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What the smartest people in comic books have to teach us

The link between scientists and superheroes is immediately obvious, just think about how many superheroes got their starts in freak laboratory accidents. But scientists are at the heart of the superhero genre, and they do much more than falling in vats of radioactive matter. Comic book scientists not only shape superheroes, they shape their readers too. They’ve inspired us to accomplish wonders, warned us of the perils of pride, saved the day once or twice, and even inspired real scientists to invent the extraordinary.


Predictive Policing

In Civil War II, Captain Marvel and Iron Man are currently duking it out over Ulysses Cain, an inhuman who can see crimes before they happen. The LAPD have been using sophisticated algorithms to forecast how crime waves will spread, and ‘predict’ future crimes. It’s not quite seeing the future, but it‘s pretty damn cool.

Universal Translation

Always at the cutting edge of comic tech, the Fantastic 4 created a universal translator. We’re not so far from universal translation; Google Translate is powered by a technique called ‘deep learning’, which teaches systems to teach themselves. Google may not be able to translate alien languages like F4, but its translation techniques are expanding every day.

Flying Suits

Believe it or not, actual jetpacks already exist. The ‘JB-9’, for instance, still works 10,000 feet in the air. Hoverboards also exist- the Flyboard is a ‘jetpack/hoverboard’ hybrid which can run for over 2,200 feet. Although neither are available to average Joes at the moment, it’s entirely plausible our grandkids will be able to fly!


Last year, researchers from the University of Washington successfully executed brain-to-brain communication, playing a ‘guessing game’ where participants transmitted the answers from their brains to their partners’ brains. We’re closer than you think to becoming ‘telepaths’ like Jean Grey and Professor X!

Sentient Robots

Artificial intelligence is already among us; millions of people everyday use Siri, and self-driving cars are already a reality. Sentient robots, however- categorized as ‘generalized artificial intelligence’- is still a little way off. No need to worry about robots taking over just yet!

After nearly 80 years of superhero comics, we have to ask ourselves: what really makes our heroes super? Is it the powers they are born with (or have thrust open them), or the knowledge they acquire over the course of their lives? Batman v Superman itself was a (long)  battle of faith vs. science, and we eagerly queued up so see who would win this age-old fight. The answer one! Whilst origin stories for our super-powered heroes are a dime a dozen, much less is written about what makes the brain-boxes of comics tick. Yet, their role is just as integral as their super-powered counterparts — without their gadgetry, battle strategy and quick-thinking, many of our favorite heroes would be toast. To celebrate our favorite science geek's accomplishments, here are 8 times that prove when gadgets go right, science can really save the day.

For starters, let's head on over to CW's The Flash. Team Flash are the kids that are brave enough to save the world, but nice enough to explain how the internet works to your grandma. Season 1's "The Sound and the Fury" focussed on ex-employee Hartley Rathaway. Under the alias of Pied Piper, Rathaway was your typical geek with a grudge, who took on Allen with a pair of sonic gauntlets. Naturally, Pied Piper had his ass handed to him and spent a night in the cells at S.T.A.R. labs. However, in the old 'flip-a-roo', it turned out Hartley wanted to be captured, and soon escaped with a head full of Team Flash secrets. Showdown No.2 took place at the Goldeneye-esque setting of a dam, where it looked like curtains for Barry when he proved to be no match for Rathaway's sonic gloves. 

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While science is often a force for good in comics, you have to admit; there are a whole lot of mad scientists out there! Ranging from would-be world conquerors like Doctor Doom to men and women who simply don't believe science should be held in check, comics have often given a very negative vision of science. In doing so, they've held a mirror to our own human nature - revealing the truth about the world in which we live, and presenting the same scientific dilemmas that our society must also face. Comic book writers are seldom scientists; as a result, the science you see in comics is often suspect. The greatest scientists are portrayed as only one step removed from magicians (and in Doctor Doom's case, the concepts of science and sorcery are merged). 

When the super-scientists trouble themselves to explain their impossible inventions, we get a stream of technobabble that nobody can understand. It's often mocked by a witty superhero responding, "And in English?" Here's the catch. As scientific knowledge expands at an infinite rate, the science of the real world is becoming increasingly incomprehensible to all but the most educated specialists. What's more, this 'science beyond belief' shapes our everyday lives to an amazing extent. Do you realize that your mobile phone has more power than the computer that calculated how to land on the Moon? Do you understand the algorithms that drive your Facebook newsfeed, or that shape your search results - and subtly guide your knowledge as a result?

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Representation matters. It’s a sentiment uttered regularly in reference to everything from movies to television, from books to video games. When we talk about representation for young girls, we do so with the hope that these mediums will challenge the stereotypes that paint women as inferior or two-dimensional, and graduate on to something a little more representative. Doctors, geneticists and psychologists are but a few of the professions of the smartest and most intelligent female characters featured in Marvel & DC Comics. These characters go a long way towards giving young girls a sense of pride, and the courage to pursue dreams which are so often stigmatised for women. DC's first female African-American superhero, Bumblebee, made her debut in DC Comics in 1976.

She became the superhero Bumblebee and joined the Teen Titans a year later. With the ability to fire sonic blasts and produce bee-like stings, Karen Beecher's introduction into DC comics was a monumental one. For the growing number of people of colour reading and buying comics, seeing Bumblebee in action was important. Having her as a main character — and member of the Teen Titans — provided an examplary character to aspire to for African-American girls everywhere. In 1963, Marvel Comics introduced the character of Wasp, a.k.a. Janet van Dyne. A founding member of the Avengers, Janet started off as merely the daughter of a highly intelligent scientist.

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