We could all be Men of Steel, scientist claims

Stronger than a locomotive: Henry Cavill portrays Superman in ‘Man of Steel’.

Flying with a cape and looking impressive in tights and Y-fronts are two things we will never achieve. But as a new Superman film hits cinemas superhuman strength could be within reach.

He comes from a distant planet called Krypton, now destroyed along with all of his race. He can fly round the world in seconds and even reverse the rotation of the Earth, then transform into a nerdy reporter and still have time to dash off a story. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,’ Superman may be many things – but he is not a realistic model of a man.

Yet as America’s original superhero celebrates his 75th birthday with a new film that has brought his total box office to more than $500 million, one aspect of his power may not be so farfetched. A scientist has suggested that one day fairly soon we really could have superhuman strength.

Like the comic book heroes he loves, E Paul Zehr leads a double life: by day he is a neuroscientist at a Canadian university, by night a martial arts master who trains aspiring stars in karate. He has always been fascinated by the potential of the human body – including its untapped muscular power.

The strength of a muscle is largely determined by the number of cells it contains and how big they are. The more muscle cells we produce, the more powerful we become. But to prevent uncontrolled growth, our cells secrete two chemicals called myostatin and activin A which inhibit the development of muscle cells.

Recently, however, scientists have discovered another substance which can inhibit the production of myostatin. With a tiny tweak to their DNA, animals such as cows and monkeys can be made to produce this chemical, doubling the size of their muscles. Applying this process to humans might not allow us to hurdle a building. But lifting cars? Easy.

As a godlike extraterrestrial, Superman is one of the more fantastical heroes of the comic book world. Batman and Iron Man, whose powers come from technology, may be more realistic role models.

In fact, Iron Man’s brain-controlled suit (minus the jetpacks and laser gauntlets) is almost feasible already. With unlimited money and dedication, says Zehr, becoming a superhero might be a legitimate goal.

Anti-heroes?

‘What are we waiting for?’ ask many comic book fans. Why should we settle for these limited bodies of ours if superhero status is just a gene away? With superhuman strength we would be capable of mastering the world in ways we have never dreamed of before.

But some question whether super strength is really all it’s cracked up to be. Physical prowess might have been important to a Medieval knight, they say; but in our age of technological wizardry it’s increasingly irrelevant. Muscle is no match for the real problems the world faces today: depleting resources, global warming, unemployment and war.

You Decide

  1. Does being physically powerful matter to you? Why / why not?
  2. Would the world be a better place if Superman was real?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a person with superhuman strength.
  2. If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Pick one and do some research into how scientifically plausible it is. Then present your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“I’d rather be 10% brainier than twice as strong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So where can I get this amazing muscle-building fix? Sign me up!
Not so fast. Super strength might be theoretically possible, but modifying human DNA is risky, illegal and ethically divisive, to put it mildly. Still, you are capable of greater physical feats than you know.
Like what?
For a start, you’re probably stronger than you think. It’s almost never possible to exert your full strength: for the sake of your delicate tendons and to preserve energy for other tasks your body doesn’t let you. But in extreme cases (stories involving a parent who sees their child in danger abound) people have been known to lift cars or throw boulders. You can’t turn that power on at will, but with the right training you can build your strength and learn to use it efficiently.

Word Watch

Original superhero
Although there are comic book heroes who predate him, Superman propelled comics into a major industry and was the first hero to become a national icon. Without him, characters like Batman and Wonder Woman would probably never have been born.
DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that codes for every organism’s physical and behavioural characteristics.
Brain-controlled
Scientists can now program a helmet to detect electrical energy in the brain and convert this into commands for mechanical objects – exactly like Iron Man’s suit. But this technology is more likely to be used to help physically disabled people than superheroes.
Jetpacks
They do exist, but propelling a human off the ground takes enormous amounts of energy. To carry enough fuel to fly for more than a few seconds, your suit would have to be prohibitively large.
Laser gauntlets
See above. A laser with enough power to burn through metal uses more energy than a power plant (let alone a wearable suit) could produce.

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