In this episode of Unfold, we mix comic book superhero action and science. No better pairing, since many of the heroes and villains in comics started out as scientists or are connected to scientists. The things they create and the materials they use can tell us a lot about the real world too — everything from physics to engineering. We’ll talk with Ricardo Castro, who teaches engineering students to think outside the box and to contemplate the unlikely, but not always impossible, real-world applications of materials science based on the powers of superheroes.

In this episode: 

Ricardo Castro, associate dean of research and graduate studies, UC Davis Department of Materials Science and Engineering 

Gary S. May, UC Davis chancellor

Audio transcriptions may contain errors.

Amy Quinton Kat, you have kids, yeah?

Kat Kerlin Two.

Amy Quinton Are they at the stage where they like all those superhero movies or read all the comic books?

Kat Kerlin They're actually more into like Harry Potter and Minecraft, but Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be a new obsession.

Amy Quinton Oh, that's a good one. It seems like every kid at some point goes through a superhero phase where all they do is put on superhero costumes or read the comic books, or nowadays watch the cartoons and movies.

Kat Kerlin For some people, that phase last decades, which is why those Marvel movies are so popular and make so much money.

Amy Quinton Yeah, you know, I know one person who still wears his Avengers T-shirt and his Dr Doom T-shirt, even though he's an adult.

Cody Drabble I would never admit to being an adult.

Kat Kerlin Hey, Cody, where did you come from?

Cody Drabble I came from another dimension. Sacramento, after the traffic.

Kat Kerlin Whoa, how did you do that with your voice? Do I get to use superpowers in this episode too?

Cody Drabble Your powers will be revealed to you when you are ready to use them?

Amy Quinton Cody Drabble is our super producer and a big-time comic book nerd. But I'm not sure if we have the budget to pull off three main characters with unique powers.

Cody Drabble Well, let's say I'm a medium time comic book nerd. I know just enough of the characters and the lore to get by, but there are definitely people out there with much deeper knowledge than me. But Amy told me that this challenge required to team up on a budget.

Amy Quinton Because let's face it, I know very little about comic book superheroes.

Kat Kerlin Well, I don't know a lot, but aren't they all pretty much the same? Someone the hero loves dies. They somehow get a superpower, usually by freak accident, and then they go save cities from bad guys.

Cody Drabble Yeah, that's pretty much how it works. And then in the sequel, they do more or less the same thing in space.

Amy Quinton Yeah, I had to watch a lot of Marvel movies and read a few comic books for this episode. Cody essentially had to school me.

Kat Kerlin Sounds like a brutal job, Amy.

Cody Drabble We had this whole training montage in the first draft of the script, but it got like cut for time and the focus group audience gave it low scores. So you just have to trust me that Amy went from zero to hero offscreen, and now she's, like, totally leveled up.

Amy Quinton Well, with great power comes great responsibility.

Kat Kerlin That sounds kind of familiar.

Cody Drabble Allow me. Spider-Man montage activate!

Spiderman montage: My uncle Ben once said with great power comes great responsibility. You forgot about your friendly neighborhood web spinner. Spider-Man. Put an ad out on the front page. Cash money for a picture of Spider-Man. I want Spider-Man.

Kat Kerlin Spider-Man got it, got it. OK, so Amy, did you come away with a favorite superhero?

Amy Quinton Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, one of the Avengers, although I also like the Black Widow. Oddly, the actress Scarlett Johansson played the Black Widow and not the Scarlet Witch. I think Marvel missed an opportunity there.

Kat Kerlin Could be. Black Widow was my daughter's favorite, too. OK, so why do you like them?

Amy Quinton Well, the Scarlet Witch can alter reality. Nothing wrong with that I say. Wish I had access to that power during the pandemic. The Black Widow is just an all-around badass, right?

Kat Kerlin Captain Marvel is a badass. She is the most powerful of like any superhero I've ever seen. Did you see that one?

Amy Quinton I did, but I wasn't that impressed. But I'm not going to get into an argument about superpowers here. You know, that might have been the movie's fault, I don't know. Besides, all superheroes are badasses. Iron Man said so. Plus, the Scarlet Witch and the Black Widow are both complicated characters. And, as you know, I like to unfold complicated things. So, Cody, I never asked you, do you have a favorite superhero?

