Post Tagged with: "book"

The Secret Science of Superheroes — the origin story


Remember that League of Extraordinary Scientists? You know, the one’s that wrote a book about superheroes in a weekend. Well their Herculean efforts have come to fruition. The Secret Science of Superheroes (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) is out now and this is what it is where it came from …


If you are going to enjoy a superhero movie (or more pretty much any action film for that matter) you’ve got to be able to suspend disbelief. Especially, for those of us that have a scientific bent. There’s just too much that is just plain impossible and if we whinged about every little detail that wasn’t quite correct we’d sure as hell annoy anyone else trying to enjoy the escapism of a fantasy flick with us. I learnt that particular lesson from my little brother after he hit me because of my incessant complaining about the physical inaccuracies of Road Runner cartoons. I grew out to it, eventually. Or at least learnt to kept my over thinking of animations to myself.

So this book is not about picking holes in movies. Although that is fun … OK, let’s do that a little and get it out of the the way now.

First off spaceships don’t need wings. Without an atmosphere the protrusions are merely decorative. And without any atmosphere there’s no need for them to bank as they turn in the vacuum of space. Plus there is precious little resistance to movement, which means that spacecraft need just as much power to slow down as they did to accelerate (which get’s handly overlooked in the movies). And why do starships always have the same orientation when they meet in space?

Lasers beams — You can’t see them from the side, unless there is something around to scatter the light — see if you can spot the beam next time you use a laser pointer. And whilst we are on the subject, laser beams don’t make ‘puchu puchu’ noises (and even if they did you won’t hear them, at least Alien got that right. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream).

Armour is no good in a crash — It doesn’t matter how much super hard material a superhero encases himself in (we’re looking at you Iron Man), you’re still going to turn to mush when spectacularly crashing into a building. What you really want is something that slows you down gently. That’s why, in the event of a collision, we like cars with airbags and crumple zones, instead of ones constructed from inflexible titanium body work.

Being hit by a bullet (let alone a weightless laser beam) won’t throw you backwards. A 9mm slug, fired from a handgun, has about the same momentum as a water balloon thrown by a child, whilst a football kicked by a professional can easily have 4–5 times the momentum of a bullet. And from my experience water fights rarely result in people getting knocked off their feet by a balloon impact, and footballers loosing their footing is more often the result of their special ability to trip over blades of grass.

All great examples of reality being suspended for the sake of drama. And we’re cool with that, because in a good movie the impossible is allowed, but the improbable isn’t (to paraphrase Aristotle with modern parlance)[1]. So we are fine with faster than light travel, fiery explosions in space (no oxygen = no fire), and laser sound effects. However indestructible metals, webslinging humans and invisibility leave us pondering how science might explain them.

So this book is about trying to suspend the improbable. It is about the ‘missing’ scenes (and science) that could be in movies and comics if what actually gets shown to use on the silver (of flat) screen had any basis in reality. Basically if we accept what we see in the movies what else must be true?
Now I could have taken a typical solitary, leisurely approach to penning this book, holed up in an office writing over months and year. But if I’ve learnt anything from superhero flicks it’s that all the best stories have teams: Give me X-men, The Justice League and the Fantastic Four over the lonely Spiderman or Batman any day. Secondly, faster is better. You never hear of a hero travelling slower than a plodding tortoise or proclaiming to be the most ponderous man alive.

No, a book about heroes needs a more rapid fire, heroic approach. Which is why I assembled a league of extraordinary scientists and set them the Herculean task of writing this book in just 36 hours. Plonked in the middle of the Manchester Science Festival and Salford University’s Science Jam, in a blur of flying fingers worthy of the Flash we cranked out over 200 pages delving into all the nitty gritty science that fascinates us but seems to have been overlooked by movie makers.

Onwards then to some of the most important questions in science. How do heroes handle big data, why did mutant super powers evolve, how might super soldiers be engineered, and just what do superheroes have for breakfast?

But before we get to that, one more thing. Scientist love to categorise things; elements go into periods and groups on a table, life get kingdoms, families and species, matter comes in phases and it goes on. We have a need to take an object or concept and give it a nice neat point on a diagram. And so inevitably, during our frenetic weekend of typing (punctuated with regular trips down rabbit holes — comics strips out of context caused much mirth, google it) a means of charting superpowers emerged. The super hero, intrinsic, extrinsic, location diagram (otherwise known as The SHEILD) also turned out to be a rather neat alternative to the conventional contents page.

