Batman, Iron Man, and Me

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

December 05, 2011

The tipping point for me was a Friday afternoon five years ago. I was sitting in my office working on a grant. That part should sound familiar. I was searching Google Scholar for publication information on one of my recent papers. Usually I would just scan to where I needed, but that afternoon I took a more careful look at the citation stats. My most heavily cited paper at the time had about 150 citations. Normally I might have looked at that number and reflected that, in my scientific domain, anything over 100 was considered a very high-impact paper.

But that isn't what I thought on that Friday afternoon. Instead I did a mental "devil's advocate" and asked myself: What if that number really means that only 150 people read my paper?

In that period of my life, I had been doing a lot of thinking about the societal impact of my work and my own contributions to society. So the next questions arose naturally: Was 150 readers an acceptable impact? And, if not, what is an acceptable impact on society?

The first question is a pretty personal one requiring a personal answer. But for me, the answer was no. My "normal" science wasn't having enough of an impact on society. What I needed to do, I thought, was approach a wider audience more directly.

That's when I decided to make the dissemination of science to the general public a major part of my activities as a scholar and academic. The decision has taken me down the road to becoming an author of books aimed at increasing scientific literacy.

Shifting gears from my normal academic writing took a bit of thinking. I am a tenured professor working at a major Canadian university and a research scientist in the area of neuroscience, kinesiology, and the wonder of the human body. I've published more than 75 scientific papers, hundreds of abstracts, and received many millions of dollars in research grants over the past 20 years. I have made an impact on the academy. It just wasn't fulfilling enough. I knew that communicating with the public and popularizing science would be rewarding. What I had to think through was how best to provide relevant and timely links between scientific concepts and public interests, in an accessible and engaging way.

Which is what brought me face to face with Batman and Iron Man.

An emerging avenue for popularizing science is to link scientific concepts to images, personalities, and icons already well known in popular culture. Science fiction and superhero movies and television shows are extremely popular and have been for some time. They represent excellent opportunities for exploring how scientific concepts are employed—or violated—in a pop-culture setting that is comfortable and familiar.

Hugely popular movies like Iron Man, Captain America, The Dark Knight, and its forthcoming sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, illustrate the public interest in participating in the transient experience of being a superhero—at least for the duration of the movie. For scientists, those movies offer a way to communicate with the public about our work. The result for me has been two books: Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine (Hopkins, 2011).

I settled on Batman and Iron Man because both icons are pitched as real humans who used training (Batman) or technology (Iron Man) to achieve extreme outcomes that seem believable. That part of their mythologies is what makes them attractive and grounded in a reality of hard work, invention, and achievement. In my books I have turned that mythology around and essentially asked: Is it really scientifically possible? And if so, how would it work, and what would it mean?

In both books, I explain neuroscience concepts to the general public, using the physical and technological marvels of the fictional characters to expose the real-life workings of the human body. Those concepts include: the hierarchical organization of the nervous system; supraspinal and spinal reflex control of movement; neural adaptations to skill training and motor learning; the neuropsychology of martial-arts training and combat; pathophysiology of concussion; neural plasticity associated with injury and training; cortical somatosensory and motor maps and phantom limbs; and the concept of neuroprosthetics including brain-machine interface.

My goal in writing this essay is merely to encourage other like-minded academics to understand the value of engaging the public in an accessible way, and to think about integrating pop-culture touchstones into their own outreach and teaching practices.

I have received countless e-mails and letters from people who have read my Batman and Iron Man books, and many of the readers thank me for improving their knowledge of how their bodies work. Over and over they write things like "I never knew muscles worked like that" and "I didn't know my bones could change."

All of which brings me to an e-mail I received recently. It made me realize that my decision five years ago was the right one, and spurred me to write this essay. The e-mail read, in part: "For the past few years I have been on a journey to get in shape. ... After reading your book I began to do more research and became motivated to better my physicality. ... It was very inspiring, and it got my butt off the couch. This may seem a bit funny but ever since I was a young child I wanted to be Batman. As of now I know I can never go out and fight crime but at least I feel in shape enough to. Thanks for writing this great book."

An e-mail message may not get me another research grant, or a raise. But it is the kind of influence that makes me feel much better about my own contribution to society and how the full effect of my own career may one day be weighed up and assessed.

That's the kind of impact I can live with.

E. Paul Zehr is a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience and head of the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria. He is the author of "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero" and "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine."