Monthly Archives: April 2012

Storm’s Weather Control

Succeeding Cyclops as leader of the X-men, Storm is an extremely powerful mutant with the psionic ability to control all forms of weather over vast areas.  She can control the temperature of the environment, control all forms of precipitation, humidity and moisture, generate lightning, and has control over atmospheric pressure. She has the ability to incite all forms of meteorological tempests, including tornadoes, thunderstorms, blizzards, and hurricanes, as well as dissipate such weather to form clear skies.

While science has yet to perfect the art of controlling weather as seen in comics within a single individual, weather manipulation and modification on a much larger scale has been studied in depth.  Cloud seeding is the practice of changing the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds, by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation or ice nuclei, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud.  A rainstorm happens after moisture collects around naturally occurring particles in the air, causing the air to reach a level of saturation at which point it can no longer hold in that moisture. Cloud seeding essentially helps that process along, providing additional “nuclei” around which water condenses.

Cloud seeding has been used all over the world to help cure droughts by creating artificial rain or prevent crop-damaging hail storms.  Before the 2008 Summer Olympics, silver iodide rockets were fired over Beijing in order to clear the air of pollution and to ensure that skies would be clear for the opening ceremony.  Cloud seeding has been shown to be effective in altering cloud structure and size and in converting supercooled liquid water to ice particles; however, the amount of precipitation due to seeding is difficult to quantify. A key challenge is in discerning how much precipitation would have occurred had clouds not been seeded.  Not everyone is convinced of its effectiveness and many have concerns about its environmental implications.  Much further study is needed before cloud seeding can even hope to approach the level of perfect control over weather as we see in comics.

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Cable’s Technopathy

you have no idea how difficult it is to find a picture of this dude that isn't frighteningAs a sort of follow up to my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to do this next post on Cyclops’ son, Cable a.k.a. Nathan (Charles Christopher Dayspring Askani’son) Summers.  Much like his full name, Cable’s history is somewhat ridiculous in its length and complexity.  The offspring of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor (a clone of Jean Grey), as an infant Cable, a powerful mutant telepath and telekinetic, was sent to a war-torn future to be treated for an infection from the Techno-Organic Virus by the immortal mutant Apocalypse.  After being raised as the Askani’son, the one destined to kill Apocalypse, Nathan began to travel through time, eventually returning to what we know as the present.  After more lengthy and complex shenanigans, Cable loses his telekinetic powers and replaces them by linking with the Dominus Objective, a secondary hard drive that acts like a virus that acts like a server.  He is essentially able to replace his telepathy by connecting his brain to the entirety of the  internet.

Personally, if I could have any superpower, I just might choose this one.  The idea of being connected into the near infinity of the technological sphere at all times is certainly appealing.  Luckily for me, researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have created a brain-computer interface system that successfully allowed Adam Wilson,  one of their biomedical engineering doctoral students to post a status update to Twitter just by thinking about it.  His message, “using EEG to send tweet,”  was conveyed through an interface consisting of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. “The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually,” says Williams. “And what your brain does is, if you’re looking at the ‘R’ on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the ‘R’ flashes, your brain says, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Something’s different about what I was just paying attention to.’ And you see a momentary change in brain activity.”  The technology is intended to be the basis for a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally, i.e. people who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.  But hopefully someday the system could also be applied on a greater scale to access the entire internet from the comfort of your own mind.

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Cyclops’ Biological Lasers

Scott SummersThe very first recruited X-men team member, Cyclops, a.k.a. Scott Summers, is the archetypal hero of comics.  The foil to Wolverine’s anti-hero, Cyclops had been the reluctant leader of the X-men, but has since become an effective commander for the team.  Both a blessing and a curse, his mutant powers give him the power to emit red beams of energy from his eyes described as an “optic blast.”   The beams do not give off heat and instead deliver concussive force without recoil.  His optic lasers are incredibly powerful and can even rupture steel plates and destroy rock.

It seems like it would be a fairly straightforward process to create a completely mechanical system to mimic Cyclops’ optic blasts, but I think a biological system would be more ideal.  Not only is it closer to comic book canon, an inherent biological system would have the added benefits of not relying on an external power source.  Luckily, physicists Malte Gather and Seok-Hyun Yun of Harvard Medical School in Boston have recently taken the first steps in the development of such a system.

 Reporting their findings in Nature Photonics in the article Single-cell biological lasers, Gather and Yun discuss how they were able to create the first “living laser” using living biological material: a single kidney human cell and some jellyfish protein.  There are two central components to building any type of laser: first, a lasing material that amplifies light from an external source, or a ‘gain medium’, and second, an arrangement of mirrors, or an ‘optical cavity’, which concentrates and aligns the light waves into a tight beam. Until now, the gain medium has only been made from non-biological substances such as doped crystals, semiconductors or gases, but in this case the researchers used enhanced green fluorescent protein (GFP) — the substance that makes jellyfish bioluminescent, which is used extensively in cell biology to label cells.

The team engineered human embryonic kidney cells to produce GFP, then placed a single cell between two mirrors to make an optical cavity just 20 micrometres across. When they fed the cell pulses of blue light, it emitted a directional laser beam visible with the naked eye — and the cell wasn’t harmed.  The width of the laser beam is “tiny” and “fairly weak” in its brightness compared to traditional lasers, says Yun, but “an order of magnitude” brighter than natural jellyfish fluorescence, with a “beautiful green” colour.

personally, i'm rooting for wolverine, but i've never liked cyclops very much

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Super-speed With and Without Legs

Super-speed is undoubtedly one of the most popular superpowers in comics, shared across generations of families in both Marvel and DC universes.  Most famously, the Flash family (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen, and more) in DC Comics and Quicksilver and Speed in Marvel are only a few of a long list of characters with the power to travel great distances in the blink of an eye.  It’s pretty easy to understand why this is such a prominent power: who wouldn’t want the ability get things done at the speed of thought and leave plenty of time for some R&R?

So how can you get the speed of Usain Bolt and the endurance of Lance Armstrong without the years of intense physical training?  One possible solution could be mechanical legs: Oscar Pistorius of South Africa calls himself the fastest man on no legs. Pistorius, who has a double amputation of both legs, is the world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 metres events in the Paralympics and runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs by Ossur.

In 2007, Pistorius took part in his first international competitions for able-bodied athletes. However, his artificial lower legs, while enabling him to compete, have generated claims that he has an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. The same year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules to ban the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. The federation claimed that the amendment was not specifically aimed at Pistorius. After monitoring his track performances and carrying out tests, scientists took the view that Pistorius enjoyed considerable advantages over athletes without prosthetic limbs. On the strength of these findings, on 14 January 2008 the IAAF ruled him ineligible for competitions conducted under its rules, including the 2008 Summer Olympics.  Obviously, the artificial legs used by Pistorius won’t work for those of us born with both our fibulas, but the physics knowledge and technology at work in the Cheetah Flex-Foot limbs could easily be applied to the enhancement of natural limbs.

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