Two researchers pay tribute to superheroes

Historian Etienne Augé and physicist Barry Fitzgerald co-publish the book "Superheroes"

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Two researchers pay tribute to superheroes

What happens when a physicist and a historian with a soft spot for superheroes meet? This is not the setup for a bad joke, but what happened to Barry Fitzgerald and Etienne Augé when they were paired up to deliver a lecture together a few years ago. The result? A book called “Superheroes”, which was released this month. This tribute to the popular genre is packed with historical facts, thanks to Augé, as well as scientific explanations, thanks to Fitzgerald.

photo Privé collectie Barry Fitzgerald

It was 2017 when Barry Fitzgerald, an Irish-born TU/e science communicator and physicist, and Etienne Augé, a French historian and Principal Lecturer at Erasmus University, first met at an event. Fitzgerald was there to promote his debut book “Secrets of Superhero Science” and Augé, a historian specialized in popular culture, mythology, and film studies, was invited as a speaker.

“They just put us on stage together to see what would happen,” Fitzgerald says. Their joint lecture and the subsequent discussion with the audience went so well that people thought the two men had been working together for years. “We had never met before, but it kind of worked naturally,” says the physicist and superhero fan with a smile.

Space, time, and power

Despite their different backgrounds, the two researchers could not stop talking about their shared passion for superheroes and their first serious collaboration followed soon after. This month sees the release of their joint book, entitled “Superheroes” and subtitled “A Scientist and a Historian Debate the Biggest Movie Genre of Today”. In the book, which is divided into fourteen chapters addressing a total of seven questions, they take turns discussing different aspects of the superhero genre, such as space, time, and power.

Passages written by Fitzgerald are indicated by an atomic symbol; the historian's contributions are introduced by an hourglass symbol. Two different perspectives, one common goal: to unravel all the secrets of the world of superheroes and take the reader on a fascinating journey of discovery while sharing some knowledge of science, pop culture, and history. All presented in an entertaining way with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor. Cursor asked Fitzgerald, for whom this is his fourth “superhero book” and who proudly calls himself a “superhero scientist”, seven questions about this special collaboration and his fascination for superheroes.

Every other time I watch a film, I'm analyzing it. I'm trying to figure out: could that be possible in real life?

Barry Fitzgerald
Physicist and TU/e science communicator

Coming from very different backgrounds, what do you and Etienne have in common and in what ways are you different?

“We both like popular culture and the world of comic books and superhero films, but we prefer different corners of the superhero sphere. Etienne is a diehard in terms of the proper representation of mythology, such as the Norse stories; so, he’s still not over the fact that Thor has blonde hair in the films when he should have red hair. And he still doesn't approve of Loki speaking with a strong English accent instead of a Norwegian one.

As for me, I look at everything from a scientific perspective. So, every other time I watch a film, I'm analyzing it. I'm trying to figure out: could that be possible in real life? What's real here and what's not? And what's the hidden message I can take away from this? What can I borrow and use as a vehicle to share something amazing about science or engineering?”

What was your biggest disagreement about?

“I wanted the book to be written in British English, while Etienne was educated in the US, so he prefers American English. So, what I call a film, he calls a movie. I really had to convince him by arguing that we are in Europe and therefore must use British English to make an impact. But we did put “movie” on the cover, so that was a kind of compromise.”

I gained a newfound appreciation for the humanities and for the importance of film studies

Barry Fitzgerald
Physicist and TU/e science communicator

What did you learn from each other during the writing process?

“I gained a newfound appreciation for the humanities and for the importance of film studies. I’m always focused on the science and engineering aspects, but I never considered how the films may have been influenced by things that were happening in the world at that time.

For example, I was writing about the Iron Man film and the first Iron Man comic book and while comparing the two, I found out the settings were very different. The comic book is set in Vietnam; the film is set in Afghanistan. The Vietnam setting wouldn't have worked for the film because it was released in 2008 and Vietnam wasn't in the news at that time. I also started to look a little bit more deeply at how politics and societal aspects were incorporated into those two stories and how they affected the narratives.

