What purpose does a cape serve in a superhero’s wardrobe? Usually nothing except fashion.
In Batman Begins however, we are shown that a cape can do more than make you look like a cheap magician. Bruce Wayne uses some fancy materials called memory cloth to turn his cape from a floppy fashion accessory into a stiff glider with the application of an electric charge. I’m sure the gritty nature of this movie required the writers to throw this in to justify giving the Dark Knight what would otherwise look like a frivolous ornament.
But even worse than looking silly, a cape can be deadly! One of the greatest scenes from The Incredibles where Edna talks about the unfortunate costume designs of doomed supers, AKA “No capes!”
Even Watchmen hits on this theme when it shows the violent demise of Dollar Bill after he gets stuck in a revolving door.
So how could you balance the utility with the inconvenience of a long flowy piece of fabric? Fold it up when you don’t need it! Nature is full of examples of reversible folding. When leaves appear in the spring, they don’t just grow very quickly. They are fully formed in the bud, and then unfurl all at once when the timing is right.
Mathematicians, physicists, and engineers have started noticing these intricate packaging patterns in biological materials and trying to apply them to their own work. The Japanese art of origami has had a resurgence not just among artists, but also scientists as a way to discover new folds and test designs. One cool application of origami-science has been realized in the deployment of solar panels for space vessels.
And I think the greatest thing we’ve gotten out of studying folding is figuring out how to make it easy and reversible! Umbrellas partially demonstrate this idea since they have two stable states and always fold and unfold in the same predictable pattern, but they need quite a bit of force to transition. The people in this video demonstrate how easy it is to fold and unfold a design named the Miura-ori. The most important part is that we’re going between something map-sized and something that will fit in your pocket in a matter of seconds.
Insects are masters of reversible folding with their wings. Beetles are one of the best examples because they need to transition between flying and walking so frequently. When they walk on the ground, they risk their wings getting caught or damaged, so they tuck them neatly under a protective shell until they need to fly again.
And this is exactly the mechanism I propose for superheroes that actually use capes for flight or protection! Fold it up, and then deploy it on demand. This, by the way, is most of the premise of the short-lived NBC series The Cape.
Heroes could possibly even keep their entire costume folded up for a speedy wardrobe change during a crisis. Peter Parker’s backpack could unfurl into Spidey-spandex, or Superman could carry around his own collapsible phone booth for privacy on the go. These are kind of silly examples, but think of all the other ways you could make life easier with simple repeatable folding patterns. Sky divers need professionals to pack up their parachutes correctly, but what if it was designed so you could fold it yourself? A pop-up tent that fits in a small bag would be great for long hikes, or getting emergency shelters to disaster-stricken areas quickly and efficiently. Strollers and all of those other baby furniture accessories could definitely be improved if they could be packed into the car that much faster. Problem-solving by paper-folding!
Swarm robotics is a growing field of engineering that focuses on getting many small robots to work together. Much of the simple reasoning each robot uses and the rules for group coordination are modeled after superorganisms like bee colonies or flocks of birds. These animals are able to combine the efforts of hundreds of individuals towards a single task, without getting in anyone’s way or using telepathy.
And although robotic technicians keep assuring me that they have noble goals for their work that will help humanity, I can’t help but keep picturing a supervillain with an army of tiny autonomous robots at his or her disposal...
Some swarm-y villains include Marvel’s Gah Lak Tus. The original world-devourer Galactus was a giant individual, but this new generation version is a collection of robots that invades planets.
There’s another Marvel villain known as The Swarm, but he’s made up of actual bees, not bee-like robots.
I had a surprisingly difficult time finding any more comic examples of such villainy with a cursory Google search, but there are lots of robot swarms to be found elsewhere in pop culture. One famous example is Michael Crichton’s novel Prey about self-replicating nanorobots that take over the world in a sinister mass of "grey goo".
Many of the reasons robot swarms would be helpful to us are also tools that could be used for evil. Small autonomous robots are invaluable in being able to enter unstable or radioactive buildings to gather information, find trapped people, or bring back samples. On the other hand, the same idea could be used for a nefarious purposes to map out the defenses and terrain of the next place to be invaded. There is an episode of The X-Files about robotic cockroaches of alien origin looking for sources of methane they can harvest should their creators choose to visit.
The Cybermen from Doctor Who run a similar gambit in ”Closing Time” when they release silver rat-like Cybermats to scout out power sources and siphon electricity to the ship they’re trying to repair.
The Cybermen themselves bear some resemblances to eusocial insects in that they all work together and follow one supreme CyberKing or CyberQueen for the communal success of their species. Cybermen come into being by assimilating real living people into robot suits and altering their brains to be more obedient and without emotions. Another famous race of robot hybrids that enjoy assimilating their foes (as famous as sci-fi TV shows get anyway) are the Borg from Star Trek:
The Borg also demonstrates a collective conscious know in sci-fi as a hive mind, and the term, of course, originates from the seemingly telepathic qualities of bee hives. If there are any real nerds reading this blog, they're starting to question my logic. However, we're straying a little off topic since the Borg is a group of human-machine cyborgs, not purely robotic swarms. But one of the tools they use to assimilate others is a swarm of tiny robots! They inject these nanites into the bloodstreams of the person they are converting. The nanites rebuild the person from the inside out with new mechanical parts.
This is actually one of the goals of swarm robotics: to create nanorobots that could diagnose and medically treat a patient from the inside. I'm hoping by then though that our technology allows us to create much friendlier-looking robots like the nanites from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
We use rules that we know about swarm behavior to design robot protocols. Trying to program 20 robots to follow centralized commands would take too much time and computer power, but you can get the same group results by just telling each robot how close it should be to its neighbors and who to follow. This TED talk goes in depth in showing how they got tiny robocopters to play nicely with one another. It’s long, but make sure you at least watch the great clips at the end showing cool flight formations and a music video!
Those robots were quadcopters, the only bioinspiration involved was in creating the cooperative behavior. Many scientists and engineers are working on more biomimetic, flapping flying robots, but insects' wing maneuvers are so complicated that it's not going to happen overnight. Here's some of the progress that has been made on a microaerial vehicle (MAV) at Harvard:
Swarm robotics is a new enough field that it is a two-way street between the science and the actual engineering. We’re still figuring out how individual ants or bees make decisions, and one way to explore that is by building robot models that mimic insect behavior. In some recent research, investigators were trying to determine if ants used complicated angular math to figure out what the most efficient route is to take, but it turns out they just followed each other and didn’t need the math at all. Here’s avideo of little robots following the light trails that other robots create (similar to ants laying a chemical trail for its nestmates).
By mapping out the efficiency of the communication among superorganisms, engineers can design better traffic patterns to avoid traffic jams and collisions. It’s also an idea that will get us one step closer to self-driving cars, which I personally look forward to.
After all this you might start feeling a little concerned about your safety and privacy in an increasingly robot-filled world. Drones fly through the air spying on you, there are robotic flies on the wall watching your every move, and soon even your car may turn on you! Don't worry though, I'm sure the water is still safe. ...Right?
Yes folks, it’s the post you’ve been waiting for at long last!
Spider-man was my first inspiration for making this blog because he’s such an obvious model for biomimetics. I had heard long ago that scientists were trying to harness the strength of spider silk for commercial production of bullet proof vests and other materials, and even longer before that everyone who read Marvel comics knew Peter Parker had already achieved that feat.
Those of you more familiar with the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man franchise (2002-2007) might be questioning my choice of phrase. “But he was just a genetic mutant that created spider silk through a freak accident, he didn’t engineer anything!” In the original comic story, and recreated in the 2012 movie The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker designs and manufactures his own synthetic web shooters. He IS a physics prodigy after all, he might as well put that genius to work!
My first forays into researching spider silk on the web (all puns intended) taught me that this product is FAR more complicated than I had first imagined.
First I thought, “Why not just domesticate spiders for mass silk production? That makes sense.” When humans decided we liked meat and milk, we fattened up a bunch of docile cows and concentrated them in a small area. This is how we get natural silk now from silkworms, the only domesticated insect.
So let’s grab a bunch of spiders, put them in a room with enough insects to keep them happily fed, then sit back and reel in the silk.
Well that’s not going to work out. Spiders are territorial and aggressive first of all, and secondly there’s a reason humans almost never domesticate carnivorous animals. It takes too much effort on its own to feed them, and when they get hungry they can eat each other!
There have been examples of people harvesting enough silk straight from spiders to make some beautiful clothing, but it takes impractical amounts of time, money, and patience. For instance, this cape was made entirely from golden orb weaver spider silk (which is naturally golden, nothing was dyed). It’s just one cape, that can’t take too long to make, right? WRONG. A whopping eight years and 1.2 million spiders were invested into this one exquisite item of clothing.
[new approach needed]
In the last few decades we have a new tool available to us to combine desirable attributes of different organisms: splicing genes! Spider silk is just made of protein, so the instructions are directly coded into the DNA. This should be an easy solution to our farming problem, cut and paste the dragline silk gene into something docile like a bacterium, goat, or silkworm. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes spider silk is composed of just protein, but it’s one really big protein. So big that the other organisms we’ve engineered can’t express the full protein before giving up. Part of the problem is that the spider silk gene is composed of a lot of repeated amino acid sequences, like having dozens of glycines in a row. Spider cells are prepared for this repetition, but other cells run out of the required tRNAs, truncating translation prematurely. We’ve made progress over the decades, but we haven’t quite gotten a domesticated animal to fully produce the desired quality and quantity of silk.
There’s also an informativeTED Talk about spider silk that covers the different varieties of silk and some of the problems we’ve run into with genetic engineering.
We already have some good substitute composites for spider silk, namely nylon and Kevlar. These materials have great resilience and strength, but the problem comes from the harsh chemicals and solvents needed for their production. The hope is that spider silk will inspire us to find a more natural, environmentally-friendly production method.
So why do we keep trying to nail down this slippery substance? Because it’s still one of the coolest materials out there! To demonstrate, remember this scene from Spider-Man 2?
Some very cool scientists went ahead and calculated if this would be possible using spider silk attached to a human-sized spool of silk. It would take 300,000N of force, and Darwin’s bark spider produces dragline silk with such a capacity for stopping trains.
Clearly, comic-based science is a growing field. Can we set up a conference for this?
Chung, H., Kim, T. Y., & Lee, S. Y. (2012). Recent advances in production of recombinant spider silk proteins. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, (0). Elsevier Ltd.
While enhanced smell capabilities have never made a hero on their own, there are a number of animal-resembling superheroes gifted with the ability of super-sniffing. Some notable examples are Sabertooth and Wolverine:
Super-smell is an admittedly weird power for some heroes to have, but it definitely comes in handy. What do you think of first when you need to camouflage yourself or be sneaky? Be quiet, stay in the dark, and generally hide yourself from being seen or heard. It doesn’t normally occur to you to disguise your scent unless you know bloodhounds are actively chasing you. So in a situation like this, having enhanced olfactory senses can really throw a wrench into someone else’s plans. Wolverine stays one step ahead of an ambush if the wind is blowing in the right direction, and he’s one of the only people who can detect Mystique through all of her shape-shifting because she can't mask her scent.
Smell is also unique in being closely connected to the memory centers of our brain. Seeing a face or hearing a particular song that reminds you of a past event can summon a level of nostalgia, but nothing to match the visceral pull you experience after catching a waft of a familiar perfume. The smell of a baking apple pie could bring back strong memories of the holidays at home, or conversely the scent of shellfish could conjure up a wave of nausea when you remember that time you got food poisoning.
Many mammals’ olfactory talents have been recognized by humans, and we’ve trained them to help us detect trace indicators. Bomb and drug sniffing dogs are probably the most familiar to you, but there are also rats that have been trained to smell tuberculosis. And let's not forget about truffle-hunting pigs snooping for delectable fungi.
There are some ideas out there of how to turn natural smell receptors into an electronic sensor for commercial application, but for now, we’re limited to training pooches to bark at suspicious luggage.
If any smell scientists out there need inspiration for their next project, I have an idea for you:
You’ve probably gathered from my posts thusfar that I’m a bit of a cinema junkie. I didn't get caught up in the 3D, high-definition craze that’s been going for the last few years because in many cases visual quality is being valued over the actual quality of the writing and acting, but I appreciate the technological push to bring us more realism in our viewing experiences. And I want us to take it a step further with smell-o-vision! I don’t know how, and I don’t know if much of the average movie-going audience would even want such a thing, but I think it would be awesome. You would feel so immersed in the scene. Directors would have another tool for creating their milieu.
And while I know most of you will not agree, it’s the unpleasant odors that are really missing from my experience. My favorite movies bring out dark, strong emotions I'm lucky enough not to feel in my daily life, and what could get that message across better than smelling the dank fumes of poverty or the acrid smoke of war. It would be an incredible resource for documentaries that really want you to feel what others are feeling. If people would rather not have unpleasant odors, pleasant and exotic new scents would also be a boon to cinephiles. Humans have a paucity of vocabulary to describe smells that have never been smelled before, so smell-o-vision could bring new fruits and flowers to life in our scent-memory. And you absolutely must have a rich collection of scents to draw on if you want to sound fancy at a wine tasting.
For those of you rolling your eyes at my weird obsession, there are good, solid, medical reasons to work on olfaction and standardizing smell experience/vocabulary. It's been found in recent years that people's sense of smell becomes impaired when they are suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. It's completely logical that senses would suffer as much as the rest of the brain's functions, but we've only just realized that a smell abilities are an effective diagnostic tool for diseases like Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and Parkinson's. Simple questions like "Does pizza smell the same as it used to?" could be physicians' first clue to the existence of a deeper problem in a patient. Just like turning up the volume on your TV is often a sign of hearing loss, having to adjust the scent projector on your smell-o-vision could be a reminder to visit your neurologist.
The first attempts at this were made in the 60s where the theatre was rigged with jets that released over 30 different odors. Audience members complained that the jets were too loud and the scent would only reach them a several minutes after the action. In more recent decades these problems were remedied with special scratch-n-sniff cards released with the movie. Easy to enjoy in your home at your own pace! I definitely remember a few TV shows and movies doing special promotions with scratch-n-sniff cards that I begged my parents to get for me. Totally worth it.
I suppose as far as biomimicry goes however, we’ll more likely be focusing on something closer the Spleen’s powers to achieve smell-projection.
Ruan, Y., Zheng, X.-Y., Zhang, H.-L., Zhu, W. and Zhu, J. (2012), Olfactory dysfunctions in neurodegenerative disorders. J. Neurosci. Res., 90: 1693–1700. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23054
Exploring the realm of biologically inspired design one superhero example at a time, with some other natural sciences mixed in.