The Science of Superheroes

What is a Superhero?

Superheroes are the dazzling characters created from the wildest dreams of our imaginations. They can do things that regular humans can’t – like see with x-ray vision, sling spider webs from their wrists, fly through space, jump through time and more.

But did you know that there are real-life superheroes that are testing the limits of science, and helping us to learn what life on Earth is truly capable of?

It’s true!

Here we’ll dive into a few examples from humankind and the animal world, exploring how life is pushing past the boundaries of what we thought was possible.

Real-Life Superheroes

Superhuman 1: The Iceman, Wim Hof

Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete who has wowed the world with his ability to withstand cold temperatures, earning him the nickname ‘The Iceman.’

In fact, Wim set 26 world records and broke a Guinness World Record 18 times.

Some of Wim’s amazing feats include:

  • Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot wearing only shorts
  • Swimming underneath ice for 66 metres
  • Hanging on one finger at an altitude of 2,000 metres
  • Climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing only shorts
  • Running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking
  • Standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for extended periods of time

How Does Wim Hof Withstand Extreme Cold?

Over the course of his career, Wim has been involved in scientific study, partnering with many universities so they can study Wim’s method for withstanding the cold. Through these studies, they learned that Wim can do something else that we thought was humanly-impossible: Wim can control his autonomic nervous system with his mind.

The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates all the functions of our internal organs, and even some muscles. Furthermore, this system controls our immune system. Most of the time, we are not aware of our autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates the functions of our internal organs, some muscles, and our immune system. For example, it makes sure that our heart keeps beating. The key to this system is that we never really have to think about it. For example, you don’t have to ‘make’ your heart beat, the same way that you would make your hand move up and down.

But the trade off for having the autonomic nervous system work all on its own is that humans can’t really control it, even if they try… Or so we thought.

Wim’s amazing feats and the studies that he has been a part of prove that superhuman powers may be within reach of everyday people. Today, Wim teaches his training techniques (including cold exposure, breathing and meditation) to others around the world.

Superhuman 2: Electro Man, Juan Ruiz

Juan Ruiz, also known as ‘Electro Man,’ Juan was blind from birth but that didn’t stop him from ‘seeing’ through the power of echolocation.

You may know echo-location as the special method that bats and dolphins and other animals use to navigate their world. In a nutshell, these animals make a sound (like a bat’s high-pitched squeak), and then listen as that sound bounces or echos off of objects in their environment. The echos allow them to build a mental picture of what’s around them.

What you may not have heard, is that humans, like Ruiz, can do it too.

Using echolocation, Juan could even ride a bike, avoiding parked cars and other obstacles.

Humans and Echolocation

Human echolocation has been known and studied since at least the 1950s. 

Many blind individuals passively use natural environmental echoes to sense details about their environment; however, others actively produce mouth clicks and are able to gauge information about their environment using the echoes from those clicks. Both passive and active echolocation help blind individuals sense their environments.

With training, sighted individuals with normal hearing can learn to avoid obstacles using only sound, showing that echolocation (although it is truly super!) is a general human ability.

Lore Thaler led researchers at Durham University to determine if they could teach echolocation to people. Over a ten-week period, they taught it to 12 blind people and 14 others who were not blind.

Superhuman 3: The Woman with Superhuman Vision, Concetta Antico

If you’ve ever wondered if we all see the same colours (for example, if what’s ‘blue’ to you is also what is ‘blue’ to your friend), you’re not alone. Many people wonder if we can all see the same colours.

The truth is, there can be differences in how different people see colour, and what makes the difference is how the cone cells in our retinas (eyes) respond to light. For example, most people have three types of cone cells, but colour-blind people have one faulty cone, which makes it hard for them to tell the difference between reds and greens.

However, some super human women may actually see more than the rest of us.

That’s because they may have an extra cone (four instead of three), making them a ‘tetrachromat.’ 

Concetta Antico is one such tetrachromat. She is able to see colours invisible to most of us. 

“I’m kind of shocked when I realize what other people aren’t seeing,” she shared with BBC. She also shared the example of what she sees when she looks at a pebble pathway – something that most of us would think looks simply ‘grey’. 

