Post Tagged with: "Science"

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

When practical jokes and chemistry don’t mix.

I’m all for making chemistry accessible to all, heck I even write another blog on the subject. So I’m generally pretty pleased to see chemistry in the main stream media and large blogs.  But this time a large science/tech blog, Gizmodo, has gone too far.

Yesterday Gizmodo published a guest post called “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours” from William Gurstelle.  Well that already sounds pretty sinister to me, but hey it’s almost Halloween, so maybe the post describes a few harmless pranks for a party, glow in the dark jelly perhaps?

But oh no, William Gurstelle has got grander ideas. Amongst other things he’s suggesting that you spike drinks with methylene blue! The result is that your party guests will starting peeing blue. Oh how we laughed on the way to the emergency room when the methylene blue cross reacted with some other medication causing serious damage to the central nervous system!  Granted Gurstelle does state “For the vast majority of people a tiny dose of methylene blue is harmless”. But I wonder how he knows which of his guests are going to just pee blue and which ones might end up in hospital after his little prank?

Gurstelle’s other suggestions aren’t any better. Spraying a mixture of ammonia and match heads around seems eminently stupid to me.

I can’t believe how astonishingly irresponsible Gizmodo has been in publishing this. They have a pretty big audience (with 1/2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and a similar number of twitter followers), and so there is a pretty good chance someone will try and follow their instructions with potentially disastrous consequences.



I have sent an email to the editors Gizmodo expressing concerns. I’ll let you know of any response:

Dear Editor,
I would like to express my deep concern  about your article “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours”.  I feel that condoning the practical jokes described in the article is extremely irresponsible. Maybe you aren’t aware of the potential on consequences of some of these jokes, so let me help you.

Methylene blue is used to treat a number of medical conditions. And like any drug treatments it can interact with other pharmaceuticals resulting in serious side effects. In the case of methylene blue it should NEVER be taken with certain psychiatric medication because it can cause serious damage to the central nervous system.  This is spelled out here .

You should note that this FDA article specifically states that Prozac reacts with methylene blue. In the US about 25 million people are prescribed Prozac annually, that accounts for about 10% of the adult population. So there is a very good chance that someone who has had a drink  been spiked with methylene blue will have an adverse effect.

The rest of the article is equally irresponsible. For example , squirting ammonia around could easily result in chemical burns to peoples’ eyes.

These are not just my concerns, comments on your article, your facebook page, twitter and reddit  make it clear that many people are very worried about your article.

Please do the responsible thing and take the article down.

I will post this email and your response on



Update: Read other peoples’ reaction to Gizmodo’s lunacy here & here .

& the Royal Society of Chemistry have joined the condemnation of Gizmodo.


By October 27, 2012 2 comments chemical safety, opinion

Why do grapes and microwaves = plasma?

If you:

  1. Take a grape
  2. Cut it equatorially, but just leave a bit of skin connecting the two hemispheres.
  3. Dry the new surfaces with a paper towel.
  4. Stick the grape in a microwave oven.
  5. Turn it on.

You get flashes of plasma emerging from the grapes. Like this…

But why does this happen? There are plenty of attempts to explain it all over the net e.g. here, here and here. But none of the explanations quite satisfy me. And what causes this plume when you put a glass over the grapes?

I’ve tried a few variations on the method. For example, you don’t have to leave the skin bridge as long as the two hemispheres are touching. Cutting the grapes longitudinally doesn’t seem to work. And I’ve never managed to get the addition of the glass to make a difference.

Anybody got a good explanation or further refinements?


p.s. The grapes get very hot and don’t do this in a microwave oven that you are particularly attached too.

By July 9, 2012 9 comments fun

The Source Code Debate

Few researchers were using computers 30 years ago.  This quickly changed with the release of several commercially viable personal computers in the 1980s. Since then, processing power has increased and the cost of computers decreased at an exponential rate (see Moore’s Law).

It’s no surprise that computers are now pivotal in chemistry research. We use them in a wide range of calculations – from determining the 40th decimal place of the absolute energy of He to modeling the release and distribution of toxic chemicals in river basins. The software used to address these complex problems is becoming increasingly accessible and easy to use too. There are already a variety of cell phone apps for chemistry related problem solving.

Yet, while the prevalence of software and computer-based research continues to grow, the rules for publishing results and sharing software lags behind. The magical/miracle nature of black-box calculations is disconcerting to individuals that want to know how the answers were obtained (see Sidney Harris cartoon).  A palpable concern is growing in the scientific community around the sharing of software – and the foundational source code -necessary to reproduce published results. Two recent opinion pieces, one in Science titled, “Shining Light into Black Boxes” and the other in Nature titled, “The case for open computer programs” are trying to bring attention to this issue. The articles discuss the advantages and apprehensions of sharing, as well as suggest possible changes. Below is a summary of the points raised by the authors of the two articles – as well as the thoughts others (including myself).

Advantages to sharing software and source code:

  • Reproducibility: As stated by Ince et. al., “The vagaries of hardware, software and natural-language will always ensure that exact reproducibility remains uncertain…” without the release of source code in its entirety.
  • Catching errors: A simple mistake in converting units, assigning missing values as zero, rounding errors, or a misplaced decimal point, can wildly skew outcomes (see Office Space). We can only see and correct errors if we can see the source code.
  • Facilitating progress: All publications require that data, equations, materials, methods, and instrumentation are disclosed so that the results can be tested and furthered by others. We are all better served when source code is disseminated in a similar manner so that programs can be studied and repurposed in future research.
  • Teaching tools: Real, applied examples – that are relevant to research – are useful for new students and researchers learning to program and develop code.
  • Openness: Despite the competition to acquire funding and to publish first, we are all joined in the endeavor of understanding the rules that govern the universe. The open sharing of information has been and will continue to be the foundation of scientific progress.
  • Relying on faith: No matter how prolific or respected you are as a researcher, the implicit assertion, “Trust me, the program works the way I say it does” is not an acceptable means of justifying your results. On a fundamental philosophical level, black box justifications like that should be socially unacceptable in the sciences.

Apprehensions against sharing software and source code:

By May 4, 2012 7 comments science policy