White House reveals the stuff superheroes are made of

The president pretends to be caught in Spider-Man's web as he greets Nicholas Tamarin, 3, just outside the Oval Office on Oct. 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The president pretends to be caught in Spider-Man's web as he greets Nicholas Tamarin, 3, just outside the Oval Office on Oct. 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Diego for Comic-Con, the White House had a solution Friday: a Google+ Hangout exploring the stuff superheroes are made of, including invisibility and super-strength.

Yes, “We the Geeks” is back, and not a moment too soon.

Uncool people would describe the latest installment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s public outreach as a discussion of materials science, but we know better. We’re talking invisible cloaks! Liquid armor! Touch-sensitive synthetic skin!

During the discussion, a team of engineering and physics experts displayed, described an activated an array of inventions that could apply to everything from military operations to surgery to a high-school musical (if, for example, you wanted stagehands to be invisible as they moved scenery).

"Materials science is what allows us to make something real, right out of the comic books," explained Nate Ball, co-founder of Atlas Devices and inventor of Batman-like Ascender, which allows for “reverse rappelling” up buildings.

Ball, who explained how helpful it would be to make ropes, hooks and other gear out of lighter and more compact material, introduced his rappeling device with the great opening line, "Most of us are familiar with how Batman gets out of trouble."

In one of the hangout's most dramatic moments, University of Delaware chemical engineering professor Norman Wagner showed how the liquid armor "transitions from a fluid-like state to a solid-light state under impact," allowing it to resist assaults from small, powerful objects. Wagner actually stabbed a swatch of Kevlar containing the liquid armor, to demonstrate how the material could turn rigid quickly.

"We’ve been stabbing this one for about five years," he explained as he jabbed away, to no avail.

Wagner said his group is working with a range of agencies and industries on applying their research: NASA may use it for spacesuits that could withstand a micro-meteorite the size of a grain of sand traveling 25,000 miles an hour, while doctors and nurses could wear specially-knitted garb that cannot be pricked by hypodermic needles.

Duke University engineering graduate student Nathan Landy  on an invisibility cloak, while Stanford University chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao unpacked the latest discoveries on self-healing and touch-sensitive synthetic skin, and James Kakalios, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy, spoke about how he wrote The Physics of Superheroes to ensure that his students found physics interesting.

Landy has worked with his colleagues to make a “cloak” (it’s actually a diamond-shaped, solid structure, rather than the sort of billowing material that instantly springs to mind) out of  “metamaterials,” artificially structured composites that respond in a certain way to electromagnetic waves. Long story short, you can put objects such as a metal cylinder (which normally is very easy to detect because it scatters light) inside the “cloak,” and it’s undetectable by radar.

“This demonstration shows that cloaks aren’t some sort of mystical entity,” Landy explained in a phone interview. “They’re real, in a very genuine sense.”

While this work can seem somewhat abstract, it has practical applications in both the defense and telecommunications world. “It’s no secret that there’s a lot of military interest in this,” he said. “You can use your imagination as to what that is.”

On a less glamorous front, this technology might allow devices to communicate better with each other, even when objects such as telephone poles get in the way.

At the end of the hangout, the experts opined on what superpowers they would like to possess if given the choice.

Kakalios said he wanted the power of super-speed. “Not just being able to avoid rush hour traffic…. but just to be able to take care of all the things we need to in a given day," he said.

Landy said he didn’t actually want to be invisible: “I think it would cause more problems than it would solve.”

And Ball? He opted instead to praise scientific research as well as Batman and Iron Man, both of two are heroes because of the gear they can deploy rather than powers they actually command. As way of demonstration, he then activated his rappelling device in signing off.

So take that, Comic-Con.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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