Interview: the scientist who wants super hero science for everyone

What would you do with super powers? We talk to super hero scientist Barry W. Fitzgerald about his love for super heroes, the future of human genetics and creating a scientific journal dedicated to harnessing super powers.

2nd August 2017
Interview: the scientist who wants super hero science for everyone © Getty Images

By day Barry W. Fitzgerald is a research scientist at Delft University of Technology, but by night, under the cover of darkness he becomes…! Well he’s still a research scientist, but one who is a massive fan of superhero movies, and it’s his love for DC and Marvel comics that inspired him write a book about the science of superheroes. Now, he’s planning on world domination launching a new journal devoted to superhero science, hoping to bring an understanding of the latest developments in genetics, engineering and other sciences that could help us one day wield super powers to the masses.  

How did you get into the science of super heroes?

I will never claim to be the biggest fan of comic books or to say I've read all of them - I know people who have read far more than I have - but for me, it was in 1985 when I saw Superman. Once you've seen a person who's able to fly or see through walls and fire lasers from their eyes your priorities completely change as a child. It was at that stage I wanted superpowers. The Batman films in the 80s and 90s were also an inspiration, but when the first X-Men film was released in the 2000s, the one where we saw Hugh Jackman as Wolverine for the first time and Patrick Stewart playing Charles Xavier, I remember walking out of that film thinking is any of that possible?

I was doing a degree in applied physics at the University of Limerick at the time, so I soon realised I didn't have the skill set to be able to answer those questions, but I found myself going to super hero films and I'd write more down. Eventually I had enough questions, and enough plausible answers to those to start writing my book about it, Secrets of Superhero Science, fundamentally to answer my own questions.

Why do we need a new scientific journal about super powers?

When I started my book I did it with a physics background, but in order to actually answer the questions I had to read a lot of biology (half the book was biology as it turned out). That’s natural because with super heroes, super beings and super villains many of their powers come from the fact that their DNA is different from our DNA. If we want to replicate that, we have to understand things like genetic editing and protein folding, we have to understand pathways, neural networks and things like that. I think collaboration is key.

For example we’re using synthetic biology to create a human-made genome that could represent another form of yeast, but could in fact pave the path towards a fully synthetic person whose genome is just completely manufactured. In that case you will need more than just a biologist; you need someone who's a geneticist, someone who's involved in computer programming and you need someone who's in bioinformatics and someone with a computational biology background. Then suddenly you're delving into physics, and then because, in this case you're looking at the combination of molecules, you're going to be bringing some biochemists.

It is absolutely key to the success of a project that you bring in different perspectives. If we want super powers this is the only solution - if we combine people from different disciplines.

Is that why you started the journal?

Superhero Science Technology is a journal that will allow academics to publish their own research in an accessible language that can be easily read by both the academic community, and anyone else in the entire world. They don't have to be scientists or engineers, and the research will be linked or hooked in someway to super heroes, super villains, super powers, and so on. 

My hope is that these papers will be picked up in the same way that someone would pick up a traditional magazine. I want people to be able to read about some of the amazing results and research that are coming out of different universities all around the world. Academics are in a world where it is publish or perish, so this journal satisfies the publish element, but also provides researchers with what I think is a completely different way of communicating their research. And it goes on the traditional means of publishing in traditional journals.

This will be a peer-reviewed journal with a strong editorial board. These journal papers will be treated in the very same way that they would be treated in any other journal, and they will get a full scientific review from a scientific peer in another university, but the key component here is that the language that's used. It will be written in such a way that anybody can read it - anybody and everybody. Ideally my aim will be to get my parents, who don't have a scientific background, to read them and say, “I actually understood most of that”. That would be fantastic!

Why is now the right time to launch a new journal?

I think the big thing here is that it's all about information. It’s making sure that the general public has in some way assimilated the key details of a particular treatment or a brand new device or technology, so that they have an educated opinion on what’s happening. I sometimes question how this material is being put into the public arena. I see some articles in questionable newspapers, not mentioning any names, but I just think that they're a glorification of certain aspects of science, and I think it's an incorrect and inappropriate glorification in my opinion. 