Etienne, on the other hand, always appreciated the science. But I believe I did introduce him to things that he may not have come across. For example, I once gave a guest lecture for him about time traveling. There’s a film with Ethan Hawke called Predestination which is the most confusing time travel story you’ll ever see. I used that as an example to explain how everyone influences each other, which paradoxes are created, and what’s possible and what’s not in terms of the science.

I believe that by sharing different perspectives, you get a more rounded view of how the genre comes to be.”

If you could become a superhero for one day, which superhero would you choose?

“I would say Iron Man. I mean, it's a super cool suit; I'd love to have one! I actually wrote a book about how to build one four years ago. I don’t think we are ever going to see a suit like that. At least, not like you see in the films, that’s just science fiction. But the suit does bring a lot of different technologies together.

Of course, there are a lot of other characters with great powers, like Wolverine. The problem is, I don't want to go around purposely hurting myself to heal. Even though Wolverine can self-heal, and he has this accelerated healing power, he also experiences pain. I don't know if I would drop myself off a building just to see what it's like to self-heal.  

I also like the understated heroes. There's Hawkeye, the guy with the bow and arrow with extraordinary eyesight like birds of prey. That's such a subtle, but strong power.”

Some researchers are very good at what they do, but have trouble communicating their ideas to the outside world

Barry Fitzgerald
Physicist and TU/e science communicator

According to the definition in your book, a superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person could not. Do you think this applies to researchers as well?

“There are a lot of superheroes who are also scientists, like Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Shuri from Black Panther. Indeed, those characters can be inspiring, and scientists can be inspiring in the same way. But I think you need not only the ingenuity that these researchers have but also the personality, the ability to connect and communicate with people. As a researcher, I’ve always found it hard to talk to people about my work. How do I connect with people? What's the best way to explain my work to someone? Some researchers are very good at what they do, but have trouble communicating their ideas to the outside world.

Besides, many people who have gone through the system of education had the opportunity to do so because they've had the necessary resources. Fortunately, that's been addressed. I wouldn't want to single out researchers as being special for doing something that nobody else can do. I think it's open to anyone once the circumstances are right for you. Sometimes you need to be lucky in terms of where you're born and who you know. Thankfully, there are funding instruments in place to help people who have a dream to make that dream come true and perhaps take them from being someone seen as a normal person to being a person who's making a change or making a difference in research.”

In the book, you explain the science behind superhero powers. Can you give us an example?

“A lot of the things that the superheroes can do are technology-based. For example, Thor loses his eye. And then in Avengers Infinity War, he gets a brand-new bionic eye as a gift which he promptly puts in his eye socket, and he gains instant sight, almost as if he had never lost his eye in the first place.

I was wondering what we would need to be able to make such an eye and whether such a technology exists. In my research, around 2020, I found a paper about an electrochemical eye that has been designed to replicate the physiology of the human eye as closely as possible. So, it's got similar sensors as you’d find in a real biological eye to detect light. It's got a vitreous humor, which is found inside the eye. It's got a lens, a pupil, and an optic nerve at the back of the eye that runs into your brain.

I looked at that and thought, that's exactly the technology that Thor received in the film. So, it means it was in the film even before the technology existed. And who's to say that the scientists weren't inspired by the film? Because that happens.”

The book is not just for die-hard superhero fans and nerds, we think it appeals to everyone

Barry Fitzgerald
Physicist and TU/e science communicator

Who should read this book?

“I am of course biased because I love the genre, but I would say it's not just for die-hard superhero fans and nerds, we think it appeals to everyone. Maybe even people who are on the fence about superheroes and think: are superheroes really for me? Is it something that I want to read about?

There is also a series on Amazon Prime called The Boys that explores what the world would look like if superheroes actually existed. Etienne and I agree wholeheartedly that the series is fantastic and a realistic portrayal of what the world would be like with superheroes. So, if you're into that series, this book is for you. If you're into Marvel, this book is for you. If you're not into any of it and just want to get a slightly more balanced view of the world and learn some more about history and science, this book is for you too.”

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