Cody Drabble Well, I've been a Spider-Man kid since day one and I've also dabbled in all the big ones Batman, Superman, all the Marvel characters, a lot of the DC ones. But really, my origin story starts back in the fall of 1991, when the Infinity Gauntlet saga was still in print…

Amy Quinton Dude, Cody. We really don't have time for flashbacks. We're trying to make things less complicated, remember?

Cody Drabble Yeah, I know.

Kat Kerlin Speaking of unfolding complicated things, why are we talking about superheroes?

Cody Drabble Oh my god, Kat, maybe that's your superpower. You have like the power to compel someone to get to the point!

Kat Kerlin That is my power! I'm just saying comic book superheroes don't seem like a typical topic for an Unfold episode or for highlighting UC Davis' expertise. I mean, we are a very serious institution trying to solve the world's problems. You know, like Batman or maybe Captain America.

Amy Quinton Oh, I beg to differ, Kat. We need someone with expertise in this category besides Cody.

Cody Drabble That sound means we've crossed the threshold out of Act 1 and it's time to have our meeting with the Mentor at the start of Act 2.

Amy Quinton Yep. Fortunately, we have access to the head of UC Davis, Chancellor Gary May.

Gary S. May I started reading comics when I was a little boy and started picking them up when I was three or four-years-old and basically taught myself the rudiments of reading by matching the what I saw in pictures to the words on the page and the thought balloons and the word balloons and have been, you know, reading and collecting ever since then.

Amy Quinton And now? 

Gary S. May Oh I have probably 13 or 14,000 books. I read superhero books for the most part. Marvel and DC. Image for a while, not so much anymore. I tend to be drawn to the team books, so Avengers and X-Men and Justice League and those sorts of people.

Cody Drabble Wow, I guess if you want to run a university, you have to appreciate good teamwork. Also, 14,000 books? Wow, he has crossed the line from personal library to historical archive.

Amy Quinton Chancellor May gets it.

Kat Kerlin OK, I stand corrected. UC Davis really does have every kind of expert imaginable.

Amy Quinton More importantly, Kat, comic books and superhero movies offer more than just people in tights flying around all day, saving the universe. There's science.

Kat Kerlin Seriously?

Amy Quinton Heck yeah. Many of Marvel's most popular heroes and villains started out as engineers and scientists. Like Iron Man, right?

Cody Drabble Oh dude, there's so many, like Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider in his laboratory where he was an intern. The first Ant-Man discovered these particles to shrink him. The Hulk got zapped with gamma rays. Iron Man got zapped with massive intergenerational wealth.

Amy Quinton Hey, Kat, want to check out my superpower? Time compressor activate.

Cody Drabble And that's just the Marvel characters. The same goes for DC. There's a lot of characters they all get their powers from, like a horrible lab accident or some kind of scientific experiment that blows up in their face. And then the main split is the good characters learn how to use their powers responsibly and the bad characters turn that pain into personal gain.

Kat Kerlin Well, that's not how we do science at UC Davis. We have ethics protocols and safety equipment.

Amy Quinton Wait, there's more than one Ant-Man?

Cody Drabble There's always another hero ready to wear the mask when the prior one dies or retires or gets zapped into another dimension.

Kat Kerlin That's the third time you've used that power, and I'm calling it your last for this episode.

Cody Drabble Okay, fine, Amy. Quick, use your host transition powers.

Amy Quinton There are also comic books that start with a scientific experiment that's executed perfectly, like the serum injected into Steve Rogers, turning him into our hero Captain America.

Cody Drabble The first of a new breed of super soldiers. But then the other characters who get the super serum like, turn into villains. It's very dangerous stuff. Speaking of which, I'm feeling kind of weird right now. Like, maybe my super producer powers are going haywire.

Kat Kerlin Finally, he's out of my way.

Cody Drabble No!

Kat Kerlin But Amy, that's not science, that's science fiction.

Amy Quinton Actually, it's fantasy, but I don't mean to be literal here. My point is, a lot of the superpowered heroes and villains are connected to scientists and the things they create and materials they use can teach us about everything from physics to engineering. Chancellor May said so.

Gary S. May You see something happen in a comic and you wonder, can you really make that happen in real life?

Amy Quinton So can we Kat? Can we?

Kat Kerlin I don't know, but sounds like a good topic for Unfold.

Amy Quinton Which is why we're calling this episode, "The Science of Superheroes." Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. I'm Amy Quinton.

Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. So, Amy, what science can we learn from superheroes that's actually real? It's not like we can fly or anything.

Amy Quinton Well, page 1, panel 1 of this comic begins in a lab.

Kat Kerlin Of course, a lab again. Where else would you start a story about superheroes, but in a lab?

Amy Quinton But we don't begin with a horrible lab accident. Instead, we begin in the very safe and professionally run lab of Dr. Ricardo Castro, a materials science and engineering professor.

Kat Kerlin So not a mad scientist or a supervillain yet.

Amy Quinton No, he's a comic book fan and loves superheroes.

Ricardo Castro I always had a background on superheroes. It was always my, you know, one of my favorite topics since I was a little kid. Not that my, my dad appreciated that. You know, he didn't see any value in me reading comics and, but I would go behind him and get some from my friends and even use my allowance to buy some of those.

Amy Quinton He says his dad wanted him to focus on more important things in life.

Kat Kerlin Like studying engineering.

Amy Quinton Right, and all the math you need to learn in order to become an engineer. Still, he says, something was missing.

Ricardo Castro Deep inside, my brain was always like craving some sort of like a more imaginative world. Because math, there's no imagination in math, right? Math is it is what it is. When you look at an equation you look at and the numbers, the numbers will tell you what they are. So there's not much room for improvisation for creation.

Kat Kerlin But obviously, Ricardo became an engineer anyway.

Amy Quinton Kat, just because someone stumbles and loses their path doesn't mean they're lost forever.

Kat Kerlin That sounds like a line from a Marvel movie.

Amy Quinton X-Men. But speaking of Marvel movies. . . in the next scene, Ricardo is sitting in a theater watching a Marvel movie when he came up with a master plan.

Kat Kerlin And what was that?

Amy Quinton To bring stability to the universe by wiping out half of all life. He believes with too many people in the universe, all of its resources will be depleted.

Kat Kerlin He's triggering a Malthusian trap.

Amy Quinton Avengers assemble!

Amy Quinton Only the mad titan Thanos would go for that. That's not what Ricardo, a mild-mannered professor, wanted to do. Nope, he did notice something in that theater that might help him save the world or at least save young engineering students from boredom.

Ricardo Castro And then I look at everybody's sitting around like in the movie theaters and looking at that screen like hundreds of people just with undivided attention to that screen. And that's when it clicked to me, hey, I think I'm into something here. All of those things that I learned from comic books might be put to use now, if I start combining, using some of those elements to actually attract the attention.

Kat Kerlin So he started using elements from comic books to get students interested in engineering?

Amy Quinton Yes, and unlike Dr. Strange, Dr. Ricardo Castro didn't cast a spell but did conjure a curriculum. The ultimate UC Davis first year engineering class called "Materials Marvels: The Science of Superheroes."

Kat Kerlin Oh, I get it. Well, holy hardest metal in the world, Batgirl! Ricardo is combining the two worlds of material science and superheroes.

Amy Quinton That is correct, Catwoman. Ricardo's goal is to make students think outside the box when it comes to materials science.

Ricardo Castro Here is an opportunity to make our engineers more creative than the others. Here is an opportunity where I can poke them and say, hey, superheroes and engineering can be connected and you can actually explore this world to really be a more innovative engineer.

Kat Kerlin OK, let's get down to it. What can you learn about materials science from Marvel Comics?

Amy Quinton Well, peel back the cover and we open onto a splash page with the red, white and blue shield of Captain America.

Clip from Captain America Let's hear it for Captain America.

Amy Quinton Steve Rogers was a brave but scrawny guy that was injected with serum to make him a super soldier during World War Two. The iconic shield was created by the character Howard Stark, a wartime scientist for the allies and future father of Tony Stark, you know, the Iron Man.

Ricardo Castro Trying to simulate the Captain America shield is an amazing, is amazing adventure by itself. The Captain America shield really can deflect heat and then basically if he has his hands on one side, he can put fire on the other side and basically, he's not going to burn his hands. It just like really shields the heat.

Kat Kerlin Well that's good. Captain America can't be set on fire. What does this have to do with the real world?

Amy Quinton Heat shields are incredibly important. One real world example Ricardo pointed to was this.

Sound of shuttle launch One. Ignition.

Kat Kerlin What is that? Like a rocket launch?

Amy Quinton Yeah, the space shuttle.

Kat Kerlin OK. Definitely want to shield the heat from rocket fuel.

