UVic professor's new book gleans from comics and science

// Jenny Boychuk

VICTORIA (CUP) — Have you ever thought about the possibility of a real life superhero? Seems impossible, doesn’t it? UVic neuroscience and kinesiology professor Dr. E. Paul Zehr discusses how it might be entirely possible in his new book, Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine.

Zehr, whose book came out last month, signed copies of Inventing Iron Man at Curious Comics in Victoria, BC on Oct. 9. The book examines what the under-layers of an Iron Man suit might look like, and how one could be constructed for real-life purposes such as physical rehabilitation after a stroke or spinal cord injury.

Is this a comic book or a scientific proposal?

“I tried to use a pop culture icon as a medium to explore science,” says Zehr. “Because we live in an age of technology, what can we do to try to amplify biology with technology? That’s sort of the theme with Inventing Iron Man. In particular, an area of amplification is the idea of using the brain to control devices.”

Zehr has a philosophy about education and educating the public, which is to use a common ground. “There’s a lot of science in here, but I’m trying to put it in a way that’s interesting for people,” says Zehr.
Although a seemingly unlikely duo, Zehr explains that science and comics complement each other well. He discovered this thanks to his last book on a similar topic, Becoming Batman. “One of the really unexpected things that came from Becoming Batman was that I took a piece of pop culture and I tried to talk about it [scientifically], but it made its way back into pop culture,” says Zehr. “[Comic book writer] Grant Morrison was writing a Batman run and he was talking about reading my book and how it influenced how he was writing Batman.”

Zehr explains that, in some cases, earlier comics foreshadowed what we have in the real world today: “When I was thinking about brain machine interface and where we are now, if we go back to early 90s comics, there’s some imagery around brain ports and things that actually look a lot like what we have in real brain-machine interface now … These same kind of connections actually go into real people now, but were thought and written about in Iron Man comics in 1993.”

While the idea of an Iron Man suit is exciting, there would also be many risks.

“It leads into all areas of discussion on rehabilitation – there are probably some negative things could happen to your brain if you were connected to a machine,” says Zehr. “When we think of a superhero like Iron Man and of being connected to the suit to use it, we also have to realize it’s connected to us.”

Zehr notes that part of the book’s purpose is to make readers realize that Iron Man’s armour is not just an article of clothing. “A personal Iron Man suit doesn’t exist currently, but if it did, how could you control it? You wouldn’t be able to use it just like wearing clothing – you would have to actually use it in a direct connection with your body,” says Zehr. “And if, for example, the computer system was hacked, you would also be hacked – not just the suit.”

Zehr believes that the key to scientific advances is that they often change people’s perspectives. “I think the biggest thing about advances in science is that we get constrained by our paradigms and the normal things we do,” says Zehr. “This [book] kind of helps break those molds a little bit – it makes you think outside of it all.”

// Jenny Boychuk, The Martlet (University of Victoria)
// Illustration by Shannon Elliott

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: