Superhero Science

Reviews / by Erin Torneo /

New exhibit at the California Science Center explains the fundamentals behind comic book phenomena.

Marvelmainwide.jpg Credit: Leroy Hamilton. © 2006 MARVEL

It was the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles, but, when the Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition opened last week, it may as well have been Universal Studios Hollywood. A far cry from the relatively mundane 2nd grade class field trips from my childhood, this educational extravaganza reveals the real-life science behind the mythic superpowers of Marvel comic book characters.

The screaming began as soon as the hordes of school children stepped onto the elevator going up to the “Marvel Universe.” And it didn’t stop. In fact, the kids were instructed to scream like the sonically gifted Banshee when they entered an area dubbed the “Danger Room,” after the X-Men‘s training facility. Just outside, a handy chart compared the decibel levels for various sounds and the length of time the human ear can withstand them before sustaining damage—for instance, the ear can handle up to two minutes of the 110 dbs pumped out at the front row during a rock show. Interestingly, the chart didn’t measure the decibel level for the collective pitch of 10-year-olds hell-bent on shattering the anti-mutant Sentinel robot onscreen. I’d peg exposure before injury (or psychosis) to be 30 seconds, tops.

Spider-Man, thankfully, had a more tactile, rather than audible, approach. His area focused on the Van der Waals forces—intermolecular attractions that give spiders (and him) the ability to walk on walls—but the chemistry lesson was a tough sell due to the TechnoraTM swing set nearby. What youngster wants to linger by a plaque covered with technical information when he could take a ride courtesy of a synthetic fiber that mimics the strength of arachnid webs or channel his inner Spidey on a climbing wall? Meanwhile, in the X-Men’s lair, the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning—which gleefully declares, “We’re ALL mutants!”—hosts exercises in genetics, states of matter, biotechnology and magnetic fields, a nod to their chief antagonist, Magneto.

For the more cerebral visitor, the Hulk setup offers a gazebo-like structure with a brain for a roof, providing a portal into the man/monster’s head to investigate the neurological centers of rage. An added funhouse attraction is the mirrors in which one can master the seven universal expressions: anger, happiness, fear, surprise, disgust, sadness and contempt. No introduction to brain science would be complete without mentioning Phineas Gage, the 19th century man who survived a steel rod through the head, but survived only to suffer severe personality shifts due to damage to his prefrontal cortex. As I grabbed a large metal rod and steered it into the overhead gray matter, inducing Bruce Banner’s transformation into the not-so-jolly green beast, I couldn’t help but think of poor Phineas. Later, the Hulk appeared in person—alas, only an opening day treat—sending children scrambling for cover in the brain shack until they were convinced that his amygdala was in check.

From stepping into the exoskeleton machine to lift a compact SUV with the ease of the AvengersIron Man to the gallery detailing the fascinating history of Marvel comics and American culture, getting schooled in science couldn’t be more splendidly subliminal.

Originally published April 5, 2006

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