The most important thing in my opinion is that people outside the walls of universities and research institutes or companies that are working on R&D projects, have a right to know what we're doing, particularly for those working in universities. My salary is paid by governmental grants from the European Union and that is all coming from taxes, and that's taxes paid by people in the EU, so they all, in my opinion have a right to know what were doing. Of course you can't tell them all the details because there are a lot of complications. 

So what you want to make sure is that you get that information across in a manner that is manageable, and it can be easily read by anyone that's interested in it and that once they've read it they can get the overall picture of what somebody is trying to do with a brand new technology or technique. That's what I'm hoping the journal does. I'm really hoping it is picked up by everybody, that they go and read it and they say wow, that’s great. The hook is super heroes, super villains and super powers, because I believe if you ask anybody on the planet right now if they want to have superpowers, I'm pretty sure everyone's going to say yes. 

And it will be better than what’s already out there?

When you see all these fantastic animations that come out of the European Space Agency or NASA with regards to the discovery of exoplanets, or if somebody is 3D-printing ears or 3D-printing bone, it’s something that people can relate to. But if you have somebody who is working on the CRISPR-cas9 system, it can be really difficult for people to relate to that because its at a scale that most people don't think about. The idea with the journal is to try and communicate that scale to people in a way that they can understand it. 

There are certainly reputable media outlets that do communicate science in an appropriate manner and the correct facts and figures are put across in the way that they should be, but I want to have researchers write publications that are written in a language that can be understood by the media or anybody - that's what I do with my talks.

The secrets of superhero science | Barry Fitzgerald | TEDxStrijp (TEDx Talks/YouTube)

How does watching super hero movies help scientists?

I want researchers and academics and people who are involved in science all around the world to go, you know what, I never thought that about my own research. For example I've had people already express an interest in writing papers for the journal, but they just need a little help in terms of the link with super hero and super villains and super powers. As the editor it’s my job to make sure that we have a plausible link between super powers and their papers, as well as the link to popular culture. The thing with super hero films and the characters, is that even if you’ve never seen a super hero film, most people know who Batman is and Superman is, and Spider-Man. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made more than $11bn from 15 films, mind-boggling numbers, and if you do a hypothetical calculation that each ticket costs $10, that’s 1.1 billion people seeing the movies. That’s 1/7th of the population of the world - imagine getting your research into the hands of 1/7th of the world! Given the popularity of superhero films in modern culture, I think that this journal offers scientists and researchers the opportunity to link their work to a very popular genre that is enjoyed by a huge proportion of the planet. 

Where did the link between science and comic book super heroes begin?

When Stan Lee was coming up with the X-men in the early 1960s, he didn't want to have to come up with an origin story for all of the characters like he did with the Fantastic Four or Bruce Banner or Thor. So what he did was, very cleverly, say ‘right we're going to come up with a bunch of heroes and every single one of them are mutants, so they all have their powers because they've got this X-gene in their genetic code and that’s it’. Once you've taken out the origin story you can just start to flippantly introducing characters any way you want. I've also read that sometimes, when they introduced new characters they didn't figure out power they had until they got to a situation when the character needed to get out of. Then they asked what power does the character need to have to get out of this.

You can almost start to see how that kind of creativity ends up finding itself in the scientific process.

Yes, exactly. The writers were inspired by the world around them. The Marvel Studio writers were sitting in offices, and Stan Lee is looking at the same world were living in. Today, the only difference is the that some of the technology is a little different, and people are taller and faster and so on, but its the same world. Getting back to the X-gene, it probably came from the fact that DNA had only been discovered and visualised 10 or 15 years before, so it would have been fresh in the mind of many people - Lee would have been borrowing on a recent scientific discovery. 

How the X-gene could be incorporated in human DNA is something that would be quite interesting. I have a few ideas of how we can do it. It may be a case that depending on where it’s inserted in the genome, it will have different effects on that particularly physiology of the body. So if you place it somewhere adjacent to genes that are important for skeletal and muscular development, then you will have stronger muscle structure, denser muscle fibres, and you could be a stronger person. Place it somewhere near something to do with the eyes, then it could improve your eyesight, or give you the ability somehow fire laser pulses from them.

Laser-firing eyes?

