A time comes in every superhero’s life when Science takes a break from hunting for new subatomic particles, and instead decides to dig deeper into the superhero’s super claims. Usually, the end result is a dense scientific paper, teeming with equations and illustrations, that is basically the scientific equivalent of raising an accusatory finger at the superhero, and saying, “You sir, are a fraud!”
The latest supervictim in the line of scientific fire is the hard-working Spider-Man. Specifically, the claim that he can climb walls using his padded hands. On January 18, researchers at the University of Cambridge unleashed a study titled, “Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing”. But don’t let that mouthful of a title deceive you — a simpler alternative would have been, “Spider-Man, we finally got you! Ha!” The study notes that anything bigger than the size of a gecko simply cannot climb straight up — if a wannabe Spider-Man wants to pull off a similar feat, about 80 per cent of the person’s front will need to be covered in adhesive pads.
Incidentally, if you are hoping the Cambridge folks did not take this investigation seriously enough, well, Science Daily points out that the researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.
And as you would expect, this news shattered the dreams of many Spider-Man fans, who had fantasied all these years that, someday, they too will be able to climb up walls. Perhaps wearing a sticky wearable stuffed with sensors and an onboard camera that automatically took selfies and posted them on Facebook, as they climbed up the school/ office building, tie fluttering in the air. After all, why bother taking a lift and entering through the door like mere mortals, when you can do a melodramatic entry through the window or the skylight?
The news also rattled ace anchor, Stephen Colbert. In his late night show, he lamented that “science had ruined Spider-Man”. The audience agreed with a resounding “boooo”. Colbert added that, without the ability to climb walls, Spider-Man was reduced to being a guy “who just shoots goo and is radioactively guilty about his uncle”. In other words, a big dud. And merely a masked guy falling off the wall with a big thud.
However, just when it appeared that Spider-Man’s career was in ruins, another university came to his rescue — like the proverbial knight on a white horse, Stanford galloped forth, waving this YouTube video. Published on January 27, it is a simple message from Stanford engineers to Stephen Colbert — that “Spider-Man is plausible.” The video shows one of engineers actually climbing a glass wall, while wearing a “controllable adhesive system” capable of supporting a person’s weight. Hurrah!
Unfortunately, while this chap is showing Cambridge how it is done, you are subjected to a badly-sung version of “Spider-man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…” But we will forgive the engineers this atrocity — after all, they saved Spider-Man’s reputation. And restored the faith of his fans. Yes, Virginia, Spider-Man can indeed climb walls.
Footnote: We are waiting to hear from Spider-Man on this sordid saga, and will update the story once he climbs down whichever wall he is currently on.