‘Superhero physics’ aims to get young into science

Aston researchers calculate the tensile forces at work when Spider-Man prevents a ship from splitting in two

March 17, 2018
Young spiderman

Pupils develop an interest in science by being “encouraged to think about how they could do amazing things”, said Kate Sugden, an associate dean for enterprise at Aston University.

Even 50 years ago, she added, many of the “amazing things” that we now take for granted would have been “considered as superpowers”. For this year’s Big Bang Fair, the UK’s largest annual celebration of science and technology for young people, therefore, Aston decided to deconstruct the physics, maths and engineering behind some recent Marvel and DC films.

Sotos Generalis, a reader in mathematics who specialises in fluid dynamics and turbulence, calculated the power that Iron Man would need for his reactor rays to melt through steel plates (answer: enough to provide electricity to two million homes for two hours). He analysed the power of the Hulk’s punch, the tensile forces at work when Spider-Man prevents a ship from splitting in two, what it would take for Hela to destroy Thor’s hammer, and the leg strength that Wonder Woman would need to propel herself to the height of a church steeple. The results are presented in easily accessible visual form at Aston’s stand at the Big Bang, which continues at Birmingham’s NEC until 17 March.

Some of these calculations, according to Dr Sugden, were at a level “people doing A level maths would be able to understand. They would be able to understand the concepts of the rest, but not necessarily the mathematical processes behind them. By putting it in plain English, you enable them to follow what is happening and why it is important.”

“However unlikely it may seem,” explained Dr Generalis, “these Hollywood blockbusters boast a rich tapestry of fascinating scientific processes that can not only provide a useful entry point for young people to grow their sense of wonder and interest in the subject, but equally as a means of helping [them to] understand more complex areas of the field that are effectively already taught at universities all over the UK”.

Such films, he went on, had great potential as “a vehicle for engaging students in STEM”.

He seems to be on to something. A survey of 1,000 British people aged seven to 19, carried out for the Big Bang, indicated that 65 per cent of them would consider applying for a specialist undergraduate degree in “superhero physics” in the unlikely event of a university ever deciding to offer one.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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