They're ideas, but I always like the idea of borrowing from the animal kingdom, because evolution has sorted out quite a lot of things that we could use. Of course that means you're getting into the area of transgenics, where you take a gene from one species and you place it into the genome of another, and when you start to mention the idea of combining animal DNA with human DNA, there’s going to be a lot of ethical flags raised immediately. But say in a hypothetical world with all ethics approved, the one that I would personally love to see, because he's my favourite character, is Wolverine. He's known for his self-healing abilities, accelerated self-healing abilities and one way we could replicate this is to turn to the salamander.

If the salamander has a damaged a limb, it'll grow back over time. A recent study effectively identified the key RNA sequences that are behind the regenerative healing powers of salamanders, so let’s say we've got the hypothetical ethical approval, and take the RNA sequences from the salamanders and insert them in the appropriate locations in the human genome. Who knows, in the future we could actually create a person who is all set to self-heal to the point that they can also not only recover cuts and bruises faster, but also grow back limbs if they needed to. Deadpool does this in the Deadpool film; his hand gets chopped off for a particular reason, and it grows back. The key to this must be that his DNA has mutated in such a way that he has some aspects of this regenerative healing that a salamander has.

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You mention ethics, where do you think we should draw the line?

Ethics are something I have been thinking about probably more so than some of the heroes in the films. Tony Stark (Iron Man) for instance - his ethics are highly questionably. Of course he's trying to cover himself up in the films now because he's gone off and developed things and hasn't even thought about it. Along with Bruce Banner (The Hulk), Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic), or even some of the characters in the Spider-Man films, these are prime examples of people who are, lets say, a little bit negligent when it comes to ethics.

I thought a lot about ethics when I wrote the book, it’s all in the last chapter. Take CRISPR-Cas9 for example - what we could do with it is extraordinary, the possibilities are endless. It’s already been used to modify crops, as well as species like the zebra fish modified to grow limbs instead of fins. It all sounds amazing, but the moment we decide we're going to start modifying the human genome then I think we really do have to stop and take note of where we are. 

Although the positive aspects of CRISPR in terms of fighting diseases or addressing hereditary illness are huge, we still don't know what will happen when we start to fully change the human genome. We still don't know what the knock-on consequences could be. And even if we could do it, should we do it? We're planning on going to Mars, but should we go to Mars? There's a twin ethical issue: the ethics of the person in the laboratory about how they do it and there's the ethics of should they do it?

Also do we need to do this now? For example, I have a set of golf clubs at home but I don't play golf at all. Maybe I should. In comparison, we have CRISPR-Cas9 now, and what I’d hate to see is that they turn into my golf clubs, left in a shed somewhere and forgotten about. Ethics are important and must be addressed, but I would hope that it's not overly addressed. There needs to balance. I’m not somebody who's going to be flippant and say let's just start doing this now, but at some point you could be so involved in the ethical considerations and ethical arguments that the technologies could move on another 10 years. Then you're going to have to redefine your ethical questions and your ethical arguments because the technology is moving so fast.

How can we democratise these newfound super abilities?

My view is that if we take technology out of the equation, everybody is different because we all have a different genetic code. In my opinion, there are people on the planet who are able to do things that other people cannot, and they don't know that they can't do it. I'll give you an example. There's an ultramarathon runner called Dean Karnazes who realised he doesn't get muscle cramp. Now, the thing is, that if he had never run further than a marathon he would never have figured out that was the case. People have abilities within them that they don't know they have. You just have to push yourself. Usain Bolt is a 100m sprinter, but if he had never sprinted he would never have known he was a fantastic sprinter. If Daley Thompson, who won the decathlon in '84 for GB, had never participated in all those athletic events, maybe he would never have figured out that he was such an amazing athlete.

Now fast-forward to the idea that we give everyone technology - what’s going to happen? There's going to be lots of things. You'll have classes of powers that'll be pitched towards your class, and your salary. In the very same way that not everybody drives a Ferrari, I think that not everybody is going to have the best superpower, or the best super technology. We can see this already, even with mobile phones, which is a form of super power. You have access to instant information, any time, any place, anywhere, but not everybody owns the best smart phone. So there’s going to be a class, and a class divide with these powers. But then again, if there wasn't, and you did for example, give everyone Iron Man suits, I think you’ll find people using them in different ways. Some people will be happy just to fly 500m above the ground, others will be happy to fly really fast, and then you'll have people who want to fly really high. I think it comes down to the fact that the wearer is different. The technology might be the same, but the person using it is different. And that will influence how that technology is actually used in the future.

