Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scientist superheroes

Latest technological breakthroughs come right out of the comic books

  • Print

WASHINGTON -- For those sci-fi enthusiasts who couldn't make it to San Diego for Comic-Con, the White House had a solution last week: a Google+ Hangout webchat exploring the stuff superheroes are made of, including invisibility and super strength.

Uncool people would describe the latest installment of "We the Geeks," a public outreach project of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as simply a discussion of materials science. But we know better. We're talking invisible cloaks! Liquid armour! Touch-sensitive synthetic skin!

The panel of engineering and physics experts displayed, described and activated an array of inventions that could apply to military operations, surgery, even 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 the Ascender, which allows for "reverse rappelling" up buildings, Batman style. "Most of us are familiar with how Batman gets out of trouble," he said as he introduced the device.

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, offered his own bit of drama by stabbing a swatch of Kevlar containing liquid armor with an ice pick to show how the material turns rigid quickly. Liquid armour, he explained, "transitions from a fluid-like state to a solid-light state under impact," allowing it to resist assaults from small, powerful objects.

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

Wagner said his group is working with a range of agencies and industries on applying the research: NASA may use it for spacesuits that could withstand a micro-meteorite traveling at 40,000 km/h, while doctors and nurses could wear garb that could not be pricked by hypodermic needles.

Other scientists offered their own superhero devices and powers: Duke University engineering graduate student Nathan Landy unveiled an invisibility cloak, while Stanford University chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao discussed the latest discoveries on self-healing and touch-sensitive synthetic skin.

Landy has worked with his colleagues to make a cloak (it's actually a diamond-shaped, solid structure) 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."

The device has practical applications in both the defense and telecommunications worlds. "It's no secret that there's a lot of military interest in this," he said.

This technology might allow devices to communicate better with each other, even when objects such as telephone poles get in the way; the cloaking would make such obstacles "disappear," allowing radio waves to transmit smoothly.

At the end of the hangout, the experts offered their own superpower wishes.

James Kakalios, a professor in the University of Minnesota's School of Physics and Astronomy and author of The Physics of Superheroes, 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 them heroes because of the gear they deploy rather than powers they command. He then activated his rappelling device in signing off.

If you want to educate yourself on all of this, videos of the discussions are available at www.whitehouse.gov/we-the-geeks.

Take that, Comic-Con.

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 D4

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

RMTC preview of Good People

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press January 18, 2011 Local Standup -
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Weather Standup- Catching rays. Prairie Dog stretches out at Fort Whyte Centre. Fort Whyte has a Prairie Dog enclosure with aprox. 20 dogs young and old. 060607.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What are you most looking forward to this Easter weekend?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google