From Batman to Iron Man

University of Victoria prof asks whether real-life Iron Man suit is possible in new book

E. Paul Zehr stands in his research lab at the University of Victoria

By day, he studies new rehabilitation methods for stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

By night, he uses comic book superheroes to explore the outer limits of biological and technological development.

It’s not quite as dramatic a contrast as those of the characters he uses for inspiration, but E. Paul Zehr is living his own version of a double life, nonetheless.

A professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, Zehr is carving out a name for himself as an author of what he calls “speculative non-fiction.”

His second book, Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, was published this year by Johns Hopkins University Press. In it, Zehr examines whether it would be possible to create an armoured suit like the one worn by the titular superhero, and the consequences of creating one.

“In our brains, ever since we were developing in utero, this mapping has been occurring where sensory information from the skin of your body is helping to create this map of sensations in your brain that represents your body,” he explained.

“If you have a map that’s full already, and you jam an armoured suit on top of it, where does it go?”

To try to answer that question, Zehr looked at three main elements of the Iron Man suit: the amplification of strength it provides, its ability to fly and the physical protection it offers.

But beyond discussing the plausibility of such a suit, and the technology that would be necessary to build one, Inventing Iron Man goes deeper, looking at the physical and mental effects it could have on the wearer.

“If you’re in this suit that amplifies your abilities, it means you’re not actually using your body to move your body around,” Zehr said.

“You wind up having deconditioning, and reduced output, and reduced strength and reduced bone mineralization.”

And what about the mind?

“We’re thinking of it from the perspective of, ‘we’re connected to the device, so we can control it and do stuff.’ But the device is also connected to us, and that has some implications.”

Inventing Iron Man is Zehr’s second book. His first, Beyond Batman, looked at whether a person could realistically whip themselves into superhero shape à la Dark Knight.

Zehr said the pop culture icons are a perfect way to explore scientific concepts in an accessible way.

“When you try and talk about science with the general public, I like to choose things that everyone’s already familiar with,” he said. “If I say Iron Man to you, you have a mental image, we have the same common image and we can talk about the science.”

Not only that, writing has helped Zehr in his research at UVic.

“As a scientist, you have to reduce down, so you can answer questions yes or no. But we don’t often zoom it back out and say ‘What does that mean? How does it affect these things? What does it relate to this?’

“You have to do that to write a book.”

Whether a real-life Iron Man suit is indeed possible – Zehr thinks that it’s likely that there are some governments already working on some version – the author hopes the book opens people’s minds to some new concepts.

“I think we ought to be thinking about some of these things before we get to that point (that a suit is made). A little advanced thought would be helpful, I think.”

It’s not quite a superpower, at least in the comic book sense, but in a way, Zehr has found a way to look into the future.

editor@oakbaynews.com

Just Posted

Coalition campaigns to build new West Shore skate park

Group seeks $25,000 in donations for park proposed for near the Juan de Fuca rec centre

Protective human chain to form around Victoria mosque for Friday prayer

Islanders invited to stand arm-in-arm to show support in aftermath of New Zealand shootings

Victoria council denies VicPD coverage for Employer’s Health Tax

Several cuts to police costs have dropped the proposed municipal tax from 4.3 to 3.9 per cent

VIDEO: Restaurant robots are already in Canada

Robo Sushi in Toronto has waist-high robots that guide patrons to empty seats

POLL: When do you think the next major earthquake will hit Vancouver Island?

According to seismologists, Vancouver Island is overdue for a magnitude 7 earthquake.… Continue reading

Greater Victoria Wanted List for the week of March 19

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

View Royal council to discuss proposed 3.5% tax increase tonight

Budget open house to directly precede the council meeting

GM announces jobs, electric vehicle after Trump criticism

The company says it will spend $300 million at its plant in Orion Township

Trucker who caused Broncos crash likely to be deported: lawyer

The Crown has asked that Sidhu serve 10 years in prison

China chemical plant blast kills 47, injures hundreds more

This is one of China’s worst industrial accidents in recent years

Montreal priest stabbed while celebrating morning mass

The incident happened Friday morning at Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory

Organic Matters tea recalled across B.C. due to Salmonella

Recall for OM tea products is B.C. wide, possibly national.

Most Read