So you don't have a dystopian view of technology enveloping our personal identity?

I don't know, because I mean everybody uses modern technology in different ways. For example, digital cameras; most people just take pictures with digital cameras, but I worked in a project a few years ago when we used digital cameras to help us visualise blood flow below the skin, and this is an example of the completely different way you can use the technology with out-of-the-box thinking. Take for example how people use mobile phones for different ways - people use it as their phone, for texting, and then some place designer lenses around the camera and using it as a microscope, which is absolutely incredible.

So that's the a prototype for how the super powers might be used for different purposes?

Exactly. It’s like the way we download apps into our phone. You could have a technology where you wear a suit where you can download a piece of software that allows the suit to do something else. You can see it in the Spider-Man: Homecoming film. Peter Parker is wearing a brand new Spider-Man suit that was designed by Tony Stark, however, Stark has locked out a number of the suit’s functionalities. You see it in the trailer - its called the training wheels program. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming - Trailer 3 (YouTube/Marvel Entertainment)

So basically his suit can do far more things than he can imagine, but he's not able to do it because he can't access that component. In the same way that people buy different apps for phones, Spider-Man is going to have to get an app, or software download to be able to access more functionality for his suit.

How soon can we expect to see super powers in our day to day life.

I think we live in a society where people want to have things almost instantaneously. The idea of waiting for things has become part of the past, and this frustrates people. In terms of getting super hero technology into people’s hands, there are a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome. Of course when you're talking about human enhancement and creating technologies that could make people better, there’s a lot of military involvement. For example there’s a very nice paper by the University of Rochester from 2014 where they designed an invisibility cloak that can be built from four optical lenses. I'm actually staring at it right now, I have it in my apartment because I built it with the University of Twente based here in the Netherlands.

It really does work, but it’s not something you will be wearing any time soon because its not the invisibility cloak like Harry Potter's, or the Invisible Woman’s super power. But it’s got to start somewhere. That research has been funded by a US Military grant, and that’s the way it’s going to be. Until those hurdles come down, a lot of the technology that people are working on will be seen as an opportunity to fortify defence in some countries, and there’s nothing we can get away from in that sense. In the Iron Man films, particularly the opening scene of Iron Man 2 when he's in a hearing, the US government wants to get their hands on the Iron Man suit because they realise the military capabilities of it are extraordinary. 

That’s a prime example, but my hope is maybe we don't have to wait for exoskeletons or Iron Man suits or invisibility cloaks. One that I always tell people about is that there a couple of companies that have submitted patents for bionic lenses designed to be implanted into the eyes of patients with cataracts. It’s a very important development in terms of healthcare and giving people back their sight, and basically just replaces your existing lens. Instead you have this bionic lens that interacts with the existing infrastructure of the eye. 

When I talk about this I immediately then say, well imagine if you could take this technology and modify the lens and in some certain way, maybe modify other properties of the eye so you could make your eyesight better than 20:20. You could give yourself 20:5 vision, which is about the same vision as a hawk. Hawk-eye is a character in the Avengers who many people say doesn't have a super power, but I say he does, and that's his eyesight. If want to replicate his eyesight, you could get your hands on these bionic lenses in the future. In terms of being any good with a bow and arrow, I'm afraid I can't help you there, that’s simply down to practice. Some people are just good at things, but you can see where these lenses could go as well. 

When will the journal go live?

The journal is now live and ready to accept paper submissions to be considered for publication. The URL for Superhero Science and Technology is superheroscitech.tudelft.nl and further details on the journal can be found on Twitter @SuperSciTech. Over the next few weeks an editorial will be published on the journal website officially announcing the journal and providing perspective authors with further details on the journal. If anyone has any queries in relation to the journal, the submission process and the review process please do not hesitate to contact me at b.fitzgerald@tudelft.nl or via Twitter.

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