THE BLOG
19/10/2015 11:31 BST | Updated 18/10/2016 06:12 BST

Are There Heroes Among Us?

We read about them, we see them on the big screen and the replica toys fly off the shelves each Christmas. Superheroes from comic books are more popular than ever, with legions of fans across the globe that dream about possessing the powers that their heroes do.

We read about them, we see them on the big screen and the replica toys fly off the shelves each Christmas. Superheroes from comic books are more popular than ever, with legions of fans across the globe that dream about possessing the powers that their heroes do.

But science can teach us a lot about how these powers work. In many cases, not only can they actually be performed in real-life, but there are also real-world applications where these 'powers' can be put to good use. From a scientific perspective - and to quote a famous superhero - 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

(Wall) crawling the web like Spiderman

Let's start with everyone's favourite neighbourhood hero, Spiderman. If you think I'm going to tell you it's possible to get bitten by a radioactive spider and gain superpowers, then - I hate to break it to you - but it's not. However, his wall crawling is more of a realistic possibility. For many years scientists and engineers have been fascinated by how some animals have the ability to wall crawl, and in the mid nineties a first prototype of material known as 'gecko tape' was developed. It had the ability to support large levels of weight on a single strip of tape. But how does it work?

Animals that have these abilities have tiny hairs known as setae which creates this stickiness effect. Using nano materials the team were able to grow artificial setae, and recently Professor Stanlislav Gorb and his team in Kiev have taken this to the next level. In a stunning demo they were able to suspend a man from a ceiling using just a single strip of this tape. A real-life Spiderman could be just around the corner.

What about Spidey's web? In the comic book and movies we see it wrap up villains until the police come and take them away. Over the years scientists have spent a lot of time analysing the silk of spiders and in 2009 a spider, dubbed Darwin's Bark Spider, was discovered in Madagascar. It's silk was found to be around ten times stronger than Kevlar, the material currently used to develop things like body armour and drumheads. The focus now is on replicating the structure in the Bark Spider's silk in order to make super materials for bridges, cars and even planes. It's fair to say this material would be more than equal to Spidey's web.

The strength of an Ironman

Millions of people around the world will have dreamed of being Tony Stark, A.K.A Ironman, and donning that famous suit of armour. But what elements of it are truly possible and where does real-world science fit in?

Let's start by looking at the iconic helmet. When Tony puts the helmet on he can look round the room and it will scan and recognise shapes. This technology, funnily enough, is nothing new. In the late nineties image recognition systems like OpenCV began to emerge. Clever mathematics is programmed into a computer that uses a camera that then searches for two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Since its original introduction this technology has come on leaps and bounds, and now artificial intelligent methods have been incorporated which means some systems can learn patterns for themselves. In fact most of your typical household gaming systems have these abilities.

But what about the robotic exoskeleton? This is an area that has been looked at in detail in regards to diseases that cause muscle loss, such as sarcopenia. Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, CEO of Cyberdyne, has spent the last 20 years developing an exoskeleton that has allows elderly wheelchair-bound people the power to walk. In terms of the science behind it, when you move a muscle a small electrical signal is sent to that part of the body. Essentially, these exoskeletons read those signals and respond in the same way. Amazingly, if young people wear the suit it boosts their strength, and they are looking at applications for this in areas such as the fire service. In the future all firefighters could well be real-life ironmen.

Life imitating art?

We've only scratched the surface of where science and superheroes converge. The likes of Susan Storm, Mystique or even the Silver Surfer are full of sound scientific theory. The exciting part is putting that theory into practice.

Matthew Dickinson is a lecturer in computer aided engineering at the University of Central Lancashire.