“The little stones jump out at me with oranges, yellows, greens, blues and pinks,” she says.

As an artist, her work helps to bring her world and what she sees to life and share her superhuman vision with the rest of us, average earthlings.

Superheros of the Animal World

Ants: The Strongest Creatures on Earth

Ants, those tiny creatures we often overlook, are actually superheroes in their own right when it comes to strength. Pound for pound, they are some of the strongest creatures on Earth. But how do these minuscule insects possess such incredible strength?

The secret lies in their muscle structure and biology. Ants have specialized muscles that allow them to lift objects many times their own body weight. 

This is particularly evident in species like the Asian weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina), which can carry objects up to 100 times its body weight. To put that into perspective, it would be like a human lifting a car!

The key to their strength lies in the proportion of muscle mass to body size, as well as the efficiency of their muscle fibers. Ants also employ a technique called “recruitment,” where multiple ants work together to lift heavy objects, further enhancing their collective strength.

Their remarkable strength and cooperative behaviour make them true superheroes of the insect world.

Mantis Shrimp: Packing One of the World’s Most Powerful Punches

These colourful crustaceans might seem small, but they boast one of the fastest and most powerful punches in the animal kingdom. Their club-like appendages can accelerate underwater at speeds comparable to a gunshot, delivering blows with the force of a bullet. 

They use this incredible ability to smash open shells and stun prey.

Tardigrades: Surviving in Even the Toughest Environment

Tardigrades, often called water bears or moss piglets, are microscopic creatures known for their extreme resilience. They can survive in virtually any environment, including the vacuum of space, extreme temperatures, and intense radiation. Tardigrades achieve this by entering a state of suspended animation called cryptobiosis, during which they can withstand conditions that would be fatal for most other organisms.

Gecko: Gravity Defying Ability to Walk on Ceilings

Geckos are renowned for their ability to walk on walls and ceilings with seemingly effortless ease. This is due to the remarkable structure of their feet, which are covered in microscopic hairs called setae that create molecular forces known as van der Waals forces. These forces allow geckos to stick to surfaces and defy gravity, enabling them to navigate complex environments with precision.

Elephant: Super Memories

Elephants are not only the largest land animals on Earth but also possess incredible intelligence and social complexity. They demonstrate empathy, self-awareness, and the ability to mourn their dead. Additionally, elephants have remarkable memories, able to remember complex social relationships, migration routes, and even locations of distant watering holes over long periods.

Chameleons: Real Life Invisibility Cloaks

Chameleons are renowned for their ability to change colour to match their surroundings, allowing them to blend in seamlessly with their environment. This remarkable camouflage serves multiple purposes, including avoiding predators and ambushing prey. The colour change is achieved through specialised cells called chromatophores in their skin, which contain pigments that can expand or contract to produce different colours.

The Immortal Jellyfish

Turritopsis dohrnii, commonly known as the “immortal jellyfish,” is often cited as having the ability to theoretically live forever, thanks to its unique ability to revert its cells back to an earlier stage of development, essentially resetting its biological clock. When faced with unfavourable conditions or ageing, the jellyfish can transform its mature cells into younger cells, a process known as transdifferentiation. This remarkable ability allows the jellyfish to potentially escape death and continue its life cycle indefinetly.

While the term “immortal” may be somewhat misleading, as Turritopsis dohrnii is still susceptible to predation, disease, and environmental factors, its ability to rejuvenate itself has captured the interest of scientists studying ageing and cellular regeneration. The jellyfish serves as a fascinating example of the incredible diversity of life on Earth and the potential for unlocking the secrets of longevity and regeneration.

Our Natural World is Truly Super

As we conclude our journey through the science of superheroes, let us marvel at the wonders of the natural world and the endless possibilities it presents. Whether in the realms of human potential or the depths of the animal kingdom, the quest to unlock the secrets of superhuman abilities continues to captivate our imagination and drive scientific discovery forward. So, let us embrace the spirit of exploration and wonder, for in the quest to understand the extraordinary, we may just uncover the key to unlocking our own superhuman potential.


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