Friday, June 4, 2010

Newsflash: Soil Science Education needs a new Superhero

Tony Stark aka Iron Man would have made it to my 'Coolest Scientist' list if he were real.

Perhaps he should make it onto my list anyway. Superheroes are a great opportunity to promote science. Even though superhero fiction sensationalises science, parts of it are real and kids love it! Perhaps utilising superheroes and other fiction characters, we can promote education in soil and other sciences.

The bump to the head I took on Saturday has filled me with super-unusual ideas. When do you hear a scientist bringing fiction into their lab? However, you can blame concussion and an entire week at home for this idea. Having very little to do (and my partner getting cross each time I hopped on my laptop), I spent the week watching all the movies made in the last 2 years! Well that would be exaggerating slightly; a few released in the last two years. One of these movies was Iron Man. Even after it finished, I couldn't shake the cool techno-science-genius in the movie. It got me thinking about how awesome it is to be a scientist. However, the science is somewhat sensaltionalised and I wondered if it sparks interest in non-scientists?

Superheros rely on science for many of their cool stunts. Tony Stark was a scientist before he was a superhero. As a boy, he started tinkering with electronics and engines. Later a robotics degree, and then head of company at 21. After many years in the weapons industry, he started to invent in the pursuit of good (and to counteract his previous inventions of mass-destruction) only to become Iron Man. Spark's obsession to create the Iron Man is parallel to what a scientist really does: think, create, trial and invent. The movie merely sensationalises what happens in a real laboratory. Many scientists would worry about using sensationalised media as an education tool. Have no fear! The science is real(-ish)!

There has been research to show that the science behind superheroes is real. Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg have spent their time studying and writing about the Science of Superheroes. Weinberg's work aims 'to separate scientifically believable comic book characters from those who are literally incredible' (National Geographic News, Nov 12, 2004). The authors go on to demonstrate the real science behind superheroes and the science that is still ahead of us. So perhaps sensationalising of the science isn't so bad, especially if it recruits new minds. Does real and fictitious science get youth interested in studying real science?

Andrew Zimmerman Jones blogs about superheroes and science education. He talks about a physics seminar given by Jim Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes) to a wide audience (students, film writers etc). He uses superheroes as case studies. Whilst 'the writers indicate that while they do their best to get the science as correct as feasible, storytelling is the ultimate determining factor and it trumps the scientific accuracy', the lecturer found that 'it motivates the students to ask questions ... and in fact, it motivated one student to consider how long it would take The Flash to use up all oxygen molecules in the Earth's atmosphere.' 

This demonstrates that even with the sensationalising of superhero science, it still helps develop real interest in science and can be used as tool in science education. Perhaps this is because superhero science is daring and fantastical; a scientists day-dream. However, soil science does not have cool-physics stuff like lightning, vanishing, speed, weapons and lasers. All of these physics tricks are important in the superpowers of many superheroes. It is these superpowers which invoke awe and interest by the public. So, how can we create a superhero that promotes soil science?

The Mud Maiden could be the superhero of soil science. The Mud Maiden stands 6ft tall, she has dark brown hair made of twigs and leaves, a light brown face and a yellow to red body (just like a soil profile). Her superpowers are:
* making plants grow really quickly (could be useful for escape routes or stopping villians),
* she can both increase and decrease salt presence in living organisms (thus dehydrate or rehydrate),
* she can make himself 'runny' for a quick getaway (get through cracks, under doors etc) and
* can throw wet clay that dries very quickly (for a whole number of reasons).
Unfortunately she may not have the special-effect coolness of the physics superheroes, and possibly doesn't have Hollywood potential. But there is comic book potential, right? Maybe I should ask my students...

What do you think her superpowers could be?

For more information on using Superheroes to teach and promote science, check out some of the links below:
Andrew Zimmerman Jones' Blog
The Physics of Superheroes
The Science of Superheroes


  1. I just found your blog and love it. I’ve had this same conversation with other soils folks many times – seriously. The soil crusader and LIDAR boy are among some of my favorites. I think a spokes-creature / superhero would be a great way to connect with kids! Keep the ideas flowing – you might just be on to something:)

  2. Thanks Karen! It is nice to see other Soilies reading my blog! I am very pleased to see you do homebrew too!

    I think the Mud Maiden and LIDAR Boy could well represent soil science! Biogeochem unite! *flash of mud*

  3. Careful use of soil, mud & erosion could be used to destabilise walls, buildings, sink tanks, and topple governments. Her muddy, sloppy gelatinous interior could allow bullets and other small projectiles to pass right through, rendering her immune to small arms fire. Careful internal particle arrangement could allow her to act as a filter, cleaning up pollutants (and oil spills?), then using them as a weapon against the enemies of the Dirt. An oil smear left in front of a polutican (politician? never get the spelling right) could result in slapstick hilarity; whilst mutating toxic waste could transform corporate grunts in to her army of servitors. She is the invisible, terrifying ghost of the swamp or muddy creek, and one never, ever knows where she will strike next. REVENGE OF DIRT! DIRT WILL TAKE OVER THE WORLD, COVERING IT IN HER IMAGE!!... oh, wait... she already has. Does that mean she already secretly exists, and is watching us?

  4. Quite possibly, Franko. Or at least, that should be the image we want her to portray ;)

  5. Love Franko's take. To the powers of the Maiden of the Mud, I add redoximorphism in combination with both electrical and photonical powers. Most impressive in the ability to control surface-X-atmosphere lightning discharges but also the power to control rust and corrosion. Redoximorphism gives her the power to separate, refine, and concentrate mineral assemblages. She will petrify as a defense, or will use the same power to create amorphous opalesque silicates, transforming the maiden to a creature of dazzling and unparalleled beauty. But her greatest power is her biology, impregnable, endlessly diverse, endlessly interrelated, with untapped capabilities for curing disease, turning harmful petrochemicals into beneficial carbon, growing plants which convert abundant solar energy into increasingly powerful and healthy soil. Deep in her wetlands she harbors biology that predates our current oxidative environment, reaching back to the archaea, the first soil formers active when the earth was newly cooled. Mud Maiden travels on the wind and in the water to reform anew where she is needed the most. She is even capable of travelling to other worlds, riding catalysmic impacts to new frontiers.