphorous and Titanium Man.

Iron Man is probably the most popular hero named after an element today, Brouillette says. His armour started as simple iron, then became an iron alloy, then aluminum, then various polymers, and (nowadays) is made of iron nanoparticles.

“The comic book history of Iron Man follows the history of chemistry.”

Comic book science

Many of the feats performed by superheroes can be (partially) explained by science, Brouillette said.

Superman could theoretically crush coal into diamond if he exerted enough heat and pressure, for example – that’s how we make artificial diamonds. However, those diamonds would likely turn out yellow due to nitrogen impurities in the air. If he’d been drinking wine, Superman’s diamonds might turn blue, as his breath would include boron impurities contained in his drink.

The wood frog can freeze solid like Captain America and live because it has an antifreeze-like protein in it that keeps ice crystals from popping its cells, he continues. Researchers hope to adapt this protein for humans so they can preserve organs for transplants.

The Incredible Hulk grows huge and gets super strength from gamma rays, Brouillette says. That’s similar to how gamma rays promote gigantism and cancer in real life. They also make you sick, which could explain why the Hulk is green.

Researchers have also found animals that mimic comic book superpowers, he continues. Geckos can crawl like Spider-Man by exploiting van der Waals forces provided by millions of tiny ridges, for example, while the African horror frog can break its own bones to produce claws like Wolverine.

Comic books are one way to get students more engaged in science, Brouillette says. Students might shrug off the difference between iron and steel, for example, but perk up when you ask if Iron Man or Superman (the Man of Steel) is stronger.

He’s now teaching a course called Comic Book Chemistry for this reason.

As for his favourite science superhero, he says the best chemistry hero he knows of is The Electrolyte.

“His superpower is to cure hangovers, and I thought that was amazing.”


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