Since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of cartoons and comic books, kids have imagined themselves with superpowers. "Wonder twin powers, activate!" As they grow older, the dreams of flying or talking to animals or being invisible largely fade away.
We've always been fascinated by the idea of these extraordinary abilities. In ancient cultures, mythical beings often possessed special powers, which set them apart from mortal men. If Zeus zinging a lightning bolt in displeasure wasn't a display of a superpower, then what was?
It's human nature to pursue the aspects of folklore (or cartoons) that we find most intriguing and to make them realities. It's also one of the ways that the arts and sciences interact with one another. Imaginative minds come up with ideas like invisibility cloaks, and scientific minds follow through by inventing them.
Should you ever decide you want to experience what it feels like to have superpowers, depending on your expectations, you may be disappointed by the current available options. For instance, science hasn't yet found ways to achieve time travel, teleportation or immortality. But they are working on it.
However, if you set the bar a little lower, you might be pleasantly surprised at the powers science has already bestowed upon us mere mortals. Keep reading to learn about five of them.
"You make a better wall than a window." Remember that old saying? It was something you'd spout off to someone while he or she was obstructing your view of whatever it was that you were trying to see. Several optics companies are rendering the expression obsolete.
For example, Camero's Xaver 800 product uses microwave radar to penetrate walls and project 3-D imaging of whatever's hiding behind those walls. According to the company, regular old drywall, clay brick, cinder block and even rebar-reinforced concrete structures, among others, are no match for the Xaver 800; although just like Superman had his kryptonite, the device can't see through solid, continuous metal.
When in use, the device takes up an area of about 33 by 33 by 6 inches (84 by 84 by 15 centimeters) and weighs close to 33 pounds (15 kilograms) [source: Camero].
Other companies are also getting into the X-ray vision business. Physical Optics Corporation offers a hand-held device called LEXID, which can reveal contraband hidden behind walls, in cars and in other containers [source: Physical Optics Corporation].
And for sidekicks, there are similar gadgets like ThruVision's T5000 people screener, which can detect when someone's concealing weapons without revealing intimate details about a person's body [source: ThruVision Systems].
These companies mostly design their products for use in law enforcement, military, fire and rescue, and security applications. You can see how they might come in handy, say, if someone's been taken hostage and negotiators are working to end the standoff safely. That seems like an activity befitting of a superhero.
Next we'll find out how to elude evil forces.
Although most of us are boringly bound by the force of gravity, evolution has helped some critters, like the gecko (and Spider-Man), circumvent that force. In order to ensure their survival, these animals garnered the ability to stick effortlessly to most walls and ceilings without leaving behind a sticky residue [source: NanoRobotics].
Scientists have been working to develop a synthetic adhesive that mimics the gecko's special dry stickiness for years, and such an invention is very close to becoming a reality, thanks to a new method of using plastic to create similar microscopic structures [source: Voshart].
In all likelihood, space will be the first destination for the new dry adhesives. Currently, the idea is that the technology will assist robots in the exploration of the final frontier, however, it's entirely plausible that the same principles could eventually be applied to replace everyday adhesives to which people have grown accustomed [sources: Voshart, Yang]. Goodbye, sticky tape. Hello, sticky feet.
Not that you should say goodbye to your beloved tape anytime soon. The design hasn't been perfected yet, and one of the problems currently hampering development is that in some cases, the adhesive is too sticky, making it difficult to remove once applied. So this superpower is still in the works.
The human body can be conditioned to endure extreme environments, but some situations call for strength above and beyond our natural abilities. On the battlefield, soldiers need to carry heavy loads over extended periods and through harsh terrains. So to push the limits of physical exertion, scientists have developed a way to let technology bear some of that burden.
Berkley Bionics and Lockheed Martin's Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) exoskeletons are an example of such innovation. HULC, through its titanium legs, does for human skeletons on the outside what adamantium did for Wolverine's skeleton on the inside, turning its wearer into one tough customer.
Its titanium legs are mounted to a backpacklike frame, which houses a power unit and a small on-board microcomputer. One of HULC's most impressive features is the fact that it requires no joystick or manual control mechanism. Not unlike Iron Man's famous suit, the device can sense the operator's intended movements, and it reacts accordingly.
To minimize the strain borne by the user, its design uses hydraulics, which make the deep squats and heavy upper-body lifting seem as easy as the blink of an eye [source: Lockheed Martin]. Right now, its applications are specifically military-minded, but the defense giant is exploring options for its use in industrial and medical capacities [source: Berkeley Bionics].
It's unlikely that you'll ever be faster than a speeding bullet on your own. But if there were an invention that could actually sense when an incoming round was on its way to meet you, well, that would be something. And if such a device could also compel you to dive out of harm's way, it would surely be ranked among the most awesome science-borne superpowers.
