• Mon. Jun 5th, 2023

Class Close Up: Exploring the Science of Superheroes


May 26, 2023

Marvel’s Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., served as a jumping off point for a discussion of bioengineering.

Photo: Alamy

‘Everyone genuinely enjoys the lectures and desires to come and listen,’ mentioned Chloe Raichle ’23

You may well be shocked to know that a single of Princeton’s most sophisticated science classes typically begins with a handful of minutes of a Marvel or DC film. The extraordinary expertise and skills of superheroes and other superb creatures have been the inspiration behind Shane Campbell-Staton’s class, The Biology of Superheroes: Exploring the Limits of Type and Function, new to Princeton this spring.

“We use comic books, superheroes, [and] science fiction as believed experiments to discover the mechanisms of life, intense adaptation, biologically inspired engineering, brain-machine interfacing … [a] fairly broad array of subjects,” explained Campbell-Staton, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB).

His twin passions of science and superheroes initially melded when he got hooked on comic books as a graduate student. At evening, Campbell-Staton mentioned, he had “phenomenally strange dreams,” exactly where the comic books meshed with academic papers he was reading “in all of these weird techniques.”

The outcomes have been this course, which he initially ran at UCLA, just before coming to Princeton in 2021, and a podcast, “The Biology of Superheroes,” which he co-hosts with Arien Darby, a senior international brand manager at Warner Bros. They’re operating on season two, coming later this year.

The 24 EEB majors in the class met twice a week in Schultz Laboratory.

“Often, hour-and-a-half lectures at eight:30 in the morning can be fairly dry,” mentioned Chloe Raichle ’23. “But the attendance [for this course] has truly been superb simply because every person genuinely enjoys the lectures and desires to come and listen.”

Not only does Campbell-Staton use in-depth examples from well-liked comics, films like Jurassic Park, and even the 2023 hit HBO drama series The Final of Us to teach diverse scientific ideas, but he also investigates connected sociological and ethical impacts. For instance, Justice League superhero Cyborg and Tony Stark of Iron Man served as jumping off points for a discussion on bioengineering, its limitations, invasive interfaces, and psychological side effects.

“I wasn’t expecting such a broad synthesis of all these various scientific subjects, but I genuinely appreciate that,” mentioned Claire Galat ’23. “It’s been pretty valuable to combine almost everything I’ve discovered.”

For the midterm, each and every student wrote a paper synthesizing a scientific theory that stemmed from a fictional biological phenomenon.

“As lengthy as the scientific ideas have been sophisticated sufficient, and as lengthy as we have been placing sufficient detailed operate into it, we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted,” mentioned Raichle, who wrote about the 1982 horror film The Point to discover shape-shifting and regeneration.

For the final, students worked in groups to conduct a different believed experiment, even though Campbell-Staton asked them to come up with extra inventive formats for their completed goods — possibly even a comic book. 

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