Finally, a special thanks to Andy Brunning of Compound Interest fame, for the wonderful infographics that run throughout the book.

 

Image Credit: Andy Brunning

By October 5, 2017 2 comments fun

Twitter Brain’s Chemistry Novel (and other book) recommendations

I’ve been looking for an easy to read book (fiction or non-fiction) to send out to chemistry students before they arrive at Uni. The plan is to have all our first years read the same book before they arrive. With any luck it will give them something to chat about and give our first few lectures a point of reference.

So I asked the twitter brain for its chemistry book recommendations, and here’s what it came up with.

  1. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium Anyone say Greg Benford’s Timescape? More physics but includes NMR, time travel, eco-disaster, and academics.
  2. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium I can recommend an author… Peter Watts.. his first series is chock full of science goodness including chemistry
  3. @sci_ents we’re partial to this one: ht.ly/mrHGn Short stories about a deadly assassin who uses a different poison for each kill
  4. @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents My friend told me to read “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean. I just checked it out from the library!
  5. @Sci_ents I enjoyed ‘The Girls of Atomic City.” It tells the story of the nuclear bomb development from the “blue collar” people working…
  6. @simonbayly @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld It was Mr Levi whom inspired me onto the chemical trail at age 14. Highly recommended reading.
  7. @BytesizeScience @Sci_ents Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” is a Classical example, but highly metaphorical. Downhill from there.
  8. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Mr Tompkins by George Gamow
  9. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld The Periodic Table by Primo Levi isn’t a novel exactly, but it is one of the best books ever.
  10. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents not sure if this counts but “cat’s cradle” by Vonnegut has some nice ideas en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice-nine
  11. @Sci_ents Interesting physics and chemistry in Reflex by Dick Francis. Not exactly concepts though, more application.
  12. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld not really a novel but The Periodic Kingdom by P W Atkins is a great read
  13. @Sci_ents The Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers. Not much chemistry until the clincher which is chemical concept. (DM for spoiler)
  14. @Sci_ents When I was undergrad, one grad inorg cume at WUSTL included question, “Who killed Missy Moonbeam in The Delta Star?”
  15. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld
    Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
  16. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Susan Gaines’ Carbon Dreams?
  17. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld – Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, Penny Le Couteur
  18. @Sci_ents Not exactly fitting the criteria but Primo Levi’s Periodic Table comes to mind
  19. @Sci_ents Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primo_Levi some named as best science novel ever
  20. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld or cat’s cradle if gravity’s rainbow is too much of a slogger
  21. @Sci_ents Emm short answer no. Long shot- Dune. Spice as a drug, water harvesting and terraforming. Best I can do ad hoc
  22. @Sci_ents A Whiff of Death (I. Asimov) — murder mystery set in Chemistry department… The Delta Star (J. Wambaugh) — similar plot.
  23. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld gravity’s rainbow, imopolex g

 

Did we miss any?

The Wonderful Life of Elements

The Wonderful Life of Elements may just be the most beautiful chemistry book I’ve read in, well, ever.

For anyone with even a sniff of an interest in chemistry Bunpei Yorifuji has created a book of pure joy. And for those who have only ever held a chemistry text  by accident this book may just grab their attention long enough to show them what the rest of us see in the subject.

First up you are treated to a lovely introduction to chemistry and its relevance, including illustrations of the elemental composition of the Universe, the Sun, the Earth and your living room. But this is just the B-movie, because the main event is the wonderful personifications of the elements. 

Each of the 118 elements are beautifully drawn with features that relate to their characteristics: Gases are wispy and ghost like, the liquids’ legs are flowing away and solids are bipeds. Whilst the newly discovered elements are depicted as babies and those with a longer history are old and bearded.

Each element has a page or two of additional cartoons that describe it  uses and other characteristics. All of which make for a fascinating collection of drawings.

Then to cap it all off there’s a equally lovely poster of the periodic table.

The Wonderful Life of Elements is available from Amazon, but I’d urge you to pay a little more and get it directly from the publisher, No Starch , that way you get an electronic copy in your email box whilst you wait for the hardcopy to arrive.

By September 23, 2012 2 comments chemical education, general chemistry