Ricardo Castro You actually have to think very, very clearly to have solutions about how can I shield the heat, either the heat coming from the explosions that are actually taking your rocket up or if you want to bring something down back to Earth, you have all the friction of your aircraft with the air creates a lot of heat. And the reentrance heat, heating can go to temperature up to 2000 degrees C. And how can we avoid that heat from coming inside a chamber and actually, you know, exploding the chamber?

Amy Quinton We all know what happened with the Space Shuttle Columbia when a piece of foam pierced a hole in the wing and caused disastrous consequences during the fiery reentry.

Kat Kerlin Yeah, that was really sad. How does it link to superheroes?

Amy Quinton Well, you might ask, how does Captain America's shield deflect heat? I asked Chancellor May, our comic book expert, who is also an electrical engineer. And without blinking or one second of hesitation, he says to me. . .

Gary S. May In the movies the shield is vibranium, which is an alloy, a metal that was comes from an asteroid that landed in Wakanda. In the comics, the shield is a vibranium adamantium alloy. Adamantium is another fictional material that's indestructible. But adamantium as of now does not exist in the Marvel cinematic universe. It exists with the X-Men.

Kat Kerlin And neither one exists in real life. No vibranium or adamantium?

Amy Quinton Nope. Vibranium and adamantium only exist in the world of convenient plot devices. But in real life, engineers use porous silica. It's one of the types of ceramic insulation used as part of the space shuttle's thermal protection system.

Kat Kerlin And what is porous silica?

Amy Quinton Quick sidebar and a bit of physics and a bit of materials engineering. It's a type of ceramic fiber, Ricardo says think of it like a brick of air or a brick of bubbled sand, and those bubbles are like pockets of air.

Ricardo Castro Mostly, what actually deflects the heat is air, because air is a very bad thermal conductor. So if you actually could use air, create barriers of air, you can actually stop the heating, the heat from coming there.

Kat Kerlin So that's the physics part.

Amy Quinton Yeah, and the materials used?

Ricardo Castro It's very light. It's the size of an actual brick, but it feels like a Styrofoam. But then you put fire on it and then nothing happens. It doesn't catch on fire. And if you put your face on the other side, you basically can have a flame right to your face for hours.

Kat Kerlin Nobody wants to become the Human Torch in real life, I suppose.

Amy Quinton Ricardo says, don't try this at home, but he and his students do try this in class.

Ricardo Castro So I have, I have a shield, one of those bricks and basically, I bring the torch and then I put my face . . .it's my face is not the student's face. I don't put anyone at risk, but basically I show them how it's engineering.

Amy Quinton Kat, there's even a video of him doing this. Let me give you the play-by-play. First, you see this kid with a blowtorch, which sounds a little like this. And then you'll hear, Ricardo.

Ricardo Castro He will come. Wait for it. Nice.

Amy Quinton And the student walks toward Ricardo, who is holding the Captain America shield in front of his face.

Ricardo Castro Oh my gosh.

Amy Quinton Soon you'll hear Ricardo break out in his best superhero enactment.

Ricardo Castro Blast it, Spencer. You will not win!

Kat Kerlin So no one was hurt, right? Proper PPE?

Amy Quinton For this video, yeah. So now we have to cut to a new comic book hero who happens to be Chancellor May's favorite, the Black Panther. Did you see that movie? You're familiar with Black Panther, right?

Kat Kerlin Not yet. I'm actually waiting for the kiddos to get just a little bit older.

Amy Quinton Well, Chancellor May says Black Panther, like many superheroes, had a special superhero suit.

Gary S. May He absorbs impact kinetic energy and stores it and then redirects it when he strikes a blow or does something active.

Kat Kerlin Hold on. Are we still talking about comic books or real science? Like, does Ricardo have materials that can absorb energy and release it back all at once to like what, kill your enemies like a big laser beam or something?

Amy Quinton Sort of, yeah. Ricardo says it's like piezoelectricity.

Ricardo Castro Piezoelectric. It's a crazy name. Piezoelectric that sounds like a superhero by itself. So these materials have these fancy properties that basically, if you apply a mechanical load to it, they will generate a voltage and the other way around is also true. So if you apply a voltage, they will cause a mechanical disturbance. It's such an amazing property, transforming mechanical properties into electricity. For me, it's like a holy grail for energy as well, because you're talking about harvesting energy as. . . to use in everyday life.