IBM filed a patent for Bionic Body Armor, which would accomplish such tasks, in early 2009 [source: Anderson]. The device would have induced a shock to the wearer that would in turn cause reflexive movements in the opposite direction of a threatening projectile. Unfortunately, IBM pulled the patent in February of the same year [source: Anderson].
Never fear though. Smart armor is still being developed in the form of liquid body armor. One version uses magnetorheological fluids (MFs), which thicken when exposed to a magnetic field, and another uses shear-thickening fluids (STFs), which harden when agitated or struck forcefully by an object.
As these forms of armor become more refined, they will certainly change the landscape of war. And while they haven't been perfected yet, their value in terms of lives saved and casualties prevented will be immeasurable. That's why smart armor will grant users with one of the most awesome superpowers of all.
Ready for the last one?
Part of what separates human beings from other animals is our propensity to change our environment to accommodate our needs. But some things elude our direct control, and weather is one of them, unless you're Storm from the X-Men. And who doesn't want to be? After all, how cool would it be to summon a sunny day at a moment's notice? Or generate a blizzard on a whim?
If only we had the Storm's superpower of weather manipulation, we might even be able to work out global warming. Think of it. Not only could we cool down the planet, we could also end droughts, and sports fans would never be forced to endure another frustrating rain delay again.
Although it's a far cry from Storm's excellent mutant abilities, scientists do have one technique up their sleeve for manipulating the weather: cloud seeding.
Cloud seeding can trace its roots back to the United States in the 1940s. Today, it's used to increase precipitation, disperse clouds and fog, and suppress hail [source: NAWC]. Depending on the environment and objectives, chemicals can be shot up from the ground or released mid-air, and there are a variety of cloud-seeding agents including silver iodide, salt, and ammonium nitrate [source: NAWC].
The Weather Modification Association issued a statement in July 2009 saying that cloud seeding with silver iodide doesn't harm the environment and furthermore, studies have proven the process to increase precipitation up to 30 percent in some cases [source: WMA]. With the ability to sometimes manipulate the weather, scientists are gaining on superheroes, but they still have a long way to fly.
Keep reading for more links you might like on superheroes and science fiction.
Animal testing has a long, gruesome history, but it's also saved countless human lives. Learn more about animal testing at HowStuffWorks.
- Anderson, James. "IBM Files Patent for Bullet Dodging Bionic Body Armor." Feb. 13, 2009. (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://techfragments.com/news/438/Science/IBM_Files_Patent_for_Bullet_Dodging_Bionic_Body_Armor.html
- Berkeley Bionics. (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.berkeleybionics.com/
- Camero. "Xaver 800 FAQ." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.camero-tech.com/faq.shtml
- Lockheed Martin. "HULC." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.lockheedmartin.com/products/hulc/index.html
- NanoRobotics Lab. "Gecko Hair Manufacturing." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://nanolab.me.cmu.edu/projects/geckohair/
- North American Weather Consultants Inc. (NAWC). "Cloud Seeding Frequently Asked Questions." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.nawcinc.com/wmfaq.html
- Physical Optics Corporation. "LEXID® - Handheld X-ray Imaging Device." (Accessed Nov. 12, 2009)http://www.poc.com/emerging_products/lexid/default.asp
- Theoi Greek Mythology. "Encyclopedia of Greek Gods, Spirits, Monsters." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.theoi.com/Encyc_A.html
- ThruVision Systems. "The features of the T5000." (Accessed Nov. 12, 2009)http://www.thruvision.com/Our_Products/T5000_Sub_Pages/T5000_Features.htm
- Voshart, André. "Gecko-inspired dry adhesive planned for space." April 9, 2009. (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.canadianmanufacturing.com/designengineering/features/designapplications/article.jsp?content=20090409_142905_4824&page=1
- Voshart, André. "Gecko-inspired dry adhesive planned for space." April 9, 2009. (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.canadianmanufacturing.com/designengineering/features/designapplications/article.jsp?content=20090409_142905_4824&page=2
- Weather Modification Association. "POSITION STATEMENT ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF USING SILVER IODIDE AS A CLOUD SEEDING AGENT." July 2009. (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://www.weathermodification.org/AGI_toxicity.pdf
- Wilson, Tracy. "How Liquid Body Armor Works." (Accessed Nov. 6, 2009)http://science.howstuffworks.com/liquid-body-armor1.htm
- Yang, Sarah. "Engineers create new adhesive that mimics gecko toe hairs." January 29, 2008. (Accessed November 6, 2009)http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2008/01/29_gecko.shtml