Last week, as Comi-Con-induced excitement permeated the geek community, the White House hosted another installment of its “We the Geeks” Google Hangout series, this time on “The Stuff Superheroes Are Made Of.” The Hangout featured top scientists and engineers working to develop materials and technologies that can enable real-life “superpowers” such as invisibility and super strength. Some of the participants even demoed their wares live on the air.
Nate Ball of Atlas Devices and PBS’s Design Squad Nation, for example, strapped himself into his Atlas Power Ascender device and reverse-rappelled to the ceiling—like Batman—straight up out of his seat, after discussing the important role that materials play in making the invention work.
And University of Delaware’s Norman Wagner showed off his “liquid armor” by first using an icepick to stab straight through a sheet of regular Kevlar, and then demonstrating that a Kevlar sample treated with his liquid armor was impenetrable by the ice pick, rendering the material not only bulletproof, but also effective at stopping flying shrapnel or other sharp impacts. Wagner described possible applications of liquid armor, including puncture-proof surgical gloves and lightweight sports helmets.
Duke University graduate student Nathan Landy showed off the “invisibility cloak” he built—which makes material objects “invisible” to radar antennae—but explained that if granted any superpower, he’d choose the power of flight.
James Kakalios, a professor from University of Minnesota, described his innovative use of superhero stories as a teaching tool to help students wrap their heads around the basic principles of physics.
And Zhenan Bao, from Stanford University, showed off her “self-healing” material on camera, cutting a sample of the material in half only to have it self-heal, rapidly put itself back together in less than the time it took to conduct the Hangout. Bao also revealed the original inspiration for her group’s research project—X-Men!
All of these innovators are applying their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills to turn science fiction into science fact.
Their words of wisdom for aspiring geeks?
“We’re not as strong as a bear, as fast as a cheetah, as indestructible as a cockroach…” Dr. Kakalios said. “Intelligence is our real superpower… we need to improve on it, build on it every day.”
Learn about what the Obama Administration is doing to accelerate breakthroughs in materials science here.
Meredith Drosback is a TMS Fellow at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, working on the Materials Genome Initiative.