Amy Quinton Ricardo says Piezoelectricity has been around a long time. It's even in quartz watches and cigarette lighters. But future applications are pretty wild. There are scientists that have designed piezioelectric fabrics that can turn kinetic energy into electricity and the more weight you apply to the fabric, the more electricity you can generate. So it's like you could put books in a fabric bag and say, power your cell phone.

Kat Kerlin All righty, then.

Amy Quinton And then there is also science that you can learn from Iron Man and his suit.

Kat Kerlin Like how to spend billions of dollars?

Amy Quinton Right! Of course! And we have to finish with the best-known electrical engineer in the comic books, a.k.a. Tony Stark, Iron Man, who also happens to be one of the chancellor's favorites.

Gary S. May What engineer didn't start off in engineering because he or she wanted to build an Iron Man suit?

Amy Quinton In the comics, Tony Stark doesn't need a university of scientists and engineers to invent and build futuristic technology. He's a one-man factory in the future.

Gary S. May Being a self-made hero is kind of cool, right? I always thought, you know, I could do that too if I had a few billion dollars to kick around, I could design a suit and fly around in it. That's one of those things that motivated the study of engineering, even though I'm not, you know, I'm an electrical engineer, not an aerospace engineer, but still, it's a factor that led me in that direction.

Kat Kerlin Remind us what makes Tony Stark's suit so cool?

Amy Quinton Believe it or not, Kat, Ricardo has an entire class devoted to it and how Iron Man can help us solve the energy problem.

Kat Kerlin Really? You mean like stopping the planet's thirst for energy?

Amy Quinton Yeah. Funny, there are pages and pages on the internet that go into great detail about the Iron Man suit. In fact, I even read an article about it in Gizmodo.

Kat Kerlin Yeah, that's not surprising to me.

Amy Quinton It starts with the Arc Reactor, which is a fusion type power source that powers his suit. Originally made with palladium and a beta decay reaction that generates electricity, which of course, is. . .

Ricardo Castro It's all fake. It's such a beautiful fake physics that it's really interesting to tell the students. They see this and they're really excited about learning how it works.

Kat Kerlin So what is real?

Amy Quinton Well, Ricardo says that Arc Reactor could be the gold standard for batteries.

Ricardo Castro There is a batteries called atomic batteries. And these atomic batteries use a beta decay reaction with a nuclear reaction which is exactly the same one that Iron Man created to power his suit. So there is this real world, fiction world overlap that makes it more believable and really more interesting and palatable.

Amy Quinton Kat, he says it's really important to make engineering students think creatively.

Kat Kerlin Well right. I imagine that's what leads to innovation. I mean, we couldn't land a rover on Mars without it or a million other technological advances. I'm actually kind of surprised there is so much science and engineering you can learn from comic books with just a little imagination and creativity.

Amy Quinton Well, Kat, part of the journey is in the end.

Kat Kerlin Are we ending this episode? Wait is that some line from a comic book?

Amy Quinton Iron Man. Tony Stark.

Kat Kerlin So cheesy.

Amy Quinton It's not enough to be against something Kat, you have to be for something better.

Kat Kerlin Stop, stop.

Amy Quinton And also, it's not about how much we lost, it's about how much we have left. Hang on. Where did Cody go? Is he coming back?

Kat Kerlin We have nothing left. This is the journey's end. When in doubt end on a cliffhanger and figure it out next time. Until then, you can listen to more Unfold episodes at I'm Kat Kerlin.

Amy Quinton And I'm Amy Quinton. Thanks for listening. Excelsior!

Amy Quinton Unfold is a production of UC Davis. It's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damian Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. If you like this podcast, check out UC Davis' other podcast, The Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Amy Quinton Wait, there's more than one Ant-Man?

Cody Drabble There's always another hero ready to wear the mask when the prior one dies or retires or gets zapped into another dimension. Oh, that was bad. Let me do it again, zapped into another dimension.

Kat Kerlin No, that was a terrible take. I'm going to use my powers to override yours but you won't remember.

Amy Quinton You figured out your powers?

Cody Drabble It's not unusual for a variety of powers to present themselves over time depending on what plot holes they're trying to resolve. Sometimes though, sometimes the creators don't really remember what happened in the last three issues so they have to go over it. . . (inaudible) (sound effects)

Kat Kerlin Ah, much better. Let's take it